Today is a look into a day’s adventure and sharing with you as many of the incredible feelings that fill us all as we absorb the gifts of the wilderness and each others presence in our journey.
It is what we like to call “a walk in the park” referring to hey, it is a National Park and the double whammy is that it isn’t quite as easy (if you want to me critically fussy about it) as the phrase may lead you to believe, but it is truly an Alaska Adventure.
A Walk in the Park, An Alaska Adventure
A Walk in the Park, An Alaska Adventure
And I’m awake. Just like that.
One minute I am sound asleep, the next I’m not. Sometimes, this is a pretty cool trait, but occasionally, I’d like a doze. I grab my boots and scoot to the zipper on the tent. As quietly as I can be, I crawl out of the tent I share with my wrangler and trainee, as well as my “Dad” and boss, Terry Overly, a Master Guide Outfitter for the state of Alaska.
Mornings are my favorite time of day to be in when I wake!
The chilly silent air, the color of the dark blue that never goes black and it lightens gently with streaks of the new day. Gathering dead spruce limbs and squaw wood to start the camp fire, making fresh coffee.
As the fire starts crackling, I hear the faint tinkle of the horse bells of horses also waking up.
I stand back up after writing down what I was too tired to write the evening before in my handy-dandy-notebook, as my little ones would say.
Stretching, I take my time, the thoughts of the previous day mixing with what I hoped we would encounter on this new, fresh day. As each muscle warms and limbers, I’m feeling pretty good and happy to feel strong again.
After I inhale my first cup of coffee and pour the second, I begin to go over the last few day’s adventures.
First, I don’t think any of us are ever going to smooth out and get rid of the been-in-the-bathtub-too-long-wrinkly-skin!
Shoot, we’ve been rained on everyday for the last month! We had departed in between cloud bursts and made it about two and a half hours when the incessant drizzle began again.
The Horseback Adventure we are leading is for a new-found friend, Dean and his camera-man, Mark. Dean told us he wanted to see what the fuss was about, what’s so great about this Last Frontier?
After talking about his lack of time remaining with us because of demands of home, we discussed options.
We didn’t have enough time to try out our Horseback and Rafting from Alaska to the Yukon, or do the Big Fishing Loop, covering over 150 miles.
What we could do, is go to one of the fishing camps that is also the center of our Spiritual Retreat, or ride to the head of the Chisana Glacier and explore around that magnificent area that Grizzlies along with other critters call home.
We could go gold panning at the Historic Gold Rush Site, check out the Old McCarthy Trail or we could just wander around and go camping.
I stayed out of this decision; as long as I am in the saddle, I am happy.
Each different place, each different route I have taken to some of the same places, each change of the touch of season’s brush, gives some new beautiful thing to take notice of.
So, we wrangled in the horses, packed up the gear and headed out. Where, you may wonder?
Out for a walk in the Park. Headed towards the next Alaska Adventure.
Wherever we want to go and whatever we may see. (and we want it all!)
So, deciding to make a massive loop, hitting the Chisana gold mine, the site of the last historic gold rush, ending back home in Chisana we began.
The first adventure was getting down off the bench we had ridden across to the area we were heading towards.
The horses, range horses for most of the year, are sure footed and not nervous of most hair brained ideas I come up with.
Deciding it was time for a change of scenery, I was checking all the crags in the bench, looking for one that looked passable for the pack horses following us with a resigned air about them.
Finding one, I descended, calling back to wait.
Well, it was a bit tricky but easy enough for the horses with a little help from a sharpened machete. (The real trick is to get your clients to follow and not to nerve out on you.)
Down we went one by one after handing off the pack-horses for me to lead down on foot.
We re-distributed the pack-horses, and were on our way just in time for the drizzle to pick up force.
Riding along one of the most beautiful river valley’s creeks is enough to keep anyone mind off their misery of being soaked.
The foggy vision of an Alaska-Yukon bull moose crossing the creek in front of us, no more than maybe 50 feet as we rounded a bend in the creek was akin to a painting come to life.
