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9 days in the Back Country – First Time Experiences

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First Time Experiences – 9 Days in the Back Country

back country

Since coming to the ranch in May, I’ve had more ‘first time experiences’ than I could have imagined. Whether that was shoeing horses, seeing a moose, exploring the back country or operating a chainsaw. Since then, my experiences and adventures have only got better.

One of those first time experiences is the title of this blog, I’d never spent nine consecutive days in the back country before. And I’d only actually planned on staying for six. But the opportunity arose to stay for three more days. Tired and in need of a shower, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for three more days. But I took the opportunity and I for sure didn’t regret it. Most of these nine days could be described as a first time experience. Here I can only describe a selection of them.

Our adventure began by driving to the trail head with five horses in the trailer. I’d never started a trip into the back country from anywhere but the ranch. Also, I’d never been to Tyax Camp, further north than Eldorado and Spruce Lake. It was deeper into the back country than I’d ever been before. The trail was crowded with dead-fall and overhanging branches. We had to machete our way through or find another way around. On our horses, we crossed rivers via steep banks where the trail had washed out in heavy rain.

Riding in the dark

My first crazy experience of this trip was riding through the dark. We’d left the trail head at 2pm, but with the unmaintained trail, it took us a long time. It got dark around 8pm. We were trusting our horses to find safe footing as we could no longer safely see. The light faded fast. Soon I could see nothing but the tail of the horse in front of me.

All of us trusted Manon and her horse Castle to bring us safely to camp. We didn’t turn on our flashlights. This would blind the horses, who have better night vision than us. Riding through total darkness felt like being on a roller coaster. Except only one where you didn’t know where the dips and rises were. And we had to duck and weave around overhanging branches.

I had enough awareness of the environment to sense when I was riding through meadows. There was tall grass brushing my feet and a sense of space around me. In the forest it was slightly warmer, more uneven ground, branches pressing in from all sides. With my vision diminished, my sense of smell got the opportunity to determine my location. I could smell wood smoke, we must be close to camp.

Sure enough, five minutes later, we could make out a darker husk in a dark meadow, the cabin. Kristin was already at camp and had a warm fire to welcome us. It was 10pm. Strangely, I felt more in tune with nature during that ride, despite the fact I couldn’t actually see it. I learned our environment must be experienced with every sense to fully appreciate and understand it.

Shoeing a horse

This was a guide school pack trip, based entirely in the back country instead of half at the ranch as normal. Kristin would teach Jael to shoe at camp and I quickly volunteered to help, I wanted to teach and practice myself. Castle needed two new shoes, we explained the shoeing process and demonstrated before Jael tried, she turned out to be highly adept at hammering the nails in, which led me to wonder what other hidden talents she had.

We now only had Castle’s second shoe to nail on, I wanted to try tacking it on – putting in the first two nails to hold it in position. With Kristin’s help, I got the shoe laying over the hoof correctly and started hammering. I got both nails in without too much difficulty, my hammering skills seemed to be improving. We finished the shoe between us, I felt a huge sense of achievement and empowerment. I generally enjoy shoeing but often find it difficult, to get the nails in properly or file the hoof to the right shape. But now I had a real success to show for my effort.

Changing camps

The next day we moved camps, something else I’d never done before. We packed up and rode to Big Creek camp, even deeper into the back country. As we crossed Big Creek, I looked behind us and saw huge snow-capped mountains, the river flowed from them, lined with sand on both sides like a beach. I couldn’t explain exactly what it was about the combination of mountain and water that struck me so strongly, maybe it was the angle of the sun lighting the day just right, but suddenly I felt immensely happy and peaceful. I knew this was where I belonged.

Staking horses

My next crazy experience was staking. To hammer the stakes into the ground, we use the flat end of an axe. With three people and only one axe between us, Kristin decided to speed up the process by hammering in a stake using another stake. I thought this seemed a good plan and grabbed the biggest, strongest stake I could find. I held the sharpened end and started hammering the head of the second stake. 

I was surprised to discover that, not only had I been able to get the stake started, I had hammered it fully in, so now only a foot of the three foot piece of wood remained above ground. I had hammered in a stake using only another stake. I couldn’t quite believe my success, I had to test the stake several times to believe it was really fully in.

Sleeping under the stars

We camped in a meadow under the stars (and some trees) where I got to experience sleeping truly outside for the first time. We found the perfect meadow for our horses and while Lisa and Manon staked them to trees, Jael and I made dinner. 

There was so much dead wood we had no shortage of firewood. I made the camp fire on a small circle of ground which I’d picked most of the plants off to avoid accidentally starting a forest fire. We also had all our water bottles full of water nearby just in case. I got the fire going much more easily than I had anticipated, without setting fire to the grass and soon I had a great fire going, perhaps a little too big, but under control. 

We wrapped all our dinner in tin foil and put it in the flames as we had no grill to lay over the fire. Dinner over, we made our bed, a tarp layered with saddle blankets and topped with our sleeping bags. It was as exciting as riding in the dark, perhaps because in Western society these things aren’t normal, everyday occurrences, yet sleeping out in the wilderness is completely normal for all wild animals and many people too.

Spraying myself with bear spray

I also got the chance to try my hand at some camp maintenance. Manon had a list of jobs to do and I chose fixing the saddle rack. The tarp cover had sagged and filled with water and some of the wooden beams had broken or collapsed. One of the roof beams was only connected at one end, I planned to climb up on the beam with the saddles on and hammer some new nails in. Things didn’t go as I had planned though. 

As I swung myself up onto the beam, there was a loud hiss and then I was coughing and couldn’t breathe properly. I’d managed to detonate my bear spray and sprayed it into my own knee. At first it didn’t hurt, but then the spray soaked through my pants and started to burn. I took my bear spray off my belt and got on with the job, next time I’d take a bear spray with the safety attached. But that wasn’t the end of my adventure. The nails were too thin and bent as I hammered them in. 

This wasn’t productive and as I couldn’t work out how to fix it, I decided I’d work on the things I could do. I pulled the tarp roof taunt and tied it in place with binder twine and attached a second tarp to the back for a little more protection from the snow that would soon be here. The job might not have been successful, but I’d at least improved the situation.

Leaving the back country

When I left the back country on my ninth day, Ed met us at the trail head, greeting Manon first as she was leading. I was rear guide and when Ed saw me he said ‘Well, look at you!’ And I did, I realized how much I had developed since Ed had last seen me in my first few weeks at the ranch three months ago. Look how much more confident I was, all the things I had done and the stories I had to tell.