Experiencing the North Cascades on horseback
There you are, crossing a swollen stream in the backcountry on a nice, sturdy bridge. Or you’re sitting inside a well-built shelter after a long day on the trail. How nice to have dry boots or a place to relax, right?
Chances are, the people who built the bridge, shelter or any number of other backcountry facilities along with the materials they used, got there on horseback.
This is just one of the reasons people use horses and mules in the backcountry. The bond between horse and rider is deep and best felt when both work together as a team. When the work benefits all trail users, so much the better.
The difference between riding trails and riding in an arena is similar to driving on prepared roads or off-road in the woods. Each kind of riding informs the other – in each discipline the horse and rider must learn to trust each other implicitly.
That trust played a vital role in the adventure – or misadventure, if you will – of Everson resident Diane Kimker some years ago. If not for the trust between horse and rider, Kimker’s trail riding experience could have turned out much differently.
During a Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) ride in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area with friend Marie Tiemersma, Kimker got to talking with a local couple who had joined the group for dinner around the campfire. The man told the two women of “a 22-mile loop that’s a great ride with just a few rough spots,” Kimker said. “Our mares Julie (Marie’s Saddlebred) and Piper (her Morgan), were well-seasoned trail horses in excellent condition, so we said ‘Why not? Let’s do it!’”
Early on they found themselves faced with a creek swollen to waist-high whitewater. They dismounted, sending the horses ahead of them as they’d trained them to do at home, and then used the horses’ lead ropes to steady themselves as they waded across.
The trail recrossed the steep mountain stream several more times, but each crossing became easier as they ascended into the hills.
“We thought those must have been the rough patches he spoke about,” Kimker said, but there were more to come. Higher up, the trail disappeared into a thicket of huckleberries. They dismounted and began to look for trail signs, “until Marie found a tiny little trail that might have been made by lizards or something. We followed it, though, and it gradually grew into something we could use.”
The trail gradually dropped out of the thick vegetation and leveled out, Kimker said.
“We were just about to hop off to stretch our legs and give the horses a break when suddenly both of them stopped, heads up, ears forward, nostrils flaring and muscles tensing. I felt Piper’s heart pound beneath my legs as a black bear cub frantically scrambled up a tree 30 feet from where we stood, bawling desperately for Momma!”
Bears can be a disaster in the backcountry should the horse spook and run. The two women never saw the sow but didn’t wait, moving out while singing at the top of their lungs, what else but the theme song from The Sound of Music, “The Hills are Alive.” Indeed. But they trusted their horses’ ability to pay attention, not panic and simply walk away from danger.
The trail began to descend steeply as another obstacle appeared – a downed tree more than three feet in diameter with large branches. “A quick assessment offered no way around either end of the tree as the vegetation was too dense,” Kimker said. “The tree looked at first to be too large to safely cross on this downhill slope. We could have turned back, but with the bears perhaps still in the salmonberry bushes this didn’t sound good, either.”
Both women, again as a part of their training, had routinely sent their horses over barrels in the arena. So they in turn stood on the trunk and cued their animals over the safest spot. “Both responded perfectly and landed almost without incident on the other side. My mare, being only 14.2 hands high, caught a back leg on a protruding snag, getting a narrow puncture wound which, fortunately, produced minimal bleeding. I doctored her with antibiotic salve and we forged ahead.
“As we dropped down lower off the mountain the vegetation thinned and we found ourselves once again in the woods. We were thankful for the consistently obvious trail at this point. It appeared well traveled in spite of the fact that we had not seen another person since leaving camp that morning.”
They were at least headed toward familiar territory, they thought, as a year earlier they’d ridden this same loop for a couple of hours in the opposite direction. “But with inaccurate information about the condition and difficulty of the trail we had just navigated, it was clear we had misjudged the time it would take to reach the place we knew, Meadow Camp.”
After crossing two meadows that initially seemed right, they still hadn’t found the right one. “At this point I didn’t know what Marie was thinking, but I began to do a quick assessment of what we had in the way of extra clothing, food and so on should we find ourselves spending the night,” Kimker said.
