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Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

A Tough Trip to Paradise

By Mary Erickson, Missoula, MT

Part 1 of 3

 

October 2008 Issue

 

     It was just another trip to Paradise — Paradise Guard Station that is — one of the trailheads into, or in our case, out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. It was a trip we’d made many times over the years.

     Home was the Selway Lodge, a small guest ranch and one of the few remaining homesteads located in the heart of the Wilderness. Paradise was our nearest access to a road, albeit a mostly one-lane, dirt road 50 miles from the pavement.

     Every other weekend from mid-May to mid-September, we’d pack up the stock with our departing guests and their gear and take them out to the trailhead on Sunday. Then on Monday, we’d pick up the incoming guests and their gear and head back to the Selway Lodge.

Each way the trip was sixteen or eighteen miles of trail which followed the Selway River . We never were exactly sure of the distance, but we knew it would take approximately six-and-a-half hours each way, with a short stop at the lunch spot across the river from Running Creek Ranch.

A cold, wet spring and a very late runoff had engorged the river, pushing it out of its banks and flooding the trail in low areas. The trail had been impassable for several weeks. But by early June, the river was back within its banks and the trail was once again deemed usable.

 

     The day dawned at 5:30 a.m. for the staff with large quantities of hot coffee and a hearty breakfast. Horses were rounded up, groomed, and saddled, and stood waiting at the gate. The guests, who had enjoyed a more leisurely breakfast, were packed up, kissed and hugged goodbye, and mounted for an early start to the day’s long ride.

     On this trip, the owners’ son Fred was the packer and head wrangler, while I was along as assistant, camp cook and any other role that came up along the way.

     As our string ambled out of sight of the meadows of the Selway Lodge and into the timber along the river, the sun was just starting to hint at a promise of warmth. Lingering wisps of fog were withering away in the high peaks. The river, still quite high, rushed along to our left as the horses lined out on the trail.

     Fred was in the lead on his big bay, Trinity. Trinity either led the string or pushed the string, so the lead position was usually the best place for him. Fred was leading packhorses Buck and Daisy who were loaded with gear.

     Buck was an old standard of the Lodge herd, and while big, stout and utterly reliable whether under saddle or packed, he had the obnoxious habit of grazing his way down every trail.

     Daisy, a stocky paint, was new to the herd but had proved reliable so far, and we had been assured by her previous owners that she was not only an excellent saddle horse, but also an experienced pack horse. In the several weeks we’d worked with her we’d seen nothing to make us doubt that claim.

     Behind the two pack horses rode our two departing guests, Peter and Ray. Their wives were flying out from the ranch by private plane later in the day because Peter’s wife had a susceptibility to sunstroke and didn’t think she could handle the long ride out.

     I brought up the rear on Taffy, a paint mare, and pulled a small bay named Peppy who carried only an empty saddle. Peppy would be needed on the trip back in.

     We settled into the pace of the trail. My saddle leather creaked a familiar, comfortable tune. The river, our ever-present companion, shot sparks of reflected sunlight off its riffles as the first rays of morning found their way into the narrow canyon. Life was good. The day held unlimited promise.

 

     Forty-five minutes out we entered an area of deep timber where the river bank dropped abruptly away to our left and the mountain rose steeply on the right. Our trail lay solid between. It was a section of the trail where you could relax a bit and just let your eyes drink in the simple beauty of a sylvan scene. It was a section of trail usually completely without challenge. But, as anyone who has ridden horses on mountain trails knows, anything can happen, even on the most serene and frequently traveled route.

     A tree was down across the trail. Its roots hung on the steep mountainside with its tip dragging in the river. It was not a huge tree, but it was bigger than we could move or had time to saw out with our crosscut. Because the area was tight and steep, there was no way to get around it.

     Walking back and forth to assess our options, Fred determined that it was low enough where it crossed the trail that with a little axe work the horses could easily cross over it. He unstrapped the axe we packed for just such situations and quickly cleared all the branches and stobs off a section of the log wide enough for easy clearance.

