Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week One

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve posted logistical information about the trip online for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.

Just before my partner Rich and I set off on our 500-mile adventure, a problem with transport left us scrabbling to find a new arrangement at short notice. We were overwhelmed by how the trail community rallied round to find us a friendly local with a horsebox (especially Bill Manning, chief executive of the Colorado Trail Foundation, who made a lot of calls on our behalf). In the end, we received two offers of help – from Richard Johnson, an excellent horseman who came to pick all five of us (two nervous people, three unknown horses) up the following morning and dropped us at the trailhead, and from Pam Doverspike, a true trail angel who we would finally meet a month later at Spring Creek Pass. (Hikers call this ‘trail magic’. this generosity from strangers one meets along the way.)

Both were proven CT experts, Richard having thru-ridden the trail twice and Pam, a trail sponsor, having also completed the trail (on horseback) in sections multiple times. They passed on a huge amount of hard-won advice, which was much appreciated – setting off for a six-week expedition, unsupported, was a daunting prospect for both myself and Rich. I’d love to pay that favour forward, so have typed up extracts from the diary I kept throughout our journey in case it might assist anyone planning the same or a similar long-distance journey by horse. Entries from our first week on the trail can be found below. It was our wettest and perhaps our most challenging week, as we grappled with the basics of backcountry horsemanship and life in the outdoors.

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DAY ONE: Waterton Canyon to Bear Creek – 8.7 miles

Finally, we begin! Our first day on the trail, and our first proper day with the horses that are to be our companions for the next six weeks. We are travelling with two paint geldings of around 15.2hh and 16.2hh in height, and a smaller Appaloosa mare, slightly shorter and rounder in stature, with striking blue roan/blanket spotted colouring. They are horses with no names, only numbers (Zac, the ten-gallon hatted rancher we rented them from seemed nonplussed when we asked for names, positing we call the big gelding by his former owner’s name, ‘Spans’, and offering no suggestions for the other two), so we’re working on finding suitable trail names for as long as we have them. So far we have agreed on ‘Pepper’ for the little mare.

Despite the mad panic when the transport fell through, we set off as planned at dawn this morning (vermillion sun inching over the horizon//dust rising from the drive) and, with Richard Johnson’s help, set off along the trailhead from Waterton Canyon.

The first 6.5 miles was a straight-forward gravel road, rising to a freshwater dam. Busy with day hikers and families out on their bikes, although we still saw dozens of rare bighorn sheep and a rattlesnake, coiled tightly in the middle of the road. After we left the road for the single-track trail proper, we rose steeply and wound through pretty woodland for another 2.5 miles. A half day today, as we started so late: stopped to make our first camp at Bear Creek, where there are some small clearings (between the shins of great pines// scrub oak, sundappled grass). Horses untacked and led down to the creek, where they drank their fill and were sponged down with cold water.

Fiddled for ages with new equipment, particularly the collapsible electric fence, which seems to be working. None of the horses have seen electric tape before, so there was a brief tense period while we waited for each to receive a shock. The mid-size paint gelding took it rather badly and was very anxious – I was worried he might panic and get tangled, or jump out, so I’ve tied him separately nearby for tonight. Otherwise they seem to be taking it all in their stride.

Hot, clear-skied afternoon until around 3pm when thunder sounded like a train approaching and a sudden downpour sent us running for cover. Soon hailstones the size of Tic-Tacs were coming down in sheets – amazing in August, and not yet at notable elevation. Now overcast and somewhat chilly, but it’s stopped raining at least. Rich and I a bit nervous that ‘Bear Creek’ should turn out to be not so much name as warning, so being very careful about precautions like cooking 100m from tent and hanging our bear bag. [Author’s note: the next morning we passed hammock-campers sleeping with piles of food resting in the open under them – a very bad idea!]

First impressions of horses: little Pepper is mareish but sturdy, very calm and capable as a pack horse; Rich’s ride today, the larger paint, was sweet and willing (although he already has a small bald patch where his girth goes, which appeared over the course of today – a worry); my ride, the smaller paint, was trickier – napping and complaining at the start, tricky over a metal bridge and rather moody. But I’ve been on his case, trying to nip the napping in the bud, so to speak, and once we were on the woodland trail he cheered up and got a good stride on. Lovely head carriage. Altogether very happy with them: solid and practical, not at all mollycoddled, and calm about getting ropes under their feet.

