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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;

A Tough Trip to Paradise

By Mary Erickson, Missoula , MT

Part 2 of 3


November 2008 Issue


[We pick up Part 2 of 3 of the author’s tale of her harrowing ride out of the Selway River country thirty years ago. Employed as a packer and wrangler for the Selway Lodge, she and Fred, the owner’s son, two hunters, four saddle horses and three pack horses depart early in the morning to ride the 18 miles to the Paradise trailhead.

      In Part 1, which ran in RMR’s October 2008 issue, Mary and Fred rescue one of their packhorses, Daisy, from the high-water, icy runoff of the Selway.

      Mary thought she had already been through the roughest part of her day, until…  ]


      Since we were now well behind schedule and did have guests waiting to meet us at the end of the trail yet five hours away, Fred suggested he’d fall back with his saddle horse Trinity, and repack Daisy. He would 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.

      I moved Taffy to the lead. She stepped over the log easily as did Buck again, followed by Peppy and both of the guests’ horses. I tied Peppy’s pigtail to the string on Buck’s saddle and with the guests mounted again, I waved good-bye to Fred, took Buck’s lead rope in hand, swung into the saddle and we set off again along the Selway Trail.

      Whew! It was good to be in the saddle again, doing what we were supposed to be doing, including enjoying a beautiful day. The guests, Peter and Ray, chatted easily and seemed to relax once more into the rhythm of the trail. We pondered further what might have set Daisy off and wondered in amazement that she came through it all uninjured. I assured them things like that only rarely occurred and certainly we’d been through the worst day probably the whole summer could offer.

      Ours was a comfortable progress marked in the cadence of hooves thudding on dirt or clattering on the rocky areas we passed over. My saddle had an agreeable creak; the sun encouraged a deeper angle of the hat brim.

      Things were going good. The only, but all-too-frequent disruption was the occasional grab Buck made for anything that looked remotely edible and my arm was growing tired of the repeated pull. I shortened up on him a bit keeping him closer to my horse Taffy’s butt to hopefully diminish his reaching for trail treats which, with an occasional “heads up, Buck!” seemed to help. At least he would only grab for lip-level weeds.


      Goat Creek and Gunsite Notch were behind us and we could see the lower field of North Star Ranch across the river as the day approached noon. We moved into a section of trail that crossed open gravel slopes broken by occasional ledges of rock hanging out over the river. Peter and Ray commented on how the river canyon opened here, affording greater views, and I pointed out various landmarks we could see up North Star Creek as we rode.

      Though I’d ridden it countless times, we were approaching a part of the trail I had always dreaded crossing because it seemed to just hang like a flimsy bit of cobweb on a steep loose gravel slope. It defied gravity for hundreds of yards between two rock outcroppings, with nothing but the river 30 or so feet below. It seemed to me that there was no substance to support it, but it had been used without incident for many years. It looked no different today, so saying a brief prayer to myself for safety, we moved out onto it.

      “Let’s keep ‘em moving through here,” I cautioned the guests. They looked down the steep slope which ended in the rushing river below, and nodded in agreement.

      Taffy moved confidently across the open slope leaving the first rock ledge behind us. I concentrated on keeping Buck, Peppy and the guys moving steadily forward towards a broad ledge of granite several hundred yards away.

      There was a smaller ledge of rock in the middle of the slope. I focused ahead of us and listened as Taffy’s feet clattered over it when crossing, and we pointed our noses across the last piece of open slope to the larger ledge beyond. Steadily, steadily we moved.

      I held Buck’s lead in my right hand, “Heads up, Buck! Keep it moving! Keep it moving!” I glanced over my shoulder to check the guys’

progress behind me. Things looked good.

      Taffy’s hooves had just clattered up on the last ledge and I was about to consider breathing again when good old Buck spotted something edible. He lunged and snapped a knapweed bud off with his yellow teeth, but in doing so, lost his balance temporarily and did a quick, three-step stumble. On perhaps any other piece of trail in the entire Wilderness this action would have not been a problem.