     Jumping back in the saddle he moved forward. Trinity cleared the log without hesitation followed by Buck, who stepped over easily, also unbothered. Daisy, however, reared back on her haunches, snapping the pigtail that tied her to Buck’s saddle, and looked at the log like she’d never in her life seen such a thing. Her eyes rolled and her nostrils flared. She was planted and refused to move!

     Fred was the picture of calm, as a good wrangler should be. He dismounted, tied up and walked back to see if he could determine what the problem was. He checked out the log and then picked up Daisy’s lead rope, walking her up to look at the log before gently urging her forward. She refused. He turned her around, then back to the log. She refused. He threw dirt on the axe cuts, no deal. He whacked off a few additional branches, rolled out the red carpet, and invited her to tea, but she still refused.

     We all dismounted and tied off, and I came up next to Daisy and stood slightly behind her. Again, lead rope in hand, Fred stepped towards the log, verbally coaxing and cajoling her as they walked. Anticipating another balk, I patted her on the hip as she approached the log. With grace and ease she stepped right over the log. No big deal until … she exploded! Perhaps a bee stung her or the hounds of hell nipped her heels; we’ll never know.

     Crashing, thrashing, completely berserk, crow-hopping, legs rigid springs pounding one direction and another, she squealed in rage, totally out of control.

“What the h…! Whoa now! Whoa now!” Fred called to her, looking at me for a clue to the source of her fury as she ripped the lead rope from his hands.

     “Easy now, easy now,” I called, trying to convey calm, utterly clueless myself as she raged on and — as only bad luck would have it — bucked right off over the steep river bank.

     Fred grabbed for her lead rope to try and keep her upright, but before he could reach her, she lost her footing and rolled down the bank and into the swift water of the still-high river.

 

     The current grabbed her and swept her out midstream, all of her submerged except her head. We watched in horror as with eyes wild and nostrils flared she struggled to keep her nose above the surface.

     Fred and I scrambled along the bank racing the current as she was rapidly swept downstream. The power of the river pressing against her packs nearly pushed her under. We knew if her head went under, it would be over.

     We screamed senseless words of encouragement to her. She screamed back as she struggled fiercely to keep her head above water, her hooves clawing for purchase on anything solid to regain her footing. It was to no avail. The water was too fast and deep, she was swept down and around the bend.

     Then blessed fate cut us a break and the current swept her into an area along a shallow bank where she could get her feet under her and stand up. Her eyes were wide and she was blowing hard from her exertion.

     Reaching her first, Fred splashed into the water, grabbing her lead rope. She followed him calmly up the low bank, shook like a dog, and then stood quietly, ears cocked to us and waited. Apparently her anger was spent.

     Not feeling all that calm ourselves, we quickly pulled her packs and stripped off her saddle, our hands sweeping swiftly over every inch of her, feeling for cuts and abrasions and other injuries we were sure must be there. We traded sides and went over her again inch by inch and again, to our utter amazement, she appeared unfazed and unblemished in any way. We walked her around a bit watching carefully for any sign of injury to her legs, none.

     Then she raised her head and screamed in my ear for the other horses. Content with their nearby response, she dropped her nose, snatched up a mouthful of grass and proceeded to graze.

     To say we were “thankful” would be a gross understatement. We were profoundly relieved! As a bonus, the packs were intact and dry on the inside, nothing was lost or damaged.

     Then humor — born of the bizarre circumstance — broke out and everyone laughed and talked of the possibilities of what had set her off. A close inspection of the scene of the crime revealed no clue — no bees, no snag, nothing to attribute her insane behavior to; just another real-life adventure on the trail with horses.

     One for the books.

     One to scratch your head over.

     Since we were now well behind schedule and had guests waiting to meet us at the end of the trail still five hours away, Fred suggested he’d fall back with Trinity, repack Daisy, then bring her along more slowly to keep an eye on her for a bit to make sure she was really okay while I moved on down the trail with the rest of our amended string. I felt confident the rest of the day could only be a breeze compared to what we had just been through.

 

In the next issue of RMR: Read Part 2, in the continuing adventure of what turned out to be a really long day on the trail!  

On to Part 2

 

Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

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