“I was definitely getting angry with our campfire guest, who clearly had not given us accurate information about the condition of this trail. His words, ‘It’s a great trail, just has a few rough spots, and you can easily do it in a day,’ kept ringing through my head.”
They continued into deepening shade as the sun sank below the mountains, eventually reaching Meadow Camp about 6 p.m. and the BCHA campsite two hours later.
“We learned,” Kimker said, “in what could have been a hard lesson, about taking the word of someone we didn’t know when riding into the backcountry. This is why a compass and a complete map of the area you plan to ride is essential. He’d described this as a long but obvious and easy loop, so we relied on a Ranger District informational map showing the approximate layout of the trail system. But it was incomplete. We should have been carrying a topo map with more detailed information.”
They also emphasized carrying the Ten Essentials and having a dependable trail horse. “I believe a well-trained horse can mean the difference between life and death when riding in the backcountry,” Kimker said. “Most of us in BCHA are avid and seasoned trail riders. This story includes details about things we all know are important but don’t always practice. This adventure happened many years ago, but to this day I can run my hand over the scar on the leg of my now 28-year old mare.” X
Port Angeles native Jack Kintner, a lifelong resident of the northwest, divides his time between traveling with his partner Jackie and trail riding on his quarter horse, Dillon.
Twenty-seven states have branches of the Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA). Mike McGlenn of Bellingham is a member of the Whatcom County chapter and chairman of the national organization.
“We work with various federal agencies (U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service) and with The Wilderness Society on wilderness issues of access and trails as well as the American Horse Council as part of their recreational committee,” McGlenn said. “Collaboration among user groups is key, because by some accounts we are losing 6,000 acres a day nationally to development and other uses.”
McGlenn got involved to help preserve the right to ride in the vanishing American wilderness. “A study some years ago found we are losing 200 acres a day in Washington state,” McGlenn said. “It is very important to me that future generations have (this) ... The interaction of working with a horse, the mutual trust that is developed between the human and the horse is a great training event for kids of all ages.”
Along with lobbying to preserve wilderness access, members also focus on volunteer efforts on public lands. Since 1995 BCHA chapters have contributed more than 2.5 million hours of volunteer time valued at over $63 million.
Whatcom County’s chapter contributed 3,275 volunteer hours in 2011 worth nearly $40,000 to the controlling agencies. Add in the value of power equipment and tools used that are owned by members, the value of their stock (horses and mules) used per day and travel and the figure climbs to over $90,000 that the affected management agency would have to spend to duplicate these vital services.
Want to come along?
Whatcom and Skagit counties both have very active chapters of BCHA and welcome new members, with or without horses, who want to learn about wilderness travel on horseback. Learn more about the Whatcom County chapter at whatcom-bch.com.Learn more about the Skagit County chapter at skagitbchw.vpweb.com.
|Another form of partnership
The partnership between horse and rider is vital in the backcountry, but for children and adults with disabilities, that unique partnership can provide a different kind of benefit.
Organizations like the Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center (NWTRC) and Pediatric NDT and SI Therapy Services, both located near Bellingham, view the partnership between horse and rider as another step toward physical and mental wellbeing for their clients, who are often living with a wide range of physical and developmental disabilities.
Therapeutic riding improves physical mobility, strength and coordination, and provides an increased sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. Many riders who have worked with the NWTRC speak of the joy riding brings them, as well as the sense of strength and and happiness they feel.
“All of a sudden I was looking down on all of these people, instead of sitting in my wheelchair. Horseback riding was a freedom,” says one rider who has multiple sclerosis.
“The press of the world lifts off my shoulders,” says another rider. “The stress of my crazy life just melts away. I can be my own person and have no worries.”
At Pediatric NDT and SI Therapy Services, horses are part of the therapeutic journey, but they aren’t the only animals on the ranch. Goats, chickens, roosters, ducks, doves, fish and cats are all part of therapy for many children, especially those working to overcome sensory boundaries.
The clinic, located at Warm Rain Ranch, strives to invite children to participate in therapy, rather than “trudging” to an appointment in an impersonal office.
Learn more about the Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center by visiting nwtrc.org and Pediatric NDT & SI Therapy Services by visiting susanmcnutt.net.