At least the horses were easy to catch, even Doug.
“Huh, our list of horses here says Cooper” I say running my eyes over the packing list for the re-ration. “ . . . I don’t remember him . . . “
“We sure didn’t load Cooper into the trailer” Kenzie responds. “It’s weird someone would have mistaken Twister for Cooper.” Kenzie, one of NOLS TPR’s re-rationers and I are sitting in the crew cab Dodge 3500 in the predawn light. We have an eight-horse trailer attached, with seven horses loaded into it, the engine idling. “Maybe we should just go with it” Kenzie says, “. . . but lets check the saddle fit. The A saddle is pretty standard.” We hop out and skirt around the back. Twister was loaded last so is easily visible in the dark, metal cage. Twister looks to be a pretty average size horse; we should be fine.
“Maybe we should give Ari a call,” I suggest still feeling a bit uncertain and nervous. It is 6 am and the thought of waking someone up to ask the question has its pros and cons. Kenzie pulls out her phone to try but our location in the driveway provides a clear no service indicator.
“If we drive to the cattle guard up there, I should be able to make the call” she suggests gesturing onward.
“Yeah . . . then if we need to switch out Twister we can just swing down into the pasture and pull Cooper” I offer, trying not acknowledge how much of a pain in the ass it will be. The truck groans as I slowly pull it up the hill, still warming itself up. Kenzie makes a call, then another. Ari answers.
“Oh yeah, he had a loose shoe, we forgot to change it on the ration sheet. “ Feeling good that we asked, we pull out of the drive and make our way to Boulder, then Pinedale and finally up the hill to Elkhart.
There are two objectives for the day. Kenzie is re-rationing Chad Lorenz and his adventure course at a place NOLS calls Ration Pond. I will be re-rationing Bonnie Johnson and her instructor course a little further into the mountains, just shy of Island Lake and somewhere beyond Little Seneca Lake. That means five pack horses, two ride horses, and lots of throwing loads and tacking up, as it is just the two of us.
By spacing and simple math we end up with two packs and a ride hitched to one side of the trailer and three and a ride to the other. It was mostly just random chance. “Think there is any science behind who goes where?” wondering about who is more likely to be an obstinate pack horse, pull back, or dive bomb grass.
“Wyatt is better in the hand . . . come to think of it, I think Toro is too” Kenzie offers. Those two though are on the same side of the trailer and rather than move loads, we just go with it and load my loads onto the three horses and her loads onto the two.
All said and done we are tacked up and riding out at 0805. Pretty good. Typically it will take about four or so hours to ride to Ration Pond. That gives us an hour buffer.
“Whoa, a lot of blowdowns in here” Kenzie observes as we move into the woods. “I bet these are from last night’s wind storm,” she adds as she begins a series of work arounds that take us around the downed trees. But Bear doesn’t want to go. This rotund mustang is at the end of my three-horse line and I just don’t slow down enough for him to navigate the pick up sticks. He braces, says “un-uh” and snaps the first of twenty-some piggins, the small piece of p-cord that connects the horses together.
“Hold up” I yell ahead. I wind the two other horses through the maze and dismount. By the time I am on the ground, Bear has made his way through and I snatch his lead line and retie the hitch.
Ten hours later, I have lost count. We are on the way out and Kenzie hops off Doug for the umpteenth time to retie a piggin. I stopped counting at sixteen broken ones; this is somewhere north of there. “Just think, tomorrow night at this time we will be dancing,” she says, referencing the ranch staff plan to head over to the Half Moon Lake Lodge tomorrow evening and the lateness of the hour. “Naw, it isn’t that bad. This has been great, such a nice ride” she continues as she ties Toro back on to Bear’s packsaddle.
Just minutes earlier I had turned around to assess my string and discovered that my last horse, Twister, wasn’t there. “Hold up” I had yelled once again. “Seems I have lost Twister.” “Huh, I wonder where he could be.” I hop off Juanito, secure his reigns to the saddle and clove hitch Wyatt’s lead line around the horn, all well practiced and fluid now. I let Juanito stand, untied, and he quickly drops his head to look for something to snack on. At least that part is easy. I wander back the trail ten meters before spotting Twisters dappled coat through the trees. His head is down and he is contentedly munching grass. No broken piggin this time though; I go to grab his lead line andI find it torn in half, tattered and frayed. Welp, guess that is another knot to tie. I walk back and show Kenzie the damage. I find the other end still attached to Wyatt’s packsaddle, and retie the two with a ring bend. Then it is back to Juanito, undo the reigns and drop them over the saddle, untie the Wyatt’s clove, take it in hand, and mount up. One more time. “Think we can go five minutes without having to get stop again?” I ask with a weary smile. We still have a good hour’s ride before we untack and head home.
The whole day had been busy. The Pole Creek Trail, then the Island Lake Trail all had more hiking parties than I had ever seen on any re-ration. At an inopportune time, as we were descending the rocky, dirty, exposed slabs on Seneca Lake’s north shore, we ran into another packer going the opposite direction. Then later, I got passed by another packer twice; once headed in and once headed out. His long string of mules made my three horse string pale in comparison. “How’s it going?” he asks as he passes me on the way in.
“Well, you are passing me with more animals, so likely not as good as your doin’. . . so many broken piggins; still haven’t found the right combo” I lament. “You headed to Island lake?”
“Yeah, and then up to Titcomb Basin. Hope it works out.”
Then later on the return, a few miles outside of Elkhart: “Did your day get better?”
“Well, your passing me again, so… well at least we are headed out” I reply with only a mild hint of embarrassment and again, a classic, weary smile.
Back at the ranch, darkness has fully settled into the valley. The horses are in Durkin, a text from Ari noted. Durkin: not the easiest place to drop off horses in the evening. A narrow road, fenced on both sides without an adequate turn around spot makes it challenging to get close to the pasture. And neither of us are professional backer uppers of trailers, despite getting paid to do it. An attempt to back down the road is foiled by lack of back-up lights on the trailer; we can kinda get it to go straight but the red glow of the taillights can’t really tell us where straight is going. So we call that game off, leave it parked in the middle of the road, and unload the gang of geldings. Our seven horses in hand, the two of us make our way down the road and to the pasture gate. Toro gets away, but only to munch on some tall sweet grass by the fence. We will let him be. I pass my horses off to Kenzie, open the gate and start shuttling them in. Easy-peasy.
Ari meets us at the loading dock. “Go ahead and leave it, we’ll deal with it in the morning.” That music to our ears has us grabbing a few items from the truck and heading to the cookhouse. I grab a Coors from the walk in, make a burrito from the leftovers and head off to bed.
Featured Image: Fremont Peak, Island Lake, and the Northern Wind Rivers from Indian Basin Trail