On their own, for the first time. Pioneer Outfitters Alaska Guide Trainees, given serious responsibility, left instructions and expectations, discovered there were still many hard lessons to learn.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ~ Helen Keller
On one hand, the actions and decisions made while on their own could be marked down as a total cluster. After all, instructions and expectations were made clear for the days following the departure of both Leaders, the Lead Trainer and the Trainee Leader.
Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant. ~Robert Louis Stevenson
So what’s the deal? Here it is, the long and short of the simple instructions. After last year’s flooding fiasco and being unable to reach the range horses safely to wrangle them back into Chisana until the end of summer, we had decided to bring them over while the ice was still solid.
As you know, that mission was successfully accomplished.
The horses that are part of Pioneer Outfitters are range horses. They spend more than half the year living in the wilderness of Alaska as wild and free horses. They understand the rivers, the ice and snow, they are prey to the terrifying predators that they share this wilderness with. They also know where to find the best feed.
After being chummed, caught and shoed with the special ice shoes we use to cross the horses over the ice safely and brought home to have those shoes removed. The ice was on it’s last days. It was rotting and now we wouldn’t have to worry about crossing the flooding river for the Adventures to begin.
The big buggers went back. Crossed the ice covered river (with bare feet) and open, flooding channels and returned to their winter feeding ground. On the wrong side of the river. Luckily, they were all still grouped together in the familiar meadow we had been traveling to with the Guide Trainees all winter.
Go get them. Bring them home. And put them in the corrals.
Sounds simple enough. Crossing the river, as much fun as it can be and as beautiful as it is, remains a constant danger. It can never be forgotten and individuals can never allow themselves to become lax or half-assed.
We had to trust that they would watch each other’s backs and bring the horses home, again. The shooting schedule for filming and the weather forecast both required for us to stick to our time frame and depart Chisana.
Checking in, hours later, everyone was home again and safe as well as the horses. They had allowed themselves to be caught with a minimum of fuss and drama and had walked back with no slips or falls.
Calling home the next morning, before continuing on into Anchorage, the look on Master Guide Terry Overly’s face told us clearly, that there was a problem.
Seems that for some reason and much over-thinking, most of the herd were turned loose from the corrals for the night. Where were the horses? The boys weren’t sure.
Hard Lessons to Learn
The snow was melting fast and the tracks were hard to read. With temperatures of 50*+ F and the wind that always blows during the spring, the river was melting fast. The snow machines made it across the melting river, and there they were, all of the horses, right back where they started. Three miles from home. With a river covered in what would soon be, rotten ice.
Go get them. Bring them home. Put them in the corrals.
The call from the casting director, the delay in filming, the arrangements and appointments already made, convinced us that we would follow this through and head into Anchorage, six hours away, as planned.
Another call home to Chisana, before we left Tok, assured us that everything that could be done was being done. The Guide Trainees had already left, on foot this time, as the son-gos had barely made it back through all the water, to retrieve the horses. Again.
As we regained cell service just outside of Anchorage, a quick call home to Chisana relieved all our minds. They had caught and led the horses back home, for the third time. Everyone was again, home safe.
The next day started with appointments and “town” crowds. It always reminds me of how lucky and blessed we are to live in Chisana, when I am required to leave our mountain home. When things finally settled down enough for us to stop for a bite to eat, Terry called home to check in.
“Well, there are some hard lessons to be learned then, isn’t there?” Hearing these words come from Terry, on the phone, brought conversation to a halt. Lunch was served and we waited, listening to enough of this side of the conversation to know something was not going well.
Then, we listen to the Boss’s voice drop to almost a whisper, “What part of “Put the horses in the corrals” is too difficult to comprehend?” OMG. They didn’t. They wouldn’t have. What? Who? Why? How?
Hard Lessons to Learn
(It is times such as these that I do occasionally wish for a beer. Or three.)
So. After being granted three easy grab and returns, the easy was gone. The river is too far gone to risk another crossing. Now, we wait for the melt to finish and the flood to recede.
Go get them. Bring them home. Put them in the corrals.
Why were the horses released? Not once, but twice, when the directions were very clear. Go get them. Bring them home. Put them in the corrals.
If you have to do it every day, for God’s sake learn to do it well. ~Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960
One thing that I have learned over the years from watching and listening to Master Guide Terry Overly and what I have learned as I have grown older is that sometimes the “why” is as or even more important than the action itself. So I asked.
Why were the horses released?
Wes ~ Because I misunderstood the boss when we were flying. I had thought he told me to let them go in a certain cove on our side of the river.
Coso ~ The horses were released in hope that they would go find feed on the side of the river. We were very low on feed in the feed barn, and would soon run out.
Why were the horses released, again, after the first do-over?
Wes ~ Because I was told to put the lead horses (Thunder, Tiny, and Bevis) in the corral and thought (again, clearly the wrong thought) the rest would stay on our side.
Coso ~ All the knowledge and communication that I had was what was heard on the phone through another persons ear, to me it was tough watching them run off out of the corral. I had seen them later that night on the airstrip, I had made an incorrect assumption, hoping that they would stay here with the leads in the corral.
How do you foresee the retrieval of these horses?
Wes ~ To be quite honest I simply don’t have the experience with the river to answer this question.
Coso ~ I really don’t know how we will get the remaining horses, with my little knowledge of what the river is like after all the channels break through and the snow melts of Alaska I can only guess/imagine.
Who do you think will have to cross the river, the icy channels of water and sand bars riddled with quicksand and the meadow with its bogs?
Wes ~ I will, because it was my call to let the horses out of the corral.
Coso ~ What ever it takes, I hope it gets them here safe. I think it will take a full team effort to get the remaining, it will be a survival trip for sure.
What do you think was gained, if anything, from this experience?
Wes ~ That no matter how hard you try, you can’t force a critter to do what you want them to do. They are only being driven by instinct to eat.
Coso ~ I think I have gained a little more confidence around these horses, and at the same time how smart and quick they can be to find the safest, quickest way across the river. It was a long few days, with all the mistakes that were made that could have been prevented. I did what I was told and didn’t complain, it was a drag at some points. Crossing the river on foot was very sketchy, to scary at points, rotten ice, black ice, and thick mud and slush. I feel it made me stronger and determined to get more input than from only one person. I feel I know now, when I really need to make a point, to do it and to get it across.
Hmm. Well, as the one that will be called upon to retrieve the horses, alone or with a Team of my own choice, I have gathered enough input for notes on each of the Alaska Guide Trainee’s training record.
First. If the situation does not require adjustment and the opportunity to receive more instruction is not available, do what you are asked and or instructed to do. (This is a good and safe bet.)
I have to add this as well. All of the humans left in Chisana are safe and unharmed. (Check) All of the animals and pets in Chisana were cared for and all are safe and unharmed. (Check) These two points of our lifestyle living in the remote Alaskan wilderness are the nonnegotiable rules of Pioneer Outfitters. People come first. Animals are a close second, although they are always, second. Both people and animals were and are safe. Ok. We can work with that.
Next. Using the grain and feed as a reason for turning the horses loose was not an acceptable one. Grain and feed were bought, delivered and scheduled to be flown into Chisana, not only before we departed Chisana, but added to, while we were in Tok, where the flights originate. This was not a secret.
When I jotted down the questions that I asked both Trainees to answer, I asked only that they would be as open and truthful as they could be. To try to put the thoughts into words that drove the actions that were taken. “Say what you mean, mean what you say.” Then I walked away.
People cannot go wrong, if you don’t let them. They cannot go right, unless you let them. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827