Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Into the Back Country

Our guide, Mike, was waiting for us at the trail head, horses (10) saddled, mule (1) packed, ready for the trail. Riding out that sunny morning, we were one cowboy, born and bred (Mike), 3 keen riders from Indiana, a Danish family of 3 of mixed experience, and, finally, C and myself (riding dilettantes).

The first few yards of the trail took us through a shuttered ski resort (Mount Norquay). Then, tall pines closed in around the narrow track, and we said goodbye to "civilisation". Already, the deep quiet of the back country was upon us, the drone of the infernal combustion engine replaced by the by the steady clip-clop rhythm of strolling hooves. In that close forest, the mountains around us were only glimpsed, their presence mostly inferred by the steepness of the ground to either side of the trail, and by the sound of hidden torrents, still swollen with snow-melt.

We stopped for lunch in a clearing at the edge of a meadow, and turned our horses loose (except Mikes, for purposes of rounding-up). Gophers popped out of burrows to watch as Mike removed a grill from the back of his mule and set about splitting firewood to cook our burgers. From the edge of the meadow, we could see across the valley to the forest on the opposite slopes. Looking higher, the scars of fire and avalanche were easily found; above those, a crest of the slate that gives these young mountains their rugged good looks.

Lee and Shrynn, keen riders from Indiana

Post-lunch, the forest closed in again, but the ground around us leveled out - a fortunate circumstance, as it turned out. Up ahead, the guide's horse came to an abrupt stop; I was close enough behind to see the problem, which was an uprooted tree stump sitting on the trail. This was a "grizzly stump" - the ant-ridden remains of a rotting tree, dug up and ripped apart by a protein-hungry grizzly bear. Mike's horse shook its head and stamped its feet, and tried to go anywhere but straight ahead; he put his spurs in, forced its head around to face the stump, and soon enough, got safely past.

Well, the spare horse, Ricky, passed by without incident, and so did Rocket the lunch mule, and Kris from Indiana; but Ajax, my mount, lacked their confidence in Mike's judgement. Having been neck-reining him all day, I neglected to shorten my reins at the crucial moment, and Ajax shied, before heading straight off the trail and into the forest, removing his rider (me) with the help of the first pine he passed. Having separated rider, hat and even the port-side stirrup (replaced with the help of Lee from Indiana), he moved me, on recapturing him, to offer him a new career inside a sausage skin, should he ever repeat that little performance. Having led him past that sinister stump, I re-mounted in a state of mild embarrassment, and our party rode on.

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