Crossing ice that remained, all the way to the first week in June, of course stopping again for the photo-opportunity.
Finally after riding long enough that my yawns were becoming non-stop, Terry leaned over towards my horse and said that maybe we should look for someplace to make camp for the night (yipee!).
Now, getting gone on your Adventure, Excursion or a Hunting Trip may seem like it sure could be easier, but dropping and setting up camp, well, that just works like a well oiled machine.
In what seemed like no time at all, we had the horses unpacked and unsaddled, put over onto a nice pea-vine bar, where they would feed for the night, had personal gear sorted, the fire started and the Wall tent was up with preparations for dinner underway.
Water had been fetched, more firewood gathered and split for the small stove inside the wall tent and wet gear was laid out to best help drying.
The camp fire was awesome, if ignored because there wasn’t one of us, beautiful fire or not, was going to sit outside in yet more rain.
It was all good, because the wood the guys had split had the wall tent warm in no time.
The dinner of fresh corn, beans and sausages with fresh bread was divine, as all hot food is, when you are camping and exhausted by the day’s events.
When all bellies were full and the gentlemen cozied in for talk and whiskey, Caitlin and I looked at each other, shrugged and laid out sleeping pads and bags.
We had already discussed and decided, with the lateness of the evening, our intention to move right on in the morning and the steady downpour, for all of us to sleep in the warm cook tent, a 8 x 10 wall tent and leave the sleeping tents rolled up for now.
The last thing I remember hearing was Caitlin’s giggle coming out of her sleeping bag (I had put one of the little stuffed toys in her sleeping bag that my little girl insisted that Caitlin would need if she was going to be “out there with bears”), and I fell asleep with a smile on my face, instantly.
Building the campfire is no problem as I absolutely refuse to be cold and I come prepared for wet-wet wood and kindling.
I dug out my saddlebags from under the tarp that protected our saddle gear and got what I needed.
In no time the fire was ripping and I had transferred most of the wet stuff sneakily (so as to not wake anyone and -GOD forbid, they may want to chat before the coffee was ready!) out of the wall tent, onto bushes and hung on the clothes line I always keep in my camp gear, drying out by the camp fire.
It took a few hours, to dry everything out, even after I roused my trainee to go tend the horses and after making a second pot of coffee and starting breakfast which brought the rest of my bedraggled group out of their bags sniffing the air.
Fed, washed-up, dry gear to wear and fat, happy horses to ride are a great way to start a day.
We continued up the creek we had been following the evening before.
We took a break for late lunch, allowing the horses to hobble and munch a little too, as we studied the saddle of the mountain directly across from where we sat and rested.
It was the only saddle gentle enough for the horses to pass over anywhere near where we hoped to end up. Terry seemed to recall using it a time or two back when he first started guiding and that there was a trail of sorts then, it could still be there.
Well, the battle cry, “GOD hates a coward” works wonders when one is hesitant.
As we crossed the creek and starting towards the bank on the other side, two grey timber wolves jogged right out of the break in the willows and alder trees we were heading directly towards!
I can’t actually tell you who was more surprised, our guests, the horses, the wolves or us!
I think critters and the humans had the same exact look of shock on their faces for precisely the 3 seconds it took everyone to jolt.
Well, at least we knew for sure that the horse trail was still there, and continued into the trees where the wolves had emerged from.
We began to ride the trail that was indeed, there and slick from the rains, side-hilling as we climbed.
It became apparent very quickly we wouldn’t be riding the horses to the top, so calling a stop, I explained that for the safety of the horses, people and the loads on the pack horses, we would lead them the rest of the way.
As I stood there, sounding so confident and laughing at the banter our group had immediately fallen into, Cookie, an experienced, mature, pack horse decided she needed a break, went to lay down with her boxes tied on, and good old Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) decided things were going way too smoothly.
