Sometimes we have experiences in life that give us a greater appreciation for the unseen benefactors that have enriched our lives in ways that aren't readily apparent. My family and I recently had such an experience, one that was so deep that the only way to do it justice was to write it down.
I recently moved home to Idaho from Alberta. While it was tough to say goodbye to Wild Rose Country, it has been nice to be back around family and friends in the land of my forefathers. One of the things about Idaho that I have missed while I was abroad was the 24th of July, or Pioneer Day. Pioneer day celebrates the day that Brigham Young and the first company of Mormon Emigrants arrived in The Great Basin. The day is recognized by the Utah State Government as a holiday, and many communities in Idaho celebrate the day as well.
On this most recent Pioneer Day, I had the day off. One of the things my wife Ruby and I love to do more than anything else is to pack into the mountains with horses. On this particular weekend we decided to ride into a canyon drained by Palisades Creek near Swan Valley, Idaho. Palisades Creek is fed by 2 beautiful lakes, called the Lower and Upper Palisades Lakes. Both of these lakes are a deep turquoise and support large populations of trout and wildlife. I had never been to either lake, but they have always been on the list of places I have wanted to see. On all of our previous pack trips, we have gone with Ruby's family and have relied upon the experience and wisdom of Ruby's dad to guide us through. This was going to be the first time that we were going to do a pack trip by ourselves, and to top it off we would be taking our 18 month old daughter Ayla along. Ayla went on her first horse excursion with us when she was only 6 months old, and has spent many full days in the saddle since. Nonetheless, taking her on an overnight pack trip with just Ruby and I was definitely taking things to a new level.
We did our best to get things ready on the day before our scheduled departure, however, as often happens, I wasn't able to get away from work as early as I wanted. As a result, we had to postpone much of our preparation until the morning of the pack trip. As this was our first pack trip without Ruby's dad, and his knowledge and equipment, it took us a little while to make sure we had all the supplies we thought we might need. After a long morning of running around and picking up this and that, we finally arrived at the trailhead around 4:00 in the afternoon.
It took us about a half an hour to saddle our horses and throw a sorry attempt at a diamond hitch on our reluctant pack horse; a broodmare named Ally that had been plucked out of my mother's small remuda a couple of days before. By the time I threw the last few loops over the canvas manty, storm clouds had gathered into the canyon. We got Ruby and Ayla situated on Moonshine, Ruby's sorrel gelding, and as I swung up onto my palomino Slim, the first drops of rains started coming down. With our Border Collie, Jax taking point and our Australian Shepherd, Cowgirl riding drag, we headed up the trail towards parts unknown with storm clouds gathering quickly overhead.
The trail wound its way up a narrow canyon along a very boisterous and rapidly rising Palisades Creek. Fortunately, the Palisades Lakes are a very popular destination for hikers and packers alike, and the Forest Service does a good job of maintaining the trails. However, because the canyon is so narrow, the trail frequently crosses over the creek by means of several high, narrow pack bridges. Both Slim and Moonshine have always been very good about going over bridges. Still, I couldn't help but hold my breath in just a little as I looked over the edge of those bridges and watched Ruby and my baby girl come across behind me. Several of those bridges were 20 or 30 feet over the water, and most of them did not have any kind of guard rails. I've been on other pack trips where green pack horses would balk at bridges and even dive off into bogs rather than go across. Thankfully, Ally proved to be willing to follow and we didn't have any trouble.
The rain continued to come down, but we worked our way steadily up towards the lower lake. All the while, Jax would run a few hundred feet ahead then stop and turn around and look at me as if to say, "Come on, shake a leg!" I would sometimes call to him and he would reluctantly come back just long enough to whip around and go on around the next bend in the trail. "One of these times" I kept thinking to myself, "he's going to come back with a bear on his heels . . ." Still, it brought a smile to my face. In his little Border Collie brain, he had a job to do, and that job was to get us up the mountain, and nothing was going to deter him. After about 4 miles, we started up a series of switch backs that put us out into a meadow nestled within the terminal moraine of an ancient glacier. The glacier had long ago deposited hundreds of narrow, jagged boulders in rows that resembled pickets along the wall of some stone age fortress. I don't know for sure, but I assume that this series of boulders is how the Palisades lakes got their name.
