Safety Is a Many Faceted Thing

By on September 25, 2016

By Carol Miller Lovegren–

My husband Kyle labeled the cup I use while horse packing, “Calamity Carol”. For me spills, bites, lacerations, and disasters are just part of an average trip – all of which makes me the perfect person to discuss wilderness safety. I have been wandering in the woods for over 50 years, so I can tell you: it is easy to saunter into the wilderness; the trick is to be able to totter back out again.

Our August 8-14 horse packing trip into the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon was our first trip ever without young ‘uns. All six participants were between 55 and 65. Our five-day trip included 30 miles of hiking, a storm, horseback riding, and two hefty climbs including Sacajawea, the Wallowa Mountains’ highest peak.

The first rule of wilderness safety is to let someone know where you plan to be. The second is to be willing to change plans when conditions warrant it. 

We started out with my husband Kyle riding and leading two loaded pack horses and the rest of us hiking with relatively light backpacks. Our friends got to have a head start, but my job was to bring up the rear behind the horses in case of an emergency. As I hustled to keep pace, my one compensation was the look on the other passing hikers’ faces as they saw my husband apparently at ease on his horse while I puffed behind with an impressive looking pack. I would far rather hike than endure the stress of leading a pack string.

This pic, taken by Marv Knox, is Bob Young extending his antique climber's ax to help Kathy Young cross a creek on the Hurricane Trail.

This pic, taken by Marv Knox, is Bob Young extending his antique climber’s ax to help Kathy Young cross a creek on the Hurricane Trail.

We stopped for lunch 5.5 miles up the Hurricane Creek trail at the junction with Echo Lake’s unmaintained trail. After lunch, we left Connie Knox and Kathy Young diligently supervising the pack horses (in between chatting, reading, and napping) while the men and I scouted out and cleared the Echo Lake trail. 

Forging ahead of the men wielding the misery-whip saws, I cleared the small stuff – and a log that a bear had already torn up for me – and scouted the heart-poundingly steep trail to the meadow below Echo Lake. I kept picturing the horses lunging their way up the precipitous log-strewn, overgrown trail with full packs, then worse, sliding their way back down over slick granite and shale – with my husband on top.  My good sense (something I have precious little of) prevailed. When I returned to Kyle, Marv Knox, and Bob Young, who had been laboring for hours and gave them the couting report – 21 more trees down ahead of them; 8 of them critical to cut – they threw down their saws without hesitation. We would change plans and do this part of our horse packing trip as a day-hike.   

It was no hardship to settle in and make camp in the meadows along Hurricane Creek near the base of the Matterhorn. The views were spectacular… until the clouds and rain settled in. Every camping trip worth its salt includes adverse weather. Every camper worth his salt remembers to put the matches away before the storm soaks them. Oops. Another safety tip: bring a lighter to supplement your matches.

IMG_3904Alternating hunkering down by the campfire to warm up and huddling under a tarp to stay dry, we had a restful morning. By mid-afternoon when the clouds lifted, we were more than ready to hike and horseback ride a few miles farther up the stunning Hurricane Creek trail (a major arterial in the Eagle Cap wilderness) to some dilapidated old log cabins.  

Kathy and Connie timidly decided to share the chore of riding. Gathering her courage, Kathy bravely mounted our gentle mare Sheza and rode her across rushing Hurricane Creek. Horses can step over some logs, but high logs require shoving through the trees and brush to circumvent them. At one point, while we worked around yet another blockage in the trail, Kathy murmured, “I don’t think I can do this,” then she clung tightly to the saddle horn while her mare lunged up the steep hillside back to the trail. After three miles Kathy had had enough fun. She turned her horse over to Connie who hadn’t ridden for over 30 years. But the award goes to my wrangler husband Kyle who did the full six miles astride a hugely uncomfortable Decker pack saddle – with his legs dangling on either side – on our extra wide, still green, mustang/draft horse, Goliath.

The next day dawned with only a few clouds, so we embarked up the precipitous Echo Lake trail.  Another wilderness safety rule is to be able to find places on a map. Consequently, I was more than chagrined to discover that Echo Lake was not the distant jewel that I had spied from the top of the Matterhorn on my last trip to the Wallowas. Although 8372 foot Echo Lake was well worth the considerable effort it took to reach it, clearly it was not the lake I had been obsessing over hiking to for the past two years. 

The question burning in my soul was, “Which lake did I see?” My companions appeared to be content with fishing and resting by lovely Echo Lake, so I set off alone to explore around Echo Lake and survey a probable route to neighboring Billy Jones Lake. I spied a faint trail that looked sort of safe, so I began picking my way up and across the shale toward the pass. To my friends and my husband, I looked like a bug crawling up, back down, and around obstacles as I endeavored to reach the elusive saddle. When at last I summited the 8,700-foot pass, stark Billy Jones Lake and the Matterhorn Mountain burst into view; my whoop of triumph echoed back and forth across aptly named Echo Lake. 

This pic taken on the top of Sacajawea is left to right, Kathy Young, Kyle Miller, Carol Miller, Bob Young and Connie Knox of Oakland Oregon.  Taken by Marv Knox.

This pic taken on the top of Sacajawea is left to right, Kathy Young, Kyle Miller, Carol Miller, Bob Young and Connie Knox of Oakland Oregon. Taken by Marv Knox.

Near the end of the week, we moved camp down to the Thorp Creek trail junction in preparation for climbing 9838 foot Sacajawea. Sacajawea does not require any technical climbing gear, but neither is it a walk in the park. Ascending 4413 feet over 5 miles makes for some alarmingly steep trails in places with an abundance of drop offs. We slowly & carefully picked our way to the top, marveling at the magnificent views, and how few people were on the mountain with us, and at the little dogs panting their woeful way to the top behind their beloved masters.

At the top we were feeling pretty proud of our accomplishment, but the hard part was ahead, climbing down.

Bob, who has climbed more mountains than he can remember, gave us another safety tip, “Make sure you lean forward and keep your weight over your feet as you descend.” Actually, for me it was not a reminder but a concept I hadn’t caught on to yet… it sure cuts down on slips. Twelve hours after we set off, our decades younger and faster-climbing neighboring campers cheered when we dragged our weary bodies back into camp.

On our way out Goliath stepped on me. As tears ran down my face while I limped after the horses to make sure the pack string was safely progressing to the truck I pondered, “Safety is a multifaceted thing,” as I dodged horse manure.

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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Safety Is a Many Faceted Thing