Cookie did not resemble a child as she rolled with pack boxes tied securely (that’s one way to check!) to her back, but she certainly reminded me of the child’s game of rolling as far as you could over anything in the way, down steep hills in the back yard.
We were off in a beat shouting orders and grabbing horses to tie or hold.
Terry and Caitlin took off after the fallen horse to find her back on her feet and looking only slightly lopsided for all the heart-stopping-tumble trick she had just completed.
Repacking a packhorse is, from what I have observed over the last 22+ years, the absolute only guaranteed-to-irritate-your-guide-instantly trigger that I have noticed they all share.
Grumble, stomp around huffin and puffin, grumble some more, untie the dang thing, lift the boxes down, grumble a little more, stomp around, check, straighten and tighten everything back up, lift the boxes back up, tuck them in, tie them down.
Now, continuing on up the hill. It was a whole lot steeper than it looked, a whole lot faster than it looked. Greasy, slippery, sucking mud made it hard on us humans as well as the horses.
Did I mention it had begun to rain as Cookie was distracting us?
Well, it was raining. Again.
I was leading a horse up a mountain, in the rain, in my pink leather chaps (I am a firm believer in the fact that chaps are not meant to be walking around in.) and I was, again, soaking wet.
At least this time, as uncomfortable as I may be, I wasn’t freezing my tushie off!
That’s right, I was sweating like a pig. Oh please, I was thinking, the “cowboy” works fine in the saddle, but cowboy gear is a pain to work in.
Up, up, up we climbed, slipping and sliding and keeping an eye on the saddle of the mountain that really didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
At the yell, I looked back just in time to see Cookie swing around, trying to side step the greasy, muddy rut to walk on the edge of the trail, slip and fall again!
This time, as she went down, she took the saddle horse dallied to her pack saddle with her! Back down the hill, I was at a full run in only a few steps, with the help of gravity.
We got to Cookie and the other horse, Lonesome, before they got to their feet this time, and nerve wracked is a good description of the humans, wore out would be the horses. (I wasn’t doing much better!)
I couldn’t even imagine what would happen next. I had seen a horse take a tumble a time or two, but I had never seen one take tumble after tumble!
This time took a little longer to fix as the pack-boxes had spewed their contents all over the side of the hill this time and it was obvious by this time, that we best get to the top soon, humans and horses alike were getting fairly wore out and stressed.
I grabbed the closest two horses and started to climb again. Huffing and puffing (My thought ~ at least no one was close enough to hear me breathing like a freight train!) I led the two I had all the way to the top, tied them up and lay down on the ground to dunk my head in the mountain stream coming from the rocks.
As I stood up, I walked over to the edge of the saddle and looked around.
Even through the never-ending drizzle, there is nothing that compares to being so high, looking out at the massive expanse of land and mountains, surrounding us, looking so peaceful and untouched.
Chisana, our home, is located in the remote South Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve.
This is some of the most beautiful and majestic scenery anywhere in Alaska.
For someone who wants to get off the beaten path and away from the mainstream adventures, well this is the place for you..
My trainee, topped the rise of the saddle as I turned back to go back down the hill, with two more horses; one saddle horse, one pack horse.
Taking one from her and tying him securely to another willow thick and strong enough to hold, I turned around to see Caitlin loosing her “cowboy” gear as well. Layer after layer went flying and she collapsed in almost the same spot I had, dunking her head and scooping up water to drink in her hands.
Unlike my actions, after drinking her fill, Caitlin popped back up and told me that she’d do the running and I should take the horses she brought me and tie them up, keeping watch for whatever antics they would pull on us next.
Every 25 minutes or so, Caitlin would reappear with a couple more horses, panting, sweating and grinning. (oh, youth!)
As I waited for the last 3 horses, I wandered around to different outcroppings, with different views of the goings-ons down the hill and snapped pictures and looked around.
About 50 yards or so from where Cookie stopped her latest tumble, there were 3 Mountain Caribou, milling about, looking completely unconcerned and oblivious to the action taking place just above them.