As we had ascended the switchbacks, we noticed that Ally's pack was starting to list a little to starboard, so once we reached the meadow we decided to stop and redo the pack. While I was cinching down my slightly improved diamond hitch, made possible by some suggestions from Ruby, Jax suddenly broke off into a run across the meadow after some unseen quarry, all the while baying in a high pitched whine that I'd never heard him utter before. As near as I could figure, either he was onto the biggest chase of his life, or he was being ripped to shreds my some quarry that turned out to be a predator. We called after him, but a little switch in his Border Collie brain had gone off; as far as he saw it he had a job to do and nothing was going to deter him.
Needless to say, we had ourselves a dilemma. It was getting well into the evening, and we still had 4 miles to go. The rain had not stopped since we had started, and now we had a dog missing. We went up the trail a ways, not sure if he was waiting up ahead or where we should go. We soon discovered that the palisades of boulders were actually a dam that formed the lower lake, but we could not find Jax anywhere. We went back to the meadow to see if he had come back to the spot where he'd left us. A different trail went out the backside of the meadow into a canyon that veered off in a different direction than where we were heading. I had come to the conclusion, that we couldn't just go on ahead and wait for Jax to find us, our best bet was to stick around until either he came back or I could go look for his shredded remains. I had seen a sign that indicated that there was a horse pasture up the new canyon about a quarter mile, so we rode until we came to a small meadow that contained about an acre of lush mountain pasture. Miraculously, as we entered the meadow we heard a bark coming from the other side. I called out to Jax who came bounding back along the trail, thankfully unhurt. I wanted to bawl him out but I was so happy to see him that I just said, "This way Jax", and turned back for the main trail. I only went about 100 feet before a little voice inside of me said, "You aren't going any further tonight, get your family out of this rain." I turned to Ruby and told her I thought we should stop here for the night and press on to the upper lake in the morning. She concurred, and we went back to the meadow.
The first order of business was to get the tent set up so that we could keep our bedding dry and have a place to take shelter from the rain. Ruby had been keeping Ayla dry in the saddle by buttoning her up in her yellow slicker, which worked really well while we were moving. However, once we stopped we needed a place to keep her dry and warm. Thankfully, the tent went up quickly and we were able to get Ayla in out of the weather. The forest service had installed a nice metal hitching post/saddle rack which had just enough room for our two riding saddles and our pack saddle, so we unsaddled the ponies and turned them out to graze. Slim and Moonshine were both used to being hobbled, but Ally had never been hobbled before. Ruby put Ally's hobbles on then got knocked over and nearly trampled when Ally tried to take a step in them. This was unfortunate because of all our horses, she needed the nourishment from grazing the most. She would eat where she stood, but she was so tired that once she'd eaten a few bites she would just stand there with her head down. It's always been a source of amazement to me just how quickly a horse that is fat and sassy can be made into a humble bumble by carrying a pack saddle a few miles. Nonetheless, we had only gone 4 miles that day and we had more than twice that distance to go the next day. We really needed Ally to eat.
There had been enough rain that getting a fire started proved to be a challenge. We had brought our aluminum dutch oven and some chicken and potatoes for dinner, but we would need a good fire to cook it with. Usually dutch ovens are made of cast iron, which holds and distributes heat very well, but is very heavy. Aluminum is much lighter but requires that the heat from the coals be long lasting and evenly distributed. Getting coals like that was going to be tough with wet wood. The only solution was to build a fire large enough to heat the underlying ground and rocks to the point that they would continue to release heat even after the pine coals started to wane. The only problem was finding enough dry wood. There were a couple of small dead trees next to camp, so I grabbed our pack axe and chopped them down. Limbing the trees was labor intensive but enabled me to get the fire started with a dense pile of dead pine needles. However the greatest challenge to getting enough fuel for a decent fire turned out to be the lack of a saw. When we would go on pack trips with Ruby's family, her dad usually had a very sharp pack saw on his saddle. We had somehow overlooked that detail in our preparations, and now I was faced with the daunting task of hacking up those dead trees with an axe. This problem was compounded by the fact that between getting the tent up, getting the horses squared away, and trying to get a cook fire going, the daylight hours were fading fast. I came to the conclusion that chopping those logs up would take too much time and too much energy. So, I made a few quick cuts on the thinner sections to get enough small pieces for the the flames to get going, then I threw the remaining large segments on in a large pile. Soon we had a bonfire almost ten feet tall.
Normally I wouldn't risk a fire this large in the forest, but the surrounding area was so soaked from the steady rain that I didn't figure it would be much of a problem. In fact it had rained steadily since we had pitched the tent, and as soon as the horses were out grazing, Ruby had gone into the tent with Ayla. Once I had the fire going, I discovered that while I had been out playing Paul Bunyan, Ruby had been attacking the problem of dinner from a different angle. Ayla, like most small children, did not have the patience to wait for the perfect coals, but Ruby had brought along some summer sausage, cheese, and crackers. While I had been building the fire, they had been in the tent contentedly munching away.
I opened the tent door and decided to abandon my plans for dutch oven chicken. We all piled into the tent and enjoyed our cold camp meal. Ayla was perfectly giddy. She was bouncing off the walls of the tent and using her toddler sign language to ask for more cheese and crackers. She accompanied the signs with words like 'mo' and 'pease'. It was the first chance I'd had that day to just sit back and enjoy the moment. The burden of taking my family into the wild had proved to be a heavy one, and it had driven me to work extra hard to make sure that everything was taken care of. I thought about those early pioneers who had crossed the plains of Iowa and Nebraska, and the barren wastelands of Wyoming. Many of them lost spouses, parents, siblings, and most tragically, children along the way. The very first pioneers to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley had been driven from comfortable and stately homes in Illinois at bayonet point. They traveled over a thousand miles in wagons, on horses, and even by walking and pulling handcarts. We, on the other hand, had driven to a trail head in a pickup and horse trailer and gone a grand total of 4 miles. Even still, though it could not really compare to the sacrifices those early pioneers had made, I felt a connection to them. I had tasted a small sample of the worry that comes with having your family exposed to hazards of traveling through the wild, and of having to protect them from the elements. Of course I didn't bear that burden alone, and in many ways, Ruby was more efficient and practical in her approach to caring for our needs. But nonetheless, even if I could not fully compare myself to them, I had gained a greater appreciation for what they had gone through.
After we finished our supper, we gave Ayla a bottle and she was soon asleep. My pants and boots were soaked through from traipsin' around in the rain and wet grass. So I went out in my camp shorts and crocks and brought the horses in from grazing. It was at this point that it dawned on me that we hadn't given the horses water since we had loaded them on the trailer at home. The closest water was at least a half mile away from camp, and the night sky was shrouded in rain clouds. Walking three horses a half mile in pitch darkness, through the woods, in my shorts and crocks, was not a thought I relished. Fortunately, the grass in the meadow was very tall, very green, and also very wet. I decided to take a chance and hope that they had been able to hydrate themselves well enough by grazing. We had packed some alfalfa cubes and sweet feed to supplement their grazing, so I gave them each a pile of cubes and tied them to the hitching post. I moved the saddles onto a rock that was under a tree then covered them up with one of the manties. Finally, I redistributed our supplies into two different categories: those items that would attract a bear, and those that would not. I filled one canvas panyard with the items that would attract a bear and set out to look for a tree limb to hang it from.
Usually on pack trips, we would rig up a bear pole between two trees, but I hadn't time to do that earlier, and the thought of finding a suitable pole, shinnying up two wet trees, and lashing said pole to those trees in the middle of the night, while it was raining, appealed to me even less than the thought of walking the horses to water. So I was left with trying to find a suitable tree limb. This proved to be difficult though, as most of the trees around camp had thin limbs that were densely spaced, and hung at a low angle that made it easy for the rope to slip off. I could get the pack cinch to go over a branch, but as soon as I would start to haul the 50 lb panyard up into the tree, the limb would snap or the rope would slide off of the limb. After about half an hour of messing around with this, I decided to just secure the panyard to the base of the tree a fair distance away from camp and hope to heck that any unwanted guests would stay holed up all night in the rain. I took comfort in knowing that we had 2 dogs that would most likely warn us if anything came too close to camp, though they had curled up under a tree next to the tent as soon as we got to camp and hadn't moved since. It was feasible that we could all sleep through it and not wake up until after the damage was done. Nonetheless, it was late, I was soaked, and it was time for me to get some sleep. I hauled my short barrel 12 gauge shotgun into the tent with me and laid it by my side. Ruby and Ayla were on the air mattress, so I settled down onto a reasonably comfortable patch of pine needles and drifted off to sleep.
The first thing that woke me up was the horses. Slim and Moonshine were herd mates, but Ally was a new addition. So even though I tied the two geldings together on one side of the post and Ally on the other, about midnight they started screeching at each other as they sorted out their positions on the pecking order. If they had been doing this from the get go, I probably wouldn't have thought much of it, but it started up after several hours of silence, which made me wonder if they were actually screeching at each other, or if there was another large animal in the fray. I was also still worried about the lack of water. When horses don't stay hydrated, they are prone to gastrointestinal problems such as cramps, twists, and impactions. These can be very painful and their occurrence is described broadly as colic. I had brought some medication along in case we had a horse colic, but even still the thought of dealing with a colicky horse in the mountains filled me with dread. I grabbed my spotlight and slipped outside for a better look, toting my shotgun along with me.
When I shone my spotlight on the hitching post, all three horses were standing sedately in the rain. I sighed a big breath of relief. I walked over to the horses, who seemed ambivalent to my presence. I placed my fingers under Ally's jaw and found her submandibular artery. I felt a slow steady woosh of blood go past my fingers and estimated her heart rate to be around 40 beats per minute. Next I checked Slim's heart rate; it was about the same. Moonshine's however was 50 to 60 beats per minute; that was a little high. I stood there for a moment wondering why his heart rate was up. I listened carefully as I heard the gurgling of his intestines. Normally, the sound of a horse's intestines moving is a good thing, but sometimes if they are moving too much it's called hypermotility and can be a sign of pain. Moonshine was just standing there in the rain with his ears slightly back, maybe slightly uncomfortable, but not in any great pain. I decided to leave it alone for now and go back to bed, though now with one more worry on my mind.
At about 3:00, Jax let out a single 'WOOF!' Everything had been pretty quiet for the last few hours, but with that single bark my eyes were wide open. I lay there in the tent with the rain pattering down on the tent and waited for what may follow. Silence. Just to be sure, I poked my head out of the tent and shone the spotlight around. The horses hadn't moved an inch, and everything else seemed to be in order. I lay back down for another hour or so until Jax let out a series barks. This time I didn't wait. I grabbed my shotgun and spotlight and climbed out of the tent. Everything appeared to be copesthetic, but the food was far enough away that I couldn't see it without walking a hundred feet or so out of camp. The rain was starting to let up, but the grass was still wet. I was pretty sure that if there really was a bear eating our food, that it would have made enough noise for both Jax and Cowgirl to hear. Cowgirl hadn't uttered a peep, and even though it was Jax that had woke me up, he appeared to be largely unconcerned when I came out of the tent. I debated whether it was really necessary for me to trample out into the dark and check the food, but I didn't think I would be able to sleep until I knew for sure one way or another. By the time I got to the food my spotlight was running low on power and my feet were soaked, but thankfully the food was just as I had left it.
It was shaping up to be the most uneventful sleepless night in the history of sleepless nights. Thankfully though, dawn was only a couple of hours away. I wondered if the pioneers had as much trouble with insomnia as I did, and realized that the answer was no, theirs was much worse. Not only did they have to worry about their stock, and their food, but there were also marauding bands of vigilantes, prairie fires, and blizzards. While many consider it a trite stereotype, the fact is that most of the tribes they encountered were not exactly friendly either. While it seemed daunting to me to have to walk a half mile to water, they went for long stretches without any water at all. When they did find water it was often contaminated with cholera and dysentary. No wonder they never smiled in any of their pictures. Those might not have been my exact thoughts at 4:00 in the morning as I stood there in the dark with my spotlight dying and my feet soaked, but they would have been good thoughts to have given the circumstances. Whatever my thoughts were or were not at the time, I only had a couple of hours before I had to be up and at'em, so I crawled back into the tent and went to sleep again.
It seems like when I'm camping that I can't sleep as soon as it gets light. If I'm back home the sun coming up seems to only serve to make me want to sleep longer, but when I'm camping, as soon as the first gray shafts of light start to brighten the eastern sky I'm awake. This morning was no exception. The clouds had cleared off and the sky was a bright shade of gray when I emerged from the tent. The first order of business was to get the horses out and grazing again. If Moonshine had been colicking the night before, he didn't seem to be any worse for the wear this morning. The grass was still wet so I figured I would let the horses eat their water again rather than try to lead them to the lake.
I got the fire going again and started making plans for breakfast. We had brought dehydrated hashbrowns, sausage, bacon, and eggs along with my 3 foot diameter steel frying pan. I had been introduced to oversized frying pans while on pack trips with my in laws. An oversized pan distributes heat well, and allows you to cook multiple items simultaneously. It was an easier and more robust system than having to wait for the fire to die down to coals as the frying pan could simply be held over the flames then taken off as needed if things got too hot. The pan was too large to be packed on a human backpack, but it fit perfectly under the lashings of a diamond hitch. The biggest hurdle to be crossed was water. We needed water to rehydrate the hashbrowns, and would need even more water to clean up the dishes after breakfast. We had brought along several bottles of water for us to drink, but it had to last us throughout the rest of the day. So, I grabbed a couple of empty pots and hiked down to the lake. It was a beautiful day, and the rain had left everything looking crisp and clean. As I walked among the rock palisades, the lake came into view. The color of the water varied from a milky white at the shoreline to a deep turquoise as the depth increased. On the South side of the lake there was a bull moose feeding in the shallows, and a fine cloud of mist clung to the steep, timbered hillsides. The lake drained into Palisades Creek through a wide outlet that ran under a wooden pack bridge. I walked across the bridge and down to the bank where I could fill my pots. Carrying the full pots of water the half mile back to camp proved to be awkward, but I made it back just as Ayla and Ruby had gotten up and started moving about camp. The fire had died down and was smoldering, so I cut down another dead tree and got it going again. I started some water to boiling in a little camp pot and we settled down to the task of getting breakfast going.
The water was soon boiling and I poured a couple of cups in with the hashbrowns. As soon as they were ready to go, I threw half a stick of butter in the pan and dumped the hashbrowns, sausage and bacon in after it. We had forgotten a spatula, so I moved the food gingerly around the pan with a fork. Cooking over a fire is 1 part science and 3 parts art. You have to detect the hotspots and coolspots quickly then readjust the pan's position constantly to keep the food from burning while simultaneously keeping it hot enough to cook. It takes a little practice, but I'd had lots of that on our other pack trips with Ruby's family. We soon had a pan full of golden hashbrowns, crisp bacon, and sizzling sausage. We knew better than to bring eggs still in their shells, instead we had cracked all of the eggs and put them into a sealed container. I cleared off a patch of greasy metal in the pan and held it over the flames until it was good and hot. I dumped the eggs in and continuously folded the edges into the center until we had a nice scramble. We pulled the pan off flames and tucked into our breakfast. Food always tastes better when you're camping, but this food was sweet ambrosia. It was greasy, salty, and full of flavor. We had brought way more than we needed, so the dogs got to partake in the feast as well. It was a great way to welcome in the new day after such a long, dark night.
We were just finishing up the last few morsels when Ruby looked up and jumped about 2 feet straight in the air. While we had been focused on our breakfast, the bull moose I had seen in the lake had made his way up to our camp. He was no more than 20 feet away when Ruby spotted him. I think the moose was as surprised as Ruby because as soon as she moved he quickly made a right turn and swung wide around our camp. The horses took particular interest in his presence, but thankfully he was not in a disposition to make a nuisance of himself and soon disappeared on the other side of the meadow. The dogs had surprisingly been silent throughout the whole episode, and the presence of this moose, along with whatever animal Jax had chased the prior evening made me wonder if our camp lay on a major corridor of animal movement between the lake and the canyon. Who knows what animals may have passed by in the night without our knowledge. I felt very grateful in that moment for whatever protection we might have unknowingly benefited from. We had said a very heartfelt prayer prior to our departure, asking our Father in Heaven for protection. As far as I could tell, he had heard our prayer, and was blessing us abundantly.
After breakfast we focused on getting our gear dry and ready to be packed. The sun was starting to filter in through the trees, and the meadows were awash in its brilliant warmth. We arranged the canvas manties on the grass and moved the bedding and wet gear onto them to dry. We then moved the tent out from under the trees and flipped it upside down to let it dry. We soon had everything lined out and ready to go on the pack horse. Ally seemed more than a little reluctant this morning, but she stood like a champ as we cinched down the pack saddle and threw on the panyards. The bedding went on last, then we covered everything up with the manties and threw the diamond hitch over top. With the frying pan and pack axe secured snuggly under the lashings, I threw my shotgun over my shoulder and mounted up. We left our little campsite behind and moved up the canyon towards the upper lake.
Part of our purpose in coming on this trip was to scout out places where we could camp on subsequent trips, and we saw several. The stretch of Palisades creek that flowed into the lower lake was much more level than the outlet, and meandered through the canyon amongst a dense bottom of willows and reeds. It was perfect habitat for trout. I saw a handful of fly fishermen out on the water and felt a twinge of envy. I had brought my fly rod and vest along, but with everything that had gone on it didn't seem like I was going to get a chance to use them. Nonetheless, I made several mental notes regarding where and how I would camp if we ever came back here. After a couple of miles we started up a series of switchbacks that went up a much larger terminal moraine behind which lay the waters of the upper lake. The upper lake was about 5 times the size of the lower lake, but its waters were the same deep shade of turquoise. Along the trail there was an abundance of wild raspberries, thimbleberries, and gooseberries. I even saw some berries that looked surprisingly like saskatoons, a berry that was very common in Alberta. I didn't see any huckleberries, but that doesn't mean there weren't any; the habitat was suitable enough for them.
By the time we reached the upper lake, Ally was starting to play out. The side of the lake where the moraine formed a natural dam was designated for hikers, but there was supposedly a very nice horse camp near the inlet. Unfortunately the inlet was another mile and a half from the moraine. We started up the trail, but we soon realized making it to the inlet was going to be an ambitious goal. Ruby voiced as much to me and I replied with, "I think you're right, we'll stop as soon as we can find a good place to rest and have lunch." For me, a good place to have lunch was one that had fresh water for the horses and for us. We had depleted most of our bottled water and I really wanted to find a spring before we made the trek back for the pickup. Unbeknownst to us was the fact that the horse trail took us high over a bluff that overlooked the lake, and put us out right next to the lake inlet. Ruby was more than a little upset when she realized that we were going to have to go all the way to the horse camp. Ally was very tired, and we needed her to be able to make the 8 mile journey back to camp. When we finally made it to a spot with good water and a place to tie up the horses, we were all tired and hot. We unsaddled Ally to let her back cool off and fed all of the horses what was left of the alfalfa cubes and grain. We took the horses down to the creek where they all gulped up large quantities of water. Then I hiked up stream from where the trail crossed the creek and filled our water bottles up. The water was very cold, and sweet. I felt a little bit guilty for having pushed the envelope so hard to get here, but at the same time, I was glad to have found such a place, we would definitely be back.
