Back in the mid 70’s, Ed Hegele and Merle Miller would take a group of our high school kids backpacking to Mirror Lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. One year they caught me in a weak moment and talked me into packing all the gear on a couple of horses. I owned one named Sam, who had been a pack horse up at Red’s Horse Ranch for 18 years and was well experienced. I borrowed another from Jess Larson. We also had two riding horses: Dusty, who belonged to my daughter, Kris, and Thistle, my horse. I invited my son, Chuck, who was about 12 or 13, to go along. I figured that the male bonding and father/son fellowship thing would be good for both of us.
Two days before we were to leave on this expedition, one of the 200 hogs we were feeding got loose. In the process of trying to bulldog the critter, it stumbled and I fell squarely on its shoulder blade and separated three of my ribs. On the day we left it hurt to even breathe, but somehow we loaded the four horses and all their gear in my farm truck and headed for Two Pan camp ground, which was the entrance into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. There Ed and Merle loaded the pack saddles, helped saddle up the other two horses and were about to tie everything down when the kids decided that the sleeping bags ought to go on the pack horses too. They had them inside garbage bags in case of rain, they weren’t that heavy and so we said, “Why not?” Hindsight and experience now gives me a score of reasons why not.
After lunch, they took off up the trail and we followed. I was looking forward to a nice, leisurely three hour horse ride to Mirror Lake enjoying the scenery along the way. That lasted all of two hundred yards when the first sleeping bag squirted out from under the ropes. Seems that sleeping bags are soft, garbage bags are slick, and the rocking motion of a pack horse causes the sleeping bags to wiggle and squirm and pop out from under the ropes. By the time we had gone half way up the steep switchbacks, we had stopped four or five times to put sleeping bags back on one or the other pack horse. Keep in mind that each time it happened, it bounced down one or two switchbacks, and we had to hike back down to retrieve it. Then I had to stuff it back under the ropes and tighten everything down, all with separated ribs. It was killing me!
Two thirds up the switchbacks, I heard this ka-thump behind me and felt a tug on Sam’s lead rope. Sam was down! He was breathing hard, sweating something fierce. This was not good! We got the pack saddle off, poured our canteen water over him to cool him off and let him rest and catch his breath. I figured he was having a heart attack. After 15 minutes, he was back on his feet and looking fine. Now chuck and I have to reload the pack saddle. After this, I can hardly breathe.
From the top of the switchbacks the trail is just a gradual climb and Sam was doing fine with frequent rest stops. I thought it should be smooth sailing from here. Unfortunately that was wishful thinking.
We were moving through this little grove of trees when I again heard the all too familiar “thump” of a sleeping bag hitting the ground. I asked Chuck to come back and give me a hand. As he is walking toward me, I notice he doesn’t have Dusty’s reins in his hand. I called out to him, “Chuck, don’t leave Dusty -----“ too late!! Chuck thought that Dusty was trained to ground tie, that is to drop the end of the reins on the ground and the horse thinks it is tied up. Some horses are, but not Dusty.
Dusty looked back at us, decided that she wanted to keep on going, and started trotting down the trail. Chuck’s pack horse looks at us and says to Dusty, “Wait for me” and takes off after her. Thistle, looks at us, and says “Adios”. Sam - he is tired - plants all four feet and declines. Unfortunately, I had tied Sam’s lead rope to my saddle horn. I knew better, but every time Sam lagged behind, it had pulled on my arm and ribs, and the pain was intolerable. Thistle decided to do her Belgian plow horse imitation and drug Sam down the trail. Chuck tried, but wasn’t able to grab any reins as they went by. After about 100 ft., the lead rope broke, Sam stumbled, fell on his neck with his tail end straight up in the air, teetered, and then fell over on his side. By this time, the pack saddle was underneath his belly, the contents scattered all along the trail. I figured he had to have broken his neck, but he just rolled over and got back on his feet and shook himself off. The other three horses are gone, out of sight!
We spent the next half hour gathering stuff up, loading up the pack saddle and trying to retie everything back down. Needless to say, the sleeping bags came out of the plastic bags. As we walked down the trail, we picked up a couple of sleeping bags from the other pack horse and came across two hikers coming down the trail. They said our missing horses were up the trail grazing in a meadow. What they didn’t tell us about were the million or so large mosquitoes that were also there.
Fortunately, the horses were calmed down and not a problem to catch. Unfortunately we were only half way there and had been on the trail 5 or 6 hours. At dusk, Ed and Merle started organizing a search party, figuring that we missed the trail somewhere. They weren’t all that worried about us, but we had their dinner. They had just left camp when they spotted us coming up the trail. A day I thought would never end finally ended.
The lesson here is not to force open closed doors. For what ever reason, I was bound and determined to fulfill my commitment to Ed and Merle as long as I could stand and breathe. I wanted to go on that trip! Ed and Merle could have handled the pack horses better than I could. All I would have had to do was get the horses to Two Pan. Too many times in life we barge through closed doors because we have an idea of what we want to do and we ignore God’s will and pay a price. Of course, had I stayed home and nursed my ribs, I wouldn’t have this story to tell. Not sure the story was worth the price for me. Hope it was worth it for you.