Friday, June 29, 2012

I survived Exit 451 (Part I)

This story has been one of the hardest things for me to recollect on and write about.  I want to include as much detail as I can so I can look back on it and continue to learn from the mistakes that happened.  It’s a bit of a hard story to tell right now, as I’m still a little rattled, but I want to get it out while its fresh.  I can definitely say that I have learned more than I ever imagined I would, and I have been very humbled from this whole experience.  Despite everything, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

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Front L-R: Lucy, Wag, Melinda, Missy, Christine; Back L-R: Vetice, Mark, Tom, Hov, Gini, Me (and Duke)

“I survived Exit 451 [baby!]” started as a drunken quote on week one of my Smoky Mountain experience.  By the time the pack trip rolled around, however, it became quite a reality.

The weekend prior to our trip most folks were elsewhere prepping in one way or another for a return to camp for a few days deep in the woods atop a mountain with our animals.  The ultimate goal was to get the lumber and pipes for the hitching racks packed 17 miles (up, up, up) into the Smoky Mountains hereafter GSMNP [Great Smoky Mountain Nat’l Park]) to the Appalachian Trail (AT) Tri Corner Knob shelter.  We would be traveling 17 miles the first day to reach Tri Corner Knob.  We would then stay two nights up there with the down day in between used to install the hitching rails and the third day to travel back.

View of Smokies from the AT crossing Max Patch

Only 35 miles of the AT is open to horseback riding.  These 35 miles are unconnected segments, but they all occur within GSMNP.  Local riders and packers very much enjoy and treasure the access they have to the trail. Due to strict Nat’l Park Service rules, however, they need a hitching rail to best avoid breaking any rules.  The former hitching rail had been broken up by AT hikers and burned (seriously?!).

Sunday evening our group re-convened at the campsite to begin prepping for our early morning departure on Monday.  We gathered personal gear and camping gear into piles to be mantied up in preparation for packing on the horses the next day.  In total we had 11 riders, 9 pack stock, and 4 other riders who were meeting at various points along the trek to take out pack horses we no longer needed to abide by the Park rules concerning # of people/stock in one place at a time.

Photo by Christine

Gear was packed and prepped Sunday night in time enough for us to settle into some campfire down time once more before bed and an early start.  Everyone’s spirits were pretty high with anticipation and excitement about the journey.  Half of us were new to it, and the majority of us were new to the Smokies.

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Both alarms I’d set for Monday morning failed, but fortunately, thanks to the other lady sleeping in the “bungalow” with me, I arose around 6a.  I ended up only being 15 minutes late for breakfast.  Once fed we all began to gather and prepare first riding horses then pack horses. 

My ride, Will Black
Mark on Odie pulling Sierra
Hov on Captain pulling Doc

Getting all stock saddled took awhile.  Our 9a departure time was creeping ever closer and packs weren’t even on the pack stock yet!  We needed to get out as early as possible because stock travels at ~3mph.   A 9a departure would mean that – with the inevitable breaks that would occur factored in – we wouldn’t arrive at our destination until around 5p or so.

Time ticked onward and we continued to prep each animal and person for the journey.  We ended up getting on the trail at 10:30a – not the most promising of starts, but we were off all the same. 

Tom in foreground riding Jazz pulling Pete and Bud, Missy next in line riding Breezy pulling Super Sport

Everyone was pretty jazzed and the horses cued in on that energy – much like the start of an endurance race! – and skittered around the road that we had to travel on for 0.6 miles before reaching the trail.  Nancy’s horse, borrowed from a friend, was particularly wired, and Christine had already stepped off her Arabian gelding to walk him for awhile because he was so cued up.  (The three of us + Lucy were the only ones not pulling pack stock at the time.) I was busy snapping pictures while I knew I had the time and worked on moving my way from the back to the front of the line, not paying heavy attention to anyone or any animal other than to make a safe pass to the front.

I reached the turnoff for the trail access to turn around to speak to Gini only to see Nancy’s horse go screaming by me riderless.  Well, shit.  With quick confirmation shouted up the line of pack horses and people that Nancy was standing and was “okay” I shot off after the horse.

My horse, Will Black, was a 10 year old TWH.  He’d been a pet for the first 8 years of his life and wasn’t put under saddle until he was 8.  He had a number of manners issues and really loved to walk the edge of roads and trails, but other than that he wasn’t a bad horse at all.  He had his moments, but overall was very forward moving and eager on the trail.  (Oh, and for the hoof nerds, we wore Renegades for the whole trip!)

I moved him forward and the loose horse kept going.  I never found out if she was familiar with the area, but she sure seemed to be.  She shot through the day-parking area, onto the trailhead, past the non-horse camping, and made it to the trailhead (0.3 mile or so) before slowing.  There was a Park employee weed-eating around the day-parking for non-horse folks – if it weren’t for him I truly believe the horse would have continued upward onto the trail.

Thanks to the distraction of the weed-eater, I was able to grab her and pony her back.  I found Gini, Tom, and Hov awaiting me, but the rest of the group had disappeared (Wag and Melinda were far, far ahead of the group with their two pack horses as they were originally going to travel 30 miles the first day to help our group abide by Park rules).

I gave a quizzical look to the three of them as I rode up, and could hear and see movement through the trees around the bend of the road indicating that the rest of the group was there.  I was told by Hov, “Nancy’s okay, but she’s got a huge