At the 2011 Beaver Creek Nationals in Utah, I was talking to Bill Bailey about my desire to do a ride. It is something I have wanted to do ever since I saw folks riding into my first AMM Nationals in 2008. I had done a few day rides, but was still very green. When I returned home I had a wonderful surprise. There was a message from Bill saying his friend Mike Katona was willing to take us on a ride. This was something I couldn't pass up.
We started making plans to do the ride in one month's time. The plan was to do a 4 day ride through the Eagle Cap Wilderness close to where Mike lives. The month passed by slowly, but Mike kept our excitement up by sending us photos of the area every few days.
Mike lives in beautiful Halfway, Oregon with his wife Betty and five mules. We decided it would be more time and cost effective for Bill and I to fly from Colorado to Idaho and rent a car, rather than drive the two days each way. Driving would have allowed us to bring more stuff, but having to fit our gear into suitcases made us really pare down our gear to the necessities. Mike supplied cookware and food which was a great help. My beloved J. Henry Lancaster rifle was too long to fit into any of the hard cases that Bill had and I could not find one in time so Bill agreed to bring 2 of his shorter rifles. Bill ended up shipping his saddle and the rifles to Mike ahead of time rather than pay the additional airline fees and deal with airport security. Air travel with long guns poses quite a challenge.
The drive from Boise to Halfway was mostly dry rolling hills and looked quite barren. When we finally dropped down into the valley where Halfway resides, things changed. We were surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks, some still with a blanket of snow.
We arrived at Mike and Betty's home and got to know each other a bit. We unloaded and got the gear organized and ready to pack up. That evening we sat down and watched some old home videos Mike had made over the years of various rides, including one he had done with Bill about 20 years before. I was already excited, but the excitement kept building. I was ready to go! In the morning we got the stock trailered up and headed the short distance to the trailhead. I kept a journal along the trail, which is presented here.
I am sitting here in camp after my first day of riding with Mike and Bill. We are camped along the Imnaha River in NE part if the Oregon Territories. There is a doe hanging out with the stock. Perhaps we are intruding in her home.
We started out our journey at Cornucopia. Overall distanced traveled today was 9.5 miles. Started out the day with a late Hudson's Bay Company start at about 10am. At the confluence of Ice Creek and Blue Creek we had to backtrack a little and find a route around some downed trees. We were able to track a previous party to find a route. Tough going.
We have with us 4 mules and 1 horse, 2 mules are pack animals led by Mike and Bill. We probably do not need 2 pack animals, but Mike wanted us to have more experience leading and packing them. He is a very patient teacher. I am riding the horse, Shorty. He sometimes has a hard time keeping up with the mules and throws quite a fit when he can't see Mike up in the lead. He starts to trot to catch up, something I am not used to and has made me a bit sore.
The saddle I am riding is a large flat horned Mexican style. It is covered with a Buffalo epishamore. I have tied my saddlebag behind also with my frock coat and an oilcloth poncho. To the horn I have tied my canteen and the bag which carries my sketchbook. My saddlebags contain a small food sack with jerky and dried fruit, my personal supplies, such as journal, soap, comb, playing cards, &c. Also my wolf eared cap, fire starting kit, sewing kit, spare moccasins, tin cup, the Company flag, plus various other sundries.
It is hard to put into words this first day. The country is simply magnificent. The light is starting to fade so I must tend to camp and supper. Stock is taken care of. All is well. Tomorrow we ride again!
Woke up this morning and there were no coals. Got a fire going with some dead grass and had a lazy morning. We finally got going and shortly after had to turn around because there was too much blown down timber in the trail heading towards Hawkens Pass. We had to change plans and backtrack a bit up to Blue Creek then Ice Creek and went to the head of East Fork. Went East towards Sugarloaf Mt, dropped off Sugarloaf toward Clear Creek cabin and set up camp. Probably totaled around 7 miles today.
In camp we did some repairs. Pearl tore a pannier on a snag, and I had a blow out in the seat of my pants. Ethel got a small sore from her cinch. A rivet popped loose and rubbed her.
Supper tonight was wild rice, morel mushrooms, and smoked fish.
Another great day! We started off slow with some coffee, freshly ground, some bacon, and Mike's "James Ohio Pattie cakes." As we sat around palavering we heard the sound of elk. There was cow talk, calf chirping, and even some bugling. We listened to them for a while as they got closer and closer and Mike and I walked over to the edge of the meadow. We saw some elk at the edge of the meadow and many more coming down the side of the hill. They worked their way into the meadow, continuing to chirp and squeak. We didn't see more than a dozen or two, but there was probably over a hundred head. Mosquitos were bothersome while we watched the elk, but other than that I have noticed few bugs on this trip, quite a pleasure.
After seeing the elk we packed the stock and saddled up. We headed out of Clear Creek, backtracked a little from yesterday and headed to East Fork of Pine Creek. It was a short day. We traveled 4-5 miles. Bill let me ride Cleo the mule and lead Reno. That went well except one time when I had to drop the lead rope because I gave Reno too much slack and he went around a different tree. I was able to get the lead rope back without much trouble. There are always plenty of lessons to learn on the trail.
Heading down East Fork we came upon another herd of about 100 head of Elk. What great country! Stopped and made camp, unloaded, gathered firewood, &c. Mike cooked posole tonight for supper.
Today was the last day of our trip. It was a sad day for me as I was not quite ready to go.
When I awoke I headed out to get some kindling to start the morning fire. As I came to the top of the knob near camp I saw a single cow elk. She seemed a bit confused about what I was, maybe due to my wolf eared cap. I went to get my sketchpad, but on my way back Shorty decided to break the branch he was tied to and start feeding. I went and took care of him instead and by the time I made it back the elk was gone.
We had a very leisurely morning since we did not have a lot of miles to cover to make it back. We sat around the fire and cooked and palavered. I washed up in the creek.
Finally we packed up. I got to throw the diamond hitch and pack Pearl. Our trip out was only about 4 miles. Passed some beautiful meadows of wild flowers. The load stayed on Pearl and the trip down was otherwise uneventful.
This was a wonderful trip. There were no wrecks or mishaps which is always good. It was a true "Rocky Mountain College" experience and I learned a lot, especially about my gear and horses. I may make a few adjustments to my pantaloons, such as re-attaching the underfoot straps to keep the legs from riding up when I'm in the saddle. Packing was completely new to me, but I have come away with a good understanding of it and am able to throw a diamond.
Introducing stock and all the challenges they bring really adds a lot to the experience and puts you in the mindset of a Mountaineer. Breaking camp each morning and traveling makes you really appreciate what they did on a daily basis as well as causes you to rethink some of that extra unnecessary gear you may be carrying along.
The Eagle Cap Wilderness is absolutely beautiful country. There were some unique things about it compared to places I have been to in Colorado. The water was clear and safe to drink, we weren't under any fly zones, and rarely heard any noise not part of nature. In Colorado I don't trust any water, as I have gotten giardia more than once. But Mike assured us that the water was safe, he has drank it for 20 years without problems, and neither did I.
Mike and his wife Betty are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. They welcomed us into their home with open arms, fed us, and treated us like the kind of family you actually like. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity that Bill and Mike gave me.