After waiting 25, then 30, then 35 minutes, I started to get a little concerned.
Not about the horses or the goings-ons down the hill so much, Terry was down there dealing with that, but I was beginning to worry about my trainee.
She had made 3 trips to the saddle and after the first one, dripping with perspiration, had stripped off all her extra layers from being so hot and to be able to move freely.
Well, the rain hadn’t stopped but the wind, now that I had cooled down, was cold so high in the mountains. So, what was she doing?
I could see them, just barely, apparently from my distance, just standing there. Was Caitlin getting as cold as I was? It was fine as long as we were moving and doing, but standing there?
I started wondering if I should grab some of her gear I had folded up and take it down to her when they started up, the rest of the humans and horses together.
When our entire group, humans and horses, were once again together, I pointed out the Caribou I had spotted and we talked a bit about the descent.
Horses watered, saddles checked and tightened, humans mounted, we began our side-hill descent down the other side and into the country that had drawn thousands of people at the turn of the century, for one final, massive gold rush.
A journey that started in 1891. The last historic gold rush began in earnest in 1913 and turned the native Athabascan community into what would become the largest log cabin settlement in the state of Alaska, for a brief time.
Our prayers, for the rain to stop, on the way down the other side, were heard if not completely understood, as the rain did stop.
We continued our journey in the snow fall that can happen just about any time it chooses in the high mountains.
Laughing, because really, what are you going to do, shake your fist at God and Nature, herself?
We were exhausted, soaked to the skin again and no where near where we had planned to be by this time.
Riding, side by side to Terry, I pitched my idea.
Instead of making camp like the prospectors did oh way back when (they didn’t have a choice!), why not just head to the mine our good friend, Jim Moody, still operated every year.
It would be great to see Jim, it would be great for our guests to meet with Jim and pick his brain for awhile (and give mine a rest!), not to mention all those nice old, historic cabins, with nice old historic (dry) bunks and bedding, with that really nice (modern) cook stove (inside!) to cook dinner on.
Did it work, you may wonder? You betcha! On we went.
Soaked to the skin and starting to shiver, the mood of our group was surprisingly high and enduring.
Another small group of Caribou, a cross fox and two hours later we rounded the bend in the trail to see the old cabins of Jim Moody’s mine.
As we got closer, and there was no greeting answering our call of “riders coming in!” or “Hello the house!” it became obvious that the buildings were locked up. Jim must have headed out for supplies.
That was ok, because as friends do, Jim had told me the previous summer when I was at the mines to help and learn more about the whole fever-inducing gold search, that Terry knew where the key to the main buildings was always kept hidden. (I should have known better than to leave it at that.)
There may not have been any humans around, but the disarray of the yard in front of Moody’s sleeping cabin told us we were not alone.
There were Grizzly bear tracks all over, muddy prints on the bolted front door of the cabin, nail scratches down the sides and doors of a couple and different odds and ends scattered from the bear’s natural curiosity. Nothing was broken into and after cleaning up the mess the bears (it looked by the tracks that it was a sow with a new cub) left, Terry started searching for the key, he could almost (?!) remember where he was told to find it.
When it became brutally obvious that we were not going to find the magic key, the mood plummeted for a moment.
I motioned to my trainee and put my hand into my pocket and pulled out my leather-man.
With secret grins, we went to work, taking turns with the tiny screw driver, unscrewing the bolt from the door completely. After an admonishing glare in my direction, Terry went to work in hooking up the gas generator and propane up for our nights work and rest.
We shanghaied Dean into helping put the horses to eat for a few hours before we’d tie them for the night (not a good place for hobbled horses, they tend to head towards home from here).
I had the beds laid out on the bunks in the back room and dinner started when the two humans making like drowned rats came back shivering and completely done-in.
Hot chocolate and fresh coffee and whiskey were on the table, dinner smelled like heaven and the building was like a smelly sauna with the glorious heat and all the wet gear hung up to dry, again.