Rich is being a dream. Patient, willing to pitch in and quick to learn. When, initially, I was planning to ride long distance I expected to travel alone. But he’s learnt all this so as to accompany me. He is keen and helpful, strong, calm with the horses, learning how to handle them so quickly – already I can’t imagine doing this without him.

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Pictured: Rich at our campsite overlooking the South Platte River, with (L-R) Numero, Pepper and Pinto.

Day two: Bear Creek to South Platte River – 7.9 miles

Spent all night getting up and down to check on the horses, so feel deranged by tiredness and the responsibility of keeping them safe. Got up for good at 5am, in the dark, to find everything still soaking from last night. Then it took almost 4 hours to leave camp this morning, figuring how to take it all down and pack it again, trying to devise a better and more efficient system or routine. By this I mean it was a painful system of putting things down and forgetting where I’d put them, leaving jobs half done, and generally feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the effort required even to get moving each morning.

Anyway, the trail was glorious. Everything dripping wet and misty, that clean earthy smell still hanging in the air, the sky overcast, and the path very overgrown, so that as we clambered up craggy stone steps the overhanging branches drenched us as effectively as buckets. Shivering in our t-shirts in the shade, but refreshed. We climbed to a ridge, and then descended into a totally different climate. Prickly pears, scented grasses, aloe vera, pincushion cacti. All sharpened to points and silver-green, widely spaced in a dry and gravelly soil.

Arrived at a beautiful open grassy slope above the (long, narrow, daunting for equestrians) Gudy Gaskell Bridge and decided to call it a (half) day again, at only 12:45. So a leisurely afternoon, if leisurely means a constant succession of tasks. Still, the horses seem relaxed, even Numero seeming to be enjoying himself in the sun. Saw an eagle soaring over pink cliffs opposite.

We experimented with grazing the horses two at a time, the other tied, although after a while, when they’ve gorged themselves on grass, they get restless and inclined to explore – and we lose our nerve. Very pleased to have the portable corral so we can all relax properly at night – though when we came to put them away, Numero still seemed jittery and the bigger horse, Pinto (as I’ve taken to calling him), took the opportunity to bully him, cornering him against the tape. I realised, feeling exhausted by the prospect, that not only must Rich and I make sure we stay polite and sweet tempered with one another, there are the horses’ relationships to mediate too.

Another night with Numero tied up separately, just until we have all settled down.

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Pictured: an unexpected guest joined us for breakfast

Day 3: South Platte River to Tramway Creek – 17.3 miles

Lovely morning – warm but a good thick cloud cover, which helped us during the largely shade-less second segment, which we’d been warned could be very hot and thirsty. Saw two mule deer this morning just after dawn, who came right into the horse paddock – big bat ears and entirely unafraid, very curious about the electric fence. One kept running her lips along the ribbon, and must have been getting shocked, but it seemed to intrigue her. They only ran away when Pinto jealously chased them away.

Numero got loose last night – has already learned that he can easily break the baler twine I’ve been tying to the trees, and then tying him to, Pony Club style. Forced to accept that on the road, with trailwise horses used to looking out for number one, sometimes the more mannered aspects of horsemanship are thrown aside. By which I mean, I’m just tying him directly to branches now, when I have to. In any case, he hadn’t gone far, and was easily caught at our 11pm check, reassuring.

I’d been dreading the attempt of the Gudy Gaskell Bridge, which has been built with a series of low metal beams in front of it, to block motorized traffic – and looks like a perfect way to break your horses’ legs. But we managed it after a fashion: unloaded the pack horse (Numero), carried the packs across separately, then brought the bravest horse (Pepper) over first, if somewhat reluctantly. (Me at her head, tugging at the leadrope // Rich at her rear, clapping and prodding.)

