For days I fretted whether to take Commotion on our three day girls trip to the back country. It could be a good experience for him, but I feared it might be over his head. The trails up there are gnarly and ragged, and if he could not handle it, the repercussions could be pretty tragic. Finally I determined that if I was this doubtful, that I should take Roy.
We loaded the horses in the rain at 7:15. By the time we got to Iron Creek trailhead, it was 9:30, the sun was out and the day was warming. We loaded our big saddlebags onto our horses, locked the truck and trailer, and headed on up the mountain. The trail to Alpine Lake is pretty straight forward, a few little slick spots, but all in all pretty friendly. The next half a mile or so up to Sawtooth lake can be quite intimidating. Renee, who hasn't ridden all that much, but has hiked hundreds of miles in this region was right behind me and I kept hearing her saying "THIS is AMAZING, what these horses can DO!" The trail switches back and forth and back and forth up a steep hill and in places the rocks are smooth stone. Now and then one of the horses would slip a bit, but catch himself with his other three legs. At Sawtooth lake, we took a right turn and followed the skinniest of trails across a scree field and over a dip in the skyline. The other side of the pass, the landscape was like entering the world of Mordor. A fire had raced through there two years ago and the land was still parched, black and white, with dark muddy swamps between charred skeletons of trees. There were plenty of downed trees we had to bushwhack around, slowing our progress. We came to an area that the fire had missed, so we sat there by a lake and rested, eating our lunch, for about an hour. Soon we came across a spot that caused all four of our seasoned horses to pause. They had to step over a downed tree into mud. Not boggy mud, but deep soft black mud that was about knee deep. It was the only place to cross. Right there I knew this would have been over Commotion's head. Our old guys did fine after a minute and then we dropped down into the next canyon. Here we saw our first people. Two men were clearing the trail. Paid by the US Park Service, they spend their summers hiking and sawing downed timber from the trail. One of them, Josh, looked just like Paul Bunyon. He was huge. Seeing them was good news because it meant the rest of the trail would be cleared all the way to Grand Jean, a tiny spot in the wilderness with a small lodge and a few cabins, which is where we were headed. Down and down and down we followed the trail, crossing many streams and creeks, snapping pictures of the waterfalls and jagged mountains. The day was perfect. just a breeze and sunshine over our heads. At the bottom of the canyon we met up with the south fork of the Payette River. After crossing the bridge and passing the campground, after another 1/2 mile or so, we ended our ride at the barn, unsaddling our horses and throwing them loads of hay. Fourteen miles. My body was tired.
The cabins you could call "rustic". plywood walls, linoleum flooring, wood burning stoves. Each cabin has two full beds. Quickly, we jumped into our swimsuits and raced to the pool, which is fed with warm water from the hot springs that bubble up here and there all over the state of Idaho. This felt just about better than anything that has ever happened to me. We bobbed around in that hot water, stretching our weary bodies every which way, diving deep under water, until it was time for "dinner".
But they were all out of hamburger. My BLT was made with the thickest pieces of sourdough bread I'd ever seen. I wrapped up the second half for lunch tomorrow. After dinner we checked on the horses and went to have s'mores by the campfire. We met the proprietor and his wife and their daughter. Here in the woods, this guy was retired from the US government, he'd worked in intelligence for foreign affairs all over the world and had adopted ten kids from different countries of different ethnicities. Boy did they have stories to tell. We talked until our eyes began to droop and straggled off to bed.
In the morning after breakfast, we went for a short ride up the Payette River. The forecast was for thunderstorms. We rode for an hour or two, the sky turning darker and darker. After a leisurely lunch we started back. We heard rumbles of thunder in the distance, then we were hit hard by huge rain drops. The storm was racing right toward us, loud thunder and flashes of lightening were off to our right and left. We kicked up our speed a notch and hurried back. Back at the campground, a group of campers waved to us from under their awning. At that very moment a FLASH of lightening and a CRASH of thunder boomed right over our heads. All four horses jumped and spun. We got off and hurried to the barn, where we unsaddled and laid out all our things to dry. By the time we got to the pool the storm had passed and the sun was peeking at us from behind the cloud.
The next day was our ride out. Our return trip was up Baron Creek, different from the way we'd come, up and over a pass to the opposite side of Sawtooth lake. Breathtakingly beautiful and silent, the canyon was wide open with a huge granite escarpment rimming the south side. To our dismay, this trail had not been cleared and we soon found ourselves stopped by a large tree across the trail. Too steep on either side, I got off and asked Roy to jump over it, which he did. The others followed. We did this three more times. I was beginning to think about having to turn around and go back the way we came, how late we would be, how tired we all would be when we turned a corner, and there was Josh and Jason! Hallelujah! We visited for a few minutes and Josh told us that the trail was clear above us, then he said that their contract was only for sawing logs and that there was some pretty thick brush ahead in some spots. Then he wrinkled his brow.
"Oh, there is that one place in the boulder field by the lake, your horse might have trouble getting around there."
Carol told them that she knew that boulder field and that we'd be okay.
"No, there are a few new boulders that fell this year."
On we went, with his words echoing in my brain. The trail was overgrown and hard to find in spots and we did have to shove our way through some really heavy brush now and then. We finally crested the last ridge line and came to a lovely spot for our lunch. The wind had picked up and it was quite chilly. We talked about the boulders and about our options if we had to turn back. After lunch the trail meandered around a number of alpine lakes, ribboned with little yellow daisies and through some rock fields. LB was leading, suddenly she stopped. Hmm. Was this the place Josh was talking about? She got off and asked Mac to squeeze through, and he did, very carefully, twisting his body through the maze of rock. Wise old Smoke followed. Badger started to go but when the boulders bumped both of his stirrups, he backed up.... no way... but after a few minutes he went on through. I tied my stirrups up over the top of my saddle and Roy tip toed very slowly, very carefully through as well. We made it!
Just before Sawtooth lake (around mile 9) there was a big boulder right in the middle of the trail. LB walked around it, asking Mac to follow. Very slowly, testing each step before putting weight down, he followed. One by one we all did the same. As we rounded the corner at Sawtooth lake we found a group of hikers, all bug eyed, snapping photos of us, "Horses are the LAST thing we thought we'd see up here!"
The last five miles we retraced our steps to the trailer. After fifteen miles of rough riding, we shouted for joy when the trailer came into view. It was about 5:00 PM. We unsaddled our weary horses and headed for home.
Commotion was standing in the far corner of the pasture, looking off in the direction we had driven three days before. He whinnied for joy and trotted over to the gate to greet us.
Boy was I tired.
Boy was that fun.