The waking was a pleasure, knowing that I would have peace for a bit from my exhausted companions.
Coffee and fire, stretching with pops and snaps until everything felt right and ready again, writing a bit about our adventures and lives, living in the wilderness.
Starting breakfast, I edged quietly into the bunk room to wake and leave Caitlin with a cup of hot chocolate with a splash of coffee in it (I have no idea…don’t ask…) and went back to the bacon snapping on the wood stove.
Everything was dry, again, the humans and horses fed and packed, we set out to do some gold panning for the morning.
Well I can tell you, addictive personality or not, gold fever isn’t one I’ll catch.
The water is freezing! It is great fun when you see the gold in your pan and I can see how it can make you go back into the water for more and again, but other than bringing the folks up to try their hand at it, it isn’t for me.
I’d rather be in the saddle. After panning for a couple hours and a nice sunny lunch, we headed on again.
Terry and I had decided to take and head home over the Old Goat Trail.
One old timer, George Hazelet, who traversed it in mid-July 1913, described it like this:
“this so-called ‘goat trail’ as an extremely dangerous place for horses, . . . being simply a sheep trail widened to about two feet. The drop to the bottom is as much as two thousand feet in places and should horse or man lose his footing he could not stop till he reached the bottom.” (It is magnificent!)
We walked the horses across the old trail, through the switchbacks that were no more than five feet apart, some of them, with the unnerving drops below for the two and a half hours it took to get around the edge and to a spot that was safe to remount our horses.
Heading down into the creek that was once the center of the gold rush boom town, we stopped again to explore the old Chisana whore house and out buildings.
The remains of the whore house always reminds me of the old western movies I’ve seen.
A woman’s lace up heeled shoe in a closet with no doors, the remains of broken china, the peeling strips of the remaining pieces of wall paper the ladies must have glued to the logs are pieces of what looks to be designs of red and gold swirls.
There is so much real, touchable history here, in these mountains. There are times, when I have found, by stumbling upon, old trapper’s cabins in the wilderness, it looks like the humans just vanished.
Old place settings, sitting on a makeshift table, pots and pans that look to be precisely where they would be in the middle of cooking dinner…
We traveled on, spotted a Grizzly on a distant mountain side, digging for squirrels, more caribou, a cow moose with a calf crossing the tundra and a couple coyotes darting in and out of the brush beside the creek we were following.
Deciding to spend our only whole sunny day so far, fishing for our dinner we stopped early and went about our routine for setting up camp.
It is funny (and comforting) to me how quickly guests fall into routine with us to get the work done. We were out fishing in no time, fire blazing, tents standing shiny in the Alaska sunset.
Now, my shortcoming is in cooking on an actual fire.
Campfire coffee is my only specialty.
Terry is the campfire cook when we are out and about. Gathering more wood, selecting side dish foods to go with the fresh fish Terry was grilling, laying out utensils and making sure all the water and ice tea were ready as folks wondered back to the fire with their catch.
The evening was blessedly clear and warm, so it was a great night to sit chat, laugh and just watch the flames of our fire.
We will arrive back home today.
Although secluded, as we are in Chisana, as a fly-in only area, the facilities and what-not at home are comfortable and home-sweet-home.
After almost 100 years in the same place, Pioneer Outfitters has carved out a home that would rival any of the finest homes in any town, anywhere. Rustic ~ yes; backwoods ~ yes; backwards ~ no.
Our guests and clients are treated like family and it is always good to go home.
I wonder what will happen today, during our “walk in the Park”? It’s bound to be an adventure!
Pioneer Outfitters is a family owned operation in a fly-in area in the Wrangell Mountains in our nation’s largest and most unexplored National Park, the Wrangell St.-Elias National Park and Preserve and is also part of the World Heritage Site that encompasses 24 million acres, one of the largest protected areas on earth.
I truly hope one day, I will be writing about YOUR Adventure.