I was going to tie her, cross back and take Pinto (like the logic problem, with a chicken, a fox and a bag of grain in a boat), but on spotting Pepper on the far side, Pinto broke loose and came across the bridge of his own accord, loose and trailing a lead rope but quite calm, leaving Rich to follow with Numero. Pinto almost caused a ruckus at the last minute, trying to go back the way he’d come but, luckily, with R & Numero already halfway across, he relented and backed up: so everyone over safely – phew.

Segment two, ten miles through a burnt-out hillside where wildfires raced through in 1996. (Chipmunks // Indian paintbrush // harebells.) Met a road and an empty fire station with a tap, where we filled buckets for the horses, then stopped for lunch in a wildflower meadow about a mile on, taking the packs off Numero to give him a break. Reckless, as the clouds were already gathering. By the time we got going again the storm was on top of us – lightning all around, frightening the horses.

Water pooled and overflowed – suddenly streams where before there was only dry earth. We plodded on in torrential rain. Came across something invisible in the forest that terrified the horses – they were fussing and turning and blowing their nostrils. Managed to contain them and rode on, shouting out to scare whatever it was off. By Tramway Creek, our planned destination, we shivering and in low spirits.

Had a sense of humour failure as we put up camp, couldn’t imagine ever being dry or warm again, boots like basins, but now, with the horses grazing and us in our sleeping bags, in our underwear, I am beginning to thaw out. Nervous about just how sodden our belongings are, but hopefully tomorrow it’ll clear.

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Pictured: Rich and Pepper, following Lost Creek towards the meadows

Day 4: Tramway Creek to Lost Creek – 15.9 miles

Had to put on wet clothes this morning, and felt a bit reluctant, but got off sharply. Pinto wearing the pack saddle due this sensitive patch at his girth (more worrying) and Rich and I on foot, to warm up.  But before we’d managed a mile we were twice delayed by Numero’s saddle slipping (all the way round to his belly, saddle bags and all). Lesson learnt: loosing the cinch on a saddle with heavy saddlebags is a bad idea. Very, very lucky that Numero took it calmly and just stood as I panicked and fiddled with the breastplate and the cinch and finally dropped the whole lot on the ground beneath him.

Otherwise an uneventful ride through woodland, sun streaming through the Ponderosa pine. Let Pinto loose as an experiment and, after around 30 minutes of lagging behind and racing to catch up, or bashing us with the corners of his packs, he got into the swing of us and followed on, sticking fairly close for the rest of the day.

Still leapfrogging a lovely young couple we first met on day two – Courtney and Dan. Saw them again at end of segment 3 where they were walking down the forestry track in hope of finding a way to hitch to town. We kept on, reaching the Lost Creek Wilderness. ‘Wilderness’ here being an official land designation in the US. No motorised traffic or mountain bikes permitted, and stricter rules on travel with animals, camping, campfires, and so on. We signed in at a little wooden board bearing a trail register (odd feeling to encounter such bureaucracy in the middle of a forest).

Spectacular stands of aspen – luminous, paper-thin bark like birch – bearing dark nipples and eyes where smaller branches have dropped away. The daily storm arrived early at noon, just as we hit a very steep rocky section of trail, which felt very unfair as we were not yet dry from the last one. Must have gained 1300ft in two miles, and soaked through with both rain and sweat by the top. Had to dismount and lead as horses’ sides heaving. Then a mile or so downhill to idyllic camp here at Lost Creek – a flat meadow for horses, with a dusty area for rolling, on the edge of a conifer wood full of campsites and old fire pits. Storms continued to roll through all afternoon and evening, spoiling our plans to dry clothes and get a good fire going. Squirrels lurking around, scrounging for scraps. Very brave.

R very stressed about his feet, which, with the constant wet, are very raw and painful. I had a little cry, worrying that he didn’t want to be there. Was being oversensitive, I was overtired, and I knew it – all was fine by bed time.

Running out of grain for the horses already. Zac, their owner, gave us a whole bag on departure, then Richard Johnson convinced us to leave half of it, due to weight concerns. Amazing how quickly it goes down with three of them. Once it runs out plan is to graze them mainly, and keep back only a little for bribes/emergencies.

Will be hard-pressed to reach Breckenridge by day 7 as hoped. Did 15.9 miles today but both exhausted by the combination of the miles and the chores. Also have stupidly taken lunch food that must be cooked (noodles, etc) and to make enough ground we simply don’t have time to stop and cook during the day. Missed lunch today and by the time we made camp, R was lightheaded with hunger.

