By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
For many people riding across a pasture, down a laneway, or along a road is considered to be trail riding. It’s a good thing that we have those options since we cannot instantly wish ourselves onto the wilderness trail of our choice. But interesting trails spoil us. Plodding along a road becomes mashed potatoes when, by comparison, trails with views, challenges, and unknowns offer up a smorgasbord of possibilities.
Some trails change their look so quickly and so often that we feel like explorers. Survival on these trails is about riding sharp and keeping our wits about us. Great trails challenge us, make us feel alive, and get us hooked; we feel a bond with these “trails of many faces.”
One particular trail made me sit up and take notice. Of the hundreds of trails I have travelled, this trail showed more faces than any others.
It had taken four hours of steady winding upward through spruce and fir forest to reach alpine. The trail was steep — any steeper and it would have been too steep – but it was well cut and firm, with only a few muddy spots and some small washouts along flat stretches of braided stream. Once we reached alpine the trail cut left and made a straight shot up a beautiful three mile long open valley. A few spruce scattered themselves pleasantly along the way and a few washes etched down from mountain peaks that marched alongside us. A pretty ride, well worth the climb, and we were rubber-necked taking it all in.
At the head end of the valley we climbed a hump and found ourselves in the midst of looming peaks, scree slopes, and, a few miles distant, an impenetrable chain of mountain faces that held the river that we would make our way down to and then ride up.
Everyone was nearly ecstatic with the once-in-a-lifetime panorama. I knew in time I may remember the view, but moreso the camaraderie.
Views like this one are well worth the effort to reach a vantage point.
Traveling down a steep loose shale slope and some rugged looking draws would lead us to the small river. First there was a 50 metre wide bowl with a slope too steep to ride down, and I watched to see who would mount up and who would simply walk to the hill and walk down. Walking is a sign of character and common sense, separating those who are too inexperienced, too lazy, or too insensitive. It is harder on a horse to ride down a hill than it is to ride up one. Everyone walked.
The shale scree was loose and the horses half walked and half slid down, sometimes threatening to smash into the riders. Everyone had the good sense to walk out at the end of our 11-foot lead ropes. Jill’s Haflinger gelding was pushy and had spent his early years successfully abusing riders in farm country. Riding the big trail had settled him down but he still pushed riders when he could. He is a good horse, just not an honest one, and Jill knew it. She walked out, leaving a foot or two tail at the end of the lead, and snapped the gelding on the nose to remind him to respect her space. I admired her for taking control.
The trail dipped into thick alpine fir, then dove down a ravine following a small stream. At first the dirt trail behaved well but soon rocks began to appear. After half a kilometre or so, rocks of all sizes — from apples to watermelons — with hard edges littered the trail. It’s times like these when I am glad that my horses are shod, never mind the “to shoe or not to shoe” debate. Your average trail horse’s foot would be chewed to remnants in a few hours.
Charlie, a raw boned Percheron-Fjord cross gelding who wears no shoes but has feet like iron, constantly weaved on and off the trail, trying to avoid stones because he had no shoes. He was a nuisance, rubbing and banging his pack against trees, then turning off into the forest to take his own, softer route. “Well, he’s not carrying my sleeping bag,” I thought. “I hope he’s not carrying the lantern or the satellite phone either.”
Then the trail dropped hard, squeezed between the steep forested slope and a rushing mountain stream. The trail dipped up and down, up and down, and weaved in and out, in and out, and large tree roots created steps that the horses had to jump down or up, jarring themselves under their loads. These tough trails that weave in and out and up and down will give horses saddle rubs or cinch sores if they are so inclined. Fifty level miles up a valley are easier on your horse’s back than five miles of hard snake trail.
Doghouse-sized boulders on the trail created dangerous cracks and holes. A downfall tree that could not be ridden around blocked the trail. Jim grabbed the trail axe and tied into the log. Chips flew; he seemed to be enjoying the work. Without a word said, Peter and Al got off their horses, walked to the front, and insisted on taking a turn. Good people these trail riders.
So we were in good shape, we thought, walking down the last of the forest trail. The river was close, only a few hundred metres ahead at best. We could all hear its murmur as it slid through the valley. Marlene sighed with relief and then remounted. I stayed on foot because I didn’t trust the valley floor. It was getting softer, turning to mud. In 50 metres, the mud was boot-top deep but still had a bottom. Then the mud reached big willow roots, looking like flat black fingers, and there was really no good way to go. A particularly soft hole that held mud and water trapped us.
My horse went bravely along. I moved to the side so that my lunging horse did not jump on me. I couldn’t see what was happening behind me because tall willows blocked my view and I couldn’t stop; the chain was in motion. I thought of countless times when I have gone through scrapes with my fingers crossed, praying that the riders behind do not meet disaster. I heard horses lunging, excited voices. Loud voices don’t help. Even if you fall off a cliff, it’s too late anyhow so keep your mouth shut and keep the horses as calm as you can.
Somehow, everyone emerged along the river bank. We breathed a sigh of relief and a sigh of disappointment in nearly the same breath. We had been almost desperately looking forward to a crystal clear, friendly, mountain stream. We wanted to bath, drink pure mountain water, dip our fishing rods, and eat trout for supper. But the river was gross, so dirty you couldn’t even see a stick a few inches below the surface. It was unexpected; we all felt the same way and there wasn’t much to say. I looked up the valley thinking worse thoughts. This river, deep and 50 metres across, was no munchkin.