      But this little bit of trail apparently had been undercut by the high water, the impact of big old Buck’s not-so-dainty ballet steps set the whole mountainside loose in a sudden slide! Buck’s rope ripped through my hand, nearly yanking me backwards out of the saddle as he and Peppy and a generous portion of the trail slumped down into the river.


      Dropping Taffy’s reins, I vaulted from the saddle, crouched on the rock, scanning swiftly up the still-moving slope, down at the horses and across the gap to the guys.

      With hands up like a crazed, backcountry traffic cop, I yelled to Peter and Ray, “Stop, you’re safe!” Their eyes were considerably enlarged, but their horses still stood on solid, unmoving ground above a large chokecherry bush.

      Words tumbled out of my mouth. “Stay right there! Get off your horses on the up-hill side! Hang onto your reins and don’t move!”

      As I yelled directions to them, I jumped feet first onto the flow of moving mountain, working to stay upright, and rode it down to where Buck and Peppy had come to a halt in the river. Perhaps ten seconds had passed from the time Buck had done his hillside ballet.

      Buried in gravel to my thighs, I used my hands to help yank my legs from the dirt and lunged for Buck’s lead rope.

      Got it on the first grab!

      Now what?

      Another quick scan of the mountainside above me led me to believe the worst of the slide was over. Gravel skittered wildly down in random handfuls but nothing larger. We were not going to be buried.

      Another ten seconds had passed.

      These horses were my responsibility and so far, though upright, they were in serious danger of being swept into the river current or injuring themselves trying to find secure footing in the fast moving water and big boulders.

      Fortunately neither Buck nor Peppy were prone to panic and seemed unconcerned at finding themselves in the river and so far below the trail. Buck was still munching his prize and looking at the water tugging at his sides. Peppy, a smaller animal, was much deeper in the drink and not at all happy to be there, but was unable to get around Buck’s big butt. She was still securely anchored to his pack saddle by the pigtail which was supposed to have broken in just such an event…but hadn’t.

      Lead rope in hand, I stole a quick glance up to the trail to determine if my guests were safe and obediently, quietly waiting. Their eyes and mouths gaped open.

      “Are you okay? What, what can we do to help?” Peter managed to get out.

      “You’re safe! Just stay where you are for now,” I called up to them. “We’ll figure that out in a minute. I gotta get these horses someplace safe.”

      The water was too deep and fast to even consider attempting to lead Buck and Peppy up, down or across the river to safety. There simply was no obvious safety anywhere.

      I pulled out my knife and sliced Peppy’s pigtail, cutting her loose from Buck’s saddle. I then coaxed the two of them up onto a flat boulder which was tucked at river’s edge below the rock ledge that mere moments before had symbolized safety.

      Taffy, my saddle horse who fortunately had been trained to ground tie, looked down on us from above.

      The boulder we all stood on was about the size of a very small, pickup truck bed, and though it was stable and solid, was quite crowded for the three of us.

      To my surprise, Peppy decided she’d had enough of this nonsense and with the agility of a mountain goat scrambled her way back up the fractured slope to the rock ledge where Taffy patiently stood. She stopped next to Taffy, blew the dust out of her nose and stood looking down on us like everyone else.

      Buck proceeded to munch on a chokecherry bush which stuck out of the granite, so I tied him to it and used a larger bush and a considerable bit of mountain goat myself to climb up to where Peter and Ray waited, still agog over the day’s latest turn of events.

      We turned their horses around and walked them back up the trail to a spot where they could tie up and relax. I got them settled, made sure they were safe, and pulled out some water and sandwiches for them.

      We brain-stormed over the predicament Buck seemed to be in and the fact that several hundred feet of the trail was now simply gone. Our conclusion was that Buck somehow had to come back up the destroyed mountainside of loose gravel that he had just slid down.

      It seemed an impossible option, but the only one…


In the next issue of RMR: Read Part 3, the conclusion of what turned out to be a really, really long day on the trail!

Back to Part 1      On to Part 3

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;


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