Thundering still, and birdsong. Amazing rainbow earlier when evening sun hit the falling hail, so bright it seemed solid, like I might run over and touch it.

Day 5: Lost Creek to unnamed stream – 11.3 miles

Day of extreme highs and lows. Woke at 4:30 as agreed, but my body told me ‘must rest,’ so announced to R that I couldn’t get up, that we should take a rest day and dry out all our wet things. Back to sleep. Hallelujah.

And what a beautiful morning – sunny meadow, horses wandering loose two at a time, to let them stretch their legs and drink from the creek. One small panic, when Numero and Pepper sped off round the corner, leaving Pinto whinnying alone and me scurrying after them with halters.

Washed dirty clothes in water from the creek, then jumped in too and ran around naked in the sun to dry. Rich rescued a tiny bird with a broken wing and fed it. By lunch time both of us were revived and in better spirits, and decided that we should do a half day after all. (In hindsight this was a mistake. It was far too late to start out.) Packed (damp) belongings and tacked up.

Long trot up the valley, passed back into the wilderness area, and got a bit lost for ten minutes where the trail split. Still v sunny and warm, though increasingly late in the day, so we decided to push on to a possible campsite 2.9 miles further on instead of camping in the grass by the segment five trailhead. Alas, the weather closed in suddenly while we were still climbing switchbacks towards a forested ridge crowned with lightning-struck trees. Slowed by huge fallen tree – packhorse Pinto got stuck under a branch, though stayed laudably calm as we cut him free.

When we finally reached our hoped-for campsite it was immediately clear that it was not at all suitable. Barely any grass, steeply sloped, no open area for grazing, barely room for the tent. Only a thin corridor of green between dense bushes and a tiny trickle of water. Instinctively I knew we shouldn’t stop, but had no option – thunder was approaching fast, and it was getting dark. Next possible campsite another 2.4 miles, and no promises that that would be any more suitable.

Tied up the geldings, let Pepper loose, rushed up tents and dove in as the most incredible electrical storm appeared overhead. Truly frightening – we were high up still, and it seemed every tenth tree had been struck in the past, blackened and hollowed out by the force of it. Realised we’d camped under a very tall pine. Huddled, terrified, together in tent still in our waterproofs – I blew up our mats in the hope it might provide a small amount of insulation. Finally it passed, and we got out to graze the geldings by hand in that little grassy corridor.

The sky had cleared completely, except for one huge spherical stormcloud to the north, lighting up every few seconds with a flash, and above us more stars than I’d ever seen, the sky busy and bright with them, and the western edge rimmed with turquoise, the day’s end.

IMG_0550Pictured: Me mounted on Numero, with Pepper

Day 6: Unnamed stream to Guernsey Creek – 14.8 miles (plus around 4 miles on foot, after escaped horses, running, swearing, sweating)

Slept badly, as very cold, and couldn’t rouse ourselves until 6am. Heard Pepper wandering all night, picking her way delicately over the guy ropes to the tents. Woke to Numero whinnying – and realised guiltily that the geldings were freezing, having been tied up all night with nothing to eat. Felt dreadfully sorry, but had had no option.

I tied Pepper up, then let the boys loose to graze in the corridor, instead of hand-grazing, to save time, which was a big mistake. Numero had grown increasingly truculent the previous day, and after a few minutes decided enough was enough and rushed off past Rich who was crouched by the stream washing our breakfast dishes. He jumped the creek and took off back the way we came, with Pinto behind him. R yelled and ran after them. I grabbed headcollars then hesitated: should I leave Pepper tied up? She was very agitated, but I thought she might make good ‘bait’ for attracting the boys back.

Set off at a run, regretting that decision the whole way, fearing that I’d get back to camp and discover she’d garroted herself on her leadrope in panic. Anyway – kept running back the way we’d come, following the tracks of the geldings who were clearly still cantering or trotting more than a mile up the trail. Overheated in my down jacket, fleece and waterproof, swore and cursed, then picked up my pace everytime I heard an indistinct shout from R in the distance.