Don’t mess with bad water. Water crossings have killed many — not as many as internal injuries from falls and kicks, but many. I know the stories and I have swum rivers with horses more than 30 times.
On the side of that river, the memories flooded back — times when my life hung by a thread or was held by a few inches of sand — sending a deep chill through me. Some memories just seem to own you. It was not just this crossing that I feared because there was no trail on this side, I feared many more crossings as we headed up this river. We couldn’t even see the bottom, the water was so deep. Just one bad hole, one slip, one panicked horse…
But our group had common sense and read the river well, choosing the top of a shallow riffle. The river bottom turned out to be firm and sandy with small stones, which was a big relief.
Some trail riders feel uncomfortable without a trail to guide them; others like the challenge.
The outfit headed upriver, the trail not much of a trail at all. Past riders seemed to simply ride the sandy river bars upstream. Sometimes there was a hint of a trail through the willows or grassy edges. The river valley was stunning, a half kilometre wide, grassy flat with evergreens that sloped upward to mountain shoulders and peaks. But I knew what was coming. River flats between mountain slopes are schizophrenic; they just can’t keep a personality: hard ground one minute then fen bog the next. The soft ground came and we held up. “What do you think?” Chad said, “Maybe there is a better trail in the trees along the mountain.”
“Go look,” some smart aleck said, so Chad did. Everyone dismounted and made small talk, waiting for his return. I looked at their faces, each hiding separate thoughts. Some knew that they were in no man’s land and felt deeply uncomfortable without a trail to guide them. Others had a wilder streak, more reckless, and wanted the challenge, no matter what happened. That’s my kind of trail rider.
Chad returned. No trail. We continued. As with many soft valleys the only firm ground was right along the edge of the river. Literally, there was only a foot width of firmness, maybe not even that. The horses struggled, at times lunging through fen bog.
The stream edge trail, if it was a trail, was right next to the bank, literally inches to the water. But now the water was deep. I did not know how deep; this is where you need to trust your trail horse and he must be surefooted. There must be no foolish jostling for position now. My horse listened to me as I cued him away from sections of soft bank that looked like they might crumble. But the other horses?
Again and again we rode dangerously close on deep water banks. I was truly grateful for my sturdy, calm, Fjord-Percheron-Morgan crosses.
Then everyone yelled. I didn’t see how it happened, but Jill was in the water, having crashed off of the bank. The horse hit bottom and Jill was still in the saddle, her chest and the horse’s head above water. The horse lunged ahead, water flying from its nostrils. Jill kept her seat — she is a great rider — and the horse leapt into shallow water and onto a gravel bar. Everyone forgot to breathe. Then Jill, soaked to the skin, had a big smile on her face. One at a time we got over the shock. It was over.
We smiled, then laughed. She was damn lucky. It’s amazing how often trail riders get through a scrape to live, love, and laugh another day.
Because we had been riding upstream the river carried less water. It was shallower now, cleaner, and no longer dangerous. We were relieved and stopped for a snack and a break. When we mounted up again we rode with confidence and maybe that was why no one noticed that there was really no trail. The valley became narrow and we rode a kilometre on river rock. I felt sorry for the horses, whose feet slipped, twisted, and slid on the rock. When I feel for the horses this way I get a small sick feeling in the pit of my gut.
A foaming waterfall approached. We heard it for some time and looked for a trail up and around it. We got off and checked, but there was no trail. We knew that we’d missed it. Somewhere, back before the kilometre of river rock riding, there must have been a trail that cut up into the forested mountain slope, up and over, reaching around the rugged falls. We rode back, searching carefully for the sign of a trail. Then, after a kilometre of rocky backtracking, a dirty cut sneaked from the river bottom, up into a brushy slide.
The day was long and everyone was saddle weary, ready to call it a day. But this was not just an exceptional trail experience; it was a truly great one. The trail went up the mountain slide at an angle. Pretty alpine flowers of many colours tickled the horse’s feet. The trail then headed up valley though dwindling fir forest to emerge in a stunning mountain bowl. Snow, glaciers, and rushing streams cascaded towards us from all angles. Once we tired of the view and the picture taking, it dawned on us that we needed a way out of there. The only way out appeared to be a goat trail at the head end. The beginning of the goat trail was tough to find but when we found it, it looked like a horse trail, but was not for the faint of heart.
Riding trails is like being on a treasure hunt: there is a new prize around each corner and a new challenge to go with it. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Now, experienced trail horses will dig in and climb straight up, literally until they slide backwards, and ours were those kinds of horses. The problems were the multiple hard switchbacks and the fact that the horses would need to rest, and when they did, horses on the vertical could do all sorts of crazy things, like quit and go back, lunge ahead, or go off to even more dangerous ground. We decided to go up in small bunches, walking and taking our time; it would give us time to rest and get over the bad spots without stopping. It was a scramble — any worse and it would have been impossible, but we did it.
The day was coming to a close. We rode through a mountain pass that was surreal. High, green, short grass dips and swells filled the pass. Moon rock dotted the strange, mottled pass. It was a truly appropriate ending to a fantastic trail ride.
As winter creeps up (or jumps up and surprises us) I hope you have memories from the many faces of the trails you have ridden. Their memories will no doubt help to keep you warm during long winter nights. If not, you have something to look forward to in the coming season.
Main article photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr. - Good, bad, beautiful, or ugly, the many faces of a trail keep trail riding interesting.