Horse Packing or Luxury Cruise?

By on December 6, 2015

By Carol Miller Lovegren –

The cost of upkeep for our four pack horses is about the same as a luxury cruise for two. So why would any sane person choose the rigors of horse packing over a cruise? The challenge. The feeling of being fully alive. Senses on high alert while embracing the wilderness experience.

IMG_1433When everyone, except our young friend Grant Allemann, canceled out on a mid-August horse packing trip into the Jefferson wilderness with my husband Kyle and me, I did some calculations. With four horses, only three people, and packing light, for the first time in our 17 years of horse packing, everyone could ride! That would be great–except I am afraid of horses. My sense of fear was on high alert when I packed my courage into saddle bags, straddled our ancient mare, Brambles, and followed in my husband’s dust.

Because the ride in was lovely, and we had no horse wrecks, the four and a half miles passed quickly. We found a perfect campsite on Santiam Lake–after we had unloaded the horses elsewhere.

All senses are heightened outdoors. While gazing across the lake at our spectacular view of Three Finger Jack, Mt. Jefferson, and Duffy Butte, the steady drone of dozens of bees busily working late summer flowers made my nerves hum with unease. The pungent aroma emanating from innocent looking yellow arrowleaf groundsel tickled my olfactory senses. There is a creepy thrill when a spider crawls out to sunbathe on a log beside me–then worse–disappears. Room service pales in comparison when my thoughtful husband brings me a sumptuous cup of hot chocolate while I am still cocooned in my snuggly warm sleeping bag. 

After setting up camp we resisted the urge to snooze the afternoon away and remounted our horses to explore more trails. Before long Grant’s horse, Sheza, had an unpleasant close encounter with a bee. While Sheza hopped and ducked to bite at her sting, no doubt every fiber of our apprentice wrangler’s being was on full alert.

IMG_1397It became immediately obvious that trail clearing crews had not yet made it to the stretch between Duffy and Jorn Lakes. We dismounted, tied up our horses, and unstrapped our hand saw again and again. When the guys settled in to cut a discouraging jumble of logs, accessorized with a bees nest, I reconnoitered the trail ahead. My discoveries ended our afternoon ride. Without our cross cut saw–which was back at camp–our horses would be unable to skirt Mowich Lake.

Early the next morning we gazed at a quiet fog-shrouded wilderness lake broken only by duck contrails. The crisp air made our slightly burned, yet somewhat gooey cornmeal griddle cakes taste better than a full breakfast buffet on a cruise ship. Rhythmic clanking of cowbells reassured us that our horses were enjoying breakfast in the meadow behind us.

With nothing better to do on a lowering-gray day, we decided to clear more trail. Eight hours and 59 trees later I thought over what I had learned that day:  1) I am a rather useless appendage on the end of a six-foot cross cut saw (which left most of the work to the guys.) 2) A lot of trees come down on trails that meander through burned out forests. 3) Regenerating young trees are ungrateful. Rolling trees off the trail sometimes flattens seedlings. When I tugged mightily to release one of the poor things, it responded by slapping me smartly in the face. Yowie! 4)Even dead trees can be vindictive. When I volunteered to saw down a small question mark-shaped tree bent over the trail, it took revenge by jumping off its stump and kicking me hard in the shin.

IMG_1425Bone weary we hiked back to camp. On arrival we found a yellow sticky note warning us that a bear and her two cubs had been spotted in the vicinity of our horses tied patiently to a high-line. How disappointing to not be able to add bears to our wildlife sightings. Thus far we had the thrill of spotting five mountain goats high on the flank of Three Finger Jack, one cow elk, a plethora of mule deer, four ducks, three grouse, noisy gray camp robber birds, a chipmunk, a mouse, a lizard, and a toad. Although we were the only human campers on Santiam Lake our first night, we had plenty of company.

Saturday dawned gloomy again, but slowly-appearing patches of blue sky gave us hope. We hiked cross-country toward Three Finger Jack, stopping to marvel when we encountered our bears’ paw prints in the mud along the way. Kyle, with his usual impeccable navigational skills, brought us exactly to the Pacific Crest Trail junction and the climbers’ route up Three Finger Jack.

Since the weather had cleared, why not tackle the mountain?

Climbers’ routes are rarely a single trail. Grant, at age 16 was agile and energetic enough to scamper the shortest route straight up the sliding scree. Moving ahead of Kyle I decided on a more moderate zigzag approach. At each trail junction I asked myself, “What would Kyle do?” This technique took me up to the relatively easy bare east side of a ridge.

IMG_1410Behind me, Kyle forgot to ask himself, “What would Kyle do?” At a critical junction he took a shortcut which funneled him onto the ridge’s wooded west side. While crawling on all fours under stunted whitebark pine elfinwood for an interminable length of time, he questioned whether this was indeed the easiest route. In fact, at this point I suspect the idea of a narrow cruise ship corridor was looking good.

We joined back up at tree line for lunch. Although we were a mere 700 feet short of the summit, above us formidable crumbling cliffs and gendarmes loomed. Because it does not occur to teenagers that they could plunge to a grisly end, Grant ached to continue the climb. Kyle and I have no desire to hasten our own demise. We informed Grant that he would have to come back and climb another time as we had no interest in being the ones to carry his broken body out. Grant helpfully pointed out that if one lays a body over a log before rigor mortis sets in, the body is easier to tie onto a horse.  Maybe so, but we were still unaccommodating.

Back down at Santiam Lake, wildlife was replaced by wild life. With every campsite full, the formerly serene wilderness lake resembled a teeming cruise ship pool. Rubber rafts, air mattresses and swimmers dotted the lake accompanied by shouts of pure glee from boys set loose from civilization to play. A clear example of how the wilderness makes one feel fully alive. 

On the other hand, cruise ships heat their pools. Maybe feeling fully alive is overrated….

Carol Lovegren-Miller

About Carol Lovegren-Miller

Carol Lovegren Miller has been married to Kyle for 32 years and has three grown children. She bakes, cans, organizes church events, and substitute teaches in between her adventures and writing." Carol can be reached at [email protected]

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Horse Packing or Luxury Cruise?