Through grassy aspen stands, where I’d assumed they’d have stopped to eat, and ran at least 2 miles in hot pursuit. Later R said he managed to get in front but couldn’t turn them. Feared they might actually run all the way back to Denver.

Then, finally around a corner, two horses silhouetted with Rich walking behind in his cowboy hat as if herding them. Pinto stopped and turned around in the end, R said, must have remembered about Pepper (who he loves). So we all trooped back in a state of disarray. Pepper was fine, thank god, just where I left her, whinnying and pawing at the ground but nothing else. Adrenaline was still pumping, and I had another pointless little cry, though R very calm and stoic and businesslike. He got us packed up and on the road. He really saved the day.

So, we finally got moving, having covered at least four miles already without gaining an inch and the miles accumulated, although slower than felt possible. R’s back began to seriously ache, and he spent the whole day in pain. Paused for a break around lunch time in the baking heat, and he lay flat on the ground, groaning. Watching him suffer felt almost as bad as being in pain myself. Whole day felt relentless, untenably difficult. Pinto was packhorse again, as still worried about the bare patch, and without him in the lead, Numero and Pepper drag their feet and inch along infuriatingly slowly.

Suddenly emerged from wilderness and were required to cross a busy highway at Kenosha Pass (somewhat stressful after days in the woods; rushing across with packhorse in tow during a break in the traffic), after which point R suddenly brightened and we played word games to distract him all the way to Guernsey Creek, which was so beautiful and perfect for our needs that it all seemed worth it. A lovely wide, slow-flowing river looping around a flat lush-grassed area for grazing, handy branches for tying the horses to while tacking and untacking. Hung the wet clothes (again! again! will they ever be dry? they have a mildewy smell, but are getting there) and ate ourselves silly by mixing all our missed lunches into a big pot. Watched the sun go down. We made it.

Day 7: Guernsey Creek to north fork of the Swan River – 16.3 miles

Up early this morning in the still pre-dawn, R before me (bringing me porridge in my sleeping bag, this is true love), but both of us up by 4:30. Packed and away quickly, we are well-practised now, as we were keen to get over our first true high elevation section, Georgia Pass, before storms had a chance to brew.

Whole day very smooth. A beautiful contrast to yesterday. Amazing views of Continental Divide and then of rose-tinged mountains to the southwest as we rose above treeline for the first time. Still some snow patches, although they looked a bit tired and grey. Met a pair of older women hikers on the way up who were delighted by our little band of travellers and took a lovely pic of us together:

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Let the horses graze as we celebrated topping out over the pass before noon, then descended through sparse pines. (Pale blue lichen on the ground, grizzled like granite // cheap and cheerful flowers in lilac and gold, garage forecourt flowers // green pond high in the hills surrounded by tall sweet grass.) Kept moving, but realised later that I’d left my hat at one of our rest stops. So, total missing items already numbering three: hat, gall salve, riding whip.

Ended far downhill at a perfect spot on the Swan River, loads of long juicy grass to cheer the horses, a babbling brook, dead quiet all night. Arrived early, around 15:30, so long relaxing evening pottering in the evening sun. R’s socks STILL not dry, and now smell truly awful.

Pinto found traces of compressed hay pellets from an earlier equine camper. I nicked some for Numero too. They both seem to have mellowed after their escapades. Numero, particularly, seems cheered and less oppositional. Maybe his failure to find a way home has helped him to accept his new life on the trail? All three have developed some lovely muscles on their hindquarters and Pinto is quite dappled. Pepper has lost a bit of her hay belly, though is still rather fat – like a polo pony gone to seed, stocky and tough and athletic. I am so fond of them already.

Breckenridge and an opportunity to rest and resupply are still 13.5 miles away. We’re a day behind schedule, or we would be if we had a schedule. This week has been hard – physically, emotionally, and at some points I honestly wasn’t sure if we could cope. Still – one’s options for turning back are very limited, and I think that’s a good thing. We have made it more than 90 miles through the backcountry, which seems a remarkable achievement for a week, and we all five are healthy and in good spirits. I feel that our difficulties have been a transformative experience, one that has bound us together. (Still, I dream of pizza.)

 

to be continued

 

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