Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cujo, Talk to the Hoof

One of the highlights of Summer these days is the camping trips that I take on horseback. Each year, my friend Derek and I go will painstakingly plan a trip, haul our horses to some remote trailhead, and then vanish into the backcountry for three or four days. We carry only what we can fit in our saddlebags. Thusly:

Due to modern lightweight gear designed for backpackers, we are able to carry a few luxuries that were not available to the cowboys of lore. Most important amongst this gear, IMHO, is the one man tent, weighing in at a paltry 2.5 pounds. While it is akin to sleeping in a coffin, it is preferable to sleeping out in the rain. And since the weather guessers in this region are frequently wrong, we have encounterd rain on this trips.

This tale concerns a trip that was taken two summers ago, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, an area that we had traveled before. On the second night, we set out to reach Fryingpan Lake. This is a beautiful lake, with lush green grass for the horses to graze upon, and excellent spots for setting up camp and high lining the horses.

The weather was perfect. We arrived at the lake in the early afternoon. Upon stopping to pitch camp, the first order of business is always to tend to the needs of the horses. We unsaddled and led them down to the lake. After they had drunk their fill, we hobbled them, hung a bells on thier necks (so as not to lose them!) and turned them out in the grass to eat to their hearts content.

Once the horses were settled, we pitched camp, and collected firewood. The rest of the day and evening were uneventful. This fishing was unproductive, although at least we didn't leave the worms in the trailer, as we had the year before.

After a tasty meal comprised of freeze dried Mountain House meals, and more than a few snorts of sippin whiskey, we elected to call it a night. After watering the horses one last time, and tying them up to the highline, we turned in to our respective tents, fully ready for a good nights sleep.

Around midnight, I was awakened from my slumber by a yelping noise. A lot of yelping noise. Of the kind that can only be made by members of the canine family. And it was CLOSE! From the next tent over, I heard "what the f**k?", and the horses stamping around. Coming fully awake, the situation hit me. They were being attacked! I had to get out and help them!

I challenge you to unzip a mummy bag and get out of a one man tent in a hurry. Especially when your adrenalin has kicked into overdrive. It seemed an eternity before my hand settled on the zipper pull. And of course, it was stuck. After much tugging and swearing, it finally unzipped. The next challenge was finding the tent zipper and getting it open. Another eternity passed before this was accomplished. Finally, I was free, and, flying out of the tent, I jumped into my boots, grabbed my .357 and a flashlight, and ran for toward the horses. Derek and I arrived at the highline simultaneously.

Now, it's midnight in the middle of nowhere, and here are two grown men dressed in nothing but skivvies and cowboy boots, each armed with a revolver, and ready to shoot anything that isn't horse or each other. Like a scene out of bad movie.

By this time the commotion had ended. There was no sign of intruders, but the horses were riled up and shaking. Using flashlights, we looked them over closely. They weren't hurt, only shaken up. Staying nearby to calm them, we discussed the events that had transpired. Coyotes? It seemed unlikely, but since the goverment hacks that are supposed to know these things tell us that wolves don't live in Washington anymore, it was the only logical conclusion.

Once the horses had settled down, we went back to bed. It took longer for sleep to arive this time around, but the rest of the night was peaceful.

That morning, we looked the horses over again before turning them out to eat, to ensure we had not missed any injuries. I discovered dried blood on one of Smokey's hind legs. Damn, was he hurt? Looking closer, I could find absolutely no sign of injury. This was not his blood. I called Derek over to confirm that I was not imagining things. He verified my observation. Obviously, Ol' Boy had decided to show one of those dogs exactly what he thought of having his slumber disturbed by their yammering. Score one for Smokey!

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully. We did head back to the trailer a day early, as thunderstorms started to roll in. The weather had been cooperative up to this point, and neither of us could imagine ending it by staying up all night in a thundering downpour while trying to keep the horses calm.

Of course, their was the minor problem of the alternator going out on the trip home. But that's a story for another day...

POSTSCRIPT: A month or two after this event, I was discussing it with some old timers that have been packing in on horses in those mountains longer than I've been walking on this earth. They were emphatic that it was wolves, not coyotes. They have seen wolves in those mountains on numerous occassions, and, they pointed out, coyotes don't live at that altitude (5000 ft) in this state. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.


Christina LMT said...

Wolves are extremely cool...unless you happen to have horses, cattle, etc...
I lived in a very rural town for a year a while back, and the coyotes there were fat and sassy. This town was also notable for not having a feral cat population. And most folks kept their pets indoors...

Daphne said...

Great story, I'd love to take a trip like that someday.

I don't think it was coyotes, they go after small prey. We have too many coyotes and are overrun with deer in my neighborhood. The coyotes never attack the full grown deer, just the fawns. Coyotes are small, I don't think a large pack could manage to bring down a horse.

Michelle H. said...

They say coyotes are moving farther north because wolf packs have dwindled and are being pushed out. I wonder if they were coy-dogs, a mixture of coyote and regular house dog.

Great post! Very exciting! (of course, I'm sure you wished it didn't happen with the attack part)

Buck said...

I'd trust the Ol Timers over the gub'mint hacks any day.

Great story and supporting pics. Modern lightweight gear sure makes things MUCH better, eh? It works on steel "horses," too! ;-)

Buckskins Rule said...

Daphne, I was having a hard time believing they were coyotes, too. Not there modus operandi. There is a pack of coyotes behind the farm, and I've seen them in with the horses, and neither is bothered by the other.

At the time we just couldn't reconcile what other animal it could have been. Fish & Wildlife would have believe that wolves are only just now returning to the eastern parts of the states. But as Buck states, I'll take the word of the Old Timers.

Buck, yep that modern is gear is wear it's at.

FWIW, I'm rather fond of coyotes, even if that places me in minority. They keep the rodent and stray cat population down, and I think they are beautiful animals.

Anonymous said...

I have to say the visual of the story in my head as he re-told this story was just hysterical! You would have to know Smokey and what a big boob he is! I love him so much and he is just such a comical horse! For a while every time he told the story again, it was bigger, way more dramatic and just as funny! It must have been so scary! Thank goodness the girls and I were not in on that adventure!

Ann from Montana said...

The visual that got me was the "2 men in skivies, boots brandishing guns"... The struggle with the bag and tent made me a bit claustrophobic but I guess for a submariner, that is nothing :)! - It is a great story.

alison said...

I'm so jealous of your trip. With horses. How fantastic is that.

I've camped out in the States before in Redwood country and far up into the mountains. Somewhere around Seattle. My friend and I were the only people on this virtually abandonded seeming campsite, middle of nowhere, with no experience of this kind of thing in the US (only UK) and no weaponary! We were woken in the night by a creature heavily clambering all over the bonnet of the car. No horses sadly :(

It was terrifying!

The only thing to ever wake me up in England when we camped were wild horses or cows!