Once we refilled our water bottles, I stretched out on the ground and pulled my hat over my eyes. I hadn't realized it up until that moment, but I was thoroughly exhausted. It felt so good to not move. We ate our lunch slowly and let the horses have about an hour breather. I didn't have the energy to deal with hobbling them to graze, so we just kept them tied and let them eat their dried rations. When the hour was up, we led them down for one more drink, then we threw Ally's pack saddle back on and loaded her up again. Because we had fed the last of the alfalfa and grain, the pack was now considerably lighter than it was when he had started, so at least we had that going for us. On the ground, Ally was so tired that we could barely get her to budge her by pulling on the lead, so in order for me to get her going I had to dally the lead to my saddle horn. It seemed a little harsh, but we really had no other choice. Fortunately, Ally's reluctance to move was more a function of her stubborn nature than her physical ability because as soon as she realized she couldn't pull back as hard as I could pull on her she picked up the pace.
Up to this point, Ayla had been a real trooper. In truth, she loved riding horses and very seldom complained. But even she had her breaking point. She had been very happy to stop at the head of the upper lake, and was not at all impressed when we got back on after only an hour break. She fussed for the first half mile, but Ruby and I started singing every happy children's song we could think of and this seemed to mollify her. After a mile she placed her elbows on the cantle and rested her chin on her little hands in a act of supreme boredom. I had never seen her do that prior to that moment, it was one of the many defiant things she did that made me laugh. I suppose someday I will regret validating that kind of behavior, but it's hard not to smile at her, even when she's pouty.
We wound our way slowly down the canyon. After about 4 miles, Ally started to really drag and I had to keep her dallied most of the time. The only exception was when we went over a bridge or along a steep drop off. I didn't think Ally would do anything foolish, but just in case I was wrong I didn't want to be tethered to her if she went over the edge. With this system, we kept up a pretty good pace that allowed us to make it down the canyon in about 3 hours.
Throughout the day, we had seen a multitude of hikers and campers. I don't think I have ever been in the backcountry where I have seen so many people. Being on horses, we had the right of way and, as we were also faster than the hikers, we passed by every one we met. Almost without exception, they would make comments as we went by on the size of our pack and frying pan, a few of them disdainful. I pretended to ignore the comments, but inside I was thinking, "I'll remember that next time I see you munching on granola for breakfast and I'm having pancakes, bacon, and eggs." Nonetheless, seeing all those people reminded me how much things were changing. The Idaho of my youth was slipping away, and would soon be unrecognizable. The trails that had provided me with solitude and adventure as a boy were now crowded with suburbanites teaming their way out of the burgeoning cities to partake of their own little share of the remaining wild places.
I wondered what the early settlers on Sand Creek near present day Idaho Falls would think if they could see us now. Would they be proud of the legacy they had forged out of the sagebrush, or would their hearts fill with sorrow at the sight of so much virgin wilderness brought under the yoke of civilization? If I had to place a bet, I think the majority of them would be proud. They lived in the wilderness not for recreation, but out of necessity. The wagon trains and handcart companies came to this land with the express purpose of building a nation. I think most of those pioneers dreamed of a day when they would be able to sleep soundly in their homes without having to worry about predators, marauders, or being exposed to the elements. I'm sure there were a few of them that went the other direction; that chose to become part of the wilderness rather than tame it to suit their needs. These were the mountain men and the cowboys, the romantics of the 19th century that lived on in the character of people like my father in law. But, these people were likely the minority. Most of my ancestors had come here to establish a community where their progenitors could be free from the dangers and uncertainties of living so close to the edge of life, and in so doing afford them the time to focus on matters that transcended the day to day requirements of survival.
As the sun started to descend in the sky, we rode into the parking area. My legs were like rubber as I dismounted my steed and tied the horses to the trailer. We got the packs and saddles off, and the horses loaded onto the trailer. The dogs jumped into the back of the pickup and slunk down into the bed; it was one of the few times I'd seen them exhausted. Jax lay right down with his head on the wheel hub and didn't move. As I settled into the driver seat, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for an amazing experience with my family, and most of all, for a safe return. I still didn't feel like I could completely relate to the pioneers, but I definitely had a greater appreciation for them and what they had gone through to provide me and my family with the life that we had. May we never forget the gift that they have given us. To quote the great pioneer Brigham Young, "The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth. (Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, 4th ed., p.126-129)"
Happy Pioneer Day.