Falling off your horse on the first day of any trip is not a good omen.
But I’ve been there, done that, most notably years ago on a trip in northern B.C. where I ended up splat on my back, fully rigged with chaps and long riding coat, in the Halfway River. We had stepped off a bank a mere five minutes from camp, and a total unfamiliarity with western tack had left me trusting a friend to have tightened the girth. He didn’t, the saddle turned, and I had that helpless feeling the ride was going sideways in slow motion.
Talk about a full submersion baptism.
But, back to the Chilcotin.
This trip was a closing of the circle, symbolically and in real time, for when we crested the ridge and went though Windy Pass, it was to revisit the same beautiful, familiar landscape that I first saw nearly 25 years ago. Time had not blurred the images, nor the memories, and I could pick out almost the exact spot where we had camped on our first night of a multi-day backpack, starting from the Taylor trailhead.
There was the little hill behind which I was startled to hear a horse running. Except it wasn’t a horse; it was a black bear, more startled even than I was, gallumphing back down the Spruce Lake trail. There was the little valley off to our left where, away in the distance, we saw a grizzly, no, more than one, except when we got out the binoculars, they turned out to be marmots.
Grizzlies were top of mind to those of us who had heard all the scary stories but never actually seen one. Our nervousness would be rewarded later in the day when we did finally see a real, live grizzly, not 100 metres away, watching us all huddle up together like the guidebooks say. If a grizzly could register distain at the antics of townie tourists, I imagine that’s what he was doing when he turned his magnificent backside on us and casually sidled back into the bush.
That was the beginning of a long love-affair with Southern Chilcotin, one that would see a multitude of multi-day backpack trips across much of its fabulous landscape.
But I had never been to Eldorado, and when fortuitous circumstances arose I grabbed the chance for a seven-day adventure.
My backpacking days are long gone, but I can still sit a horse – that’s sit, not ride – at least not what any horse-packer would consider riding. It’s not so much the riding, that age has eroded, it’s the getting on and off. I was not joking when I said I needed a short horse or a tall mounting block.
Billy was my first offer, but one look at Billy and I knew there was no way I as ever getting on him. I judged him to be about the same height as Budweiser, a horse I ride regularly at home in Vancouver. But I have a mounting block for Bud and dismounting is always fraught with potential peril.
Laugh you may. But when you can’t get your leg high enough to put a foot in the stirrup, in 50 years or so, you will understand.
So it was on to Scout, perhaps a manageable size, while I looked longingly across the paddock at Pika, a Fjord lookalike who appeared to be about the same size as my beloved Teddy at home. Teddy is another Fjord lookalike with whom I have had many adventures in and out of the saddle. But as I tell our young riders, “if you get back to the barn and you’re still on your horse, It’s been a good ride”.
“What an old fart,” I imagine them thinking.
So it was to be Scout and me, and we were off to Eldorado. I had in mind a trip like those I remember from my backpack days – that wonderful saunter up Relay Creek to Big Creek and beyond, the stroll up to Graveyard Valley, that wander along the sunny, meadowed deer parks of the Tyaughton, or the freeway up Gun Creek.
We took the B & F Creek trail, which starts benignly along an old road and eventually into the timber. I am always completely blown away by the abilities and sensibilities of these wonderful mountain horses. They are like the driverless cars of the new age. You just sit there and let them do their jobs, which they do superbly, safely, with the least amount of effort expended. The city horses with which I am familiar would faint or go lame, probably both, in the first hour.
When we finally crested the ridge that gave a full-frontal view of the Eldorado basin, it opened a whole new chapter of the picture book that is the Southern Chilcotin. I had no idea it is as vast as it is, based on what you can see from, say, the Tyaughton. Looking down into it I spotted campsite after campsite that just cried out for a two or three-day visit to explore the neighbourhood. On the skyline I spotted old friends from days gone by – Sheba, Deer Pass, Castle Peak, Card Table. Is that the Dill Dill tucked away in the background?
In the pass we saw our first goat high up in the rocks. It would not be our first goat, but we would not see another person until we encountered mountain bikers toiling up from Spruce Lake.
Kristin pointed out the location of the cabin, and our day’s destination, beneath a curious grey rock formation, so we headed down though timber and meadow, hand walking the horses on the sketchy downhills where I wished I had worn my hiking rather than my riding boots.
And finally, after about seven hours in and out of the saddle, there was the welcome sight of the cabin, and a little burst of speed up the final uphill into camp.
At that precise moment of elation at having arrived I realized that Scout’s saddle, which I had been fighting all day to keep balanced, despite having tightened the girth a few times, was canted off to the left and I suddenly had that Halfway feeling – halfway between withers and the ground.
So it came to pass, dear friends, that when I attempted to dismount, all bodily functions ceased to perform, knees buckled, and I pirouetted backwards – a sack of potatoes comes to mind – onto the ground.
Kristin was at my side in a flash. I can only imagine what was going through her mind as she fast-forwarded to what might happen tomorrow.
But as I said at the beginning, been there, done that. It’s not my first rodeo, as the real cowboys say, or as my daughter the jumper says, “suck it up, Buttercup”.
In the end, poor Scout fared worse than I and had to have time off for sore withers, while I got to ride Kristin’s horse Mowson, which in my ha rd-of-hearing state I misheard as Moses, and which he became for the rest of the trip.
It was truly a trip of a lifetime, and a fitting finale to my long love-affair with the Southern Chilcotin.
My deep thanks go out to everyone at the ranch, with special appreciation for Kristin, for her astounding competence and care, Kevan for making it all happen, and for Moses and Scout and all their paddock friends.
Thanks and good riding.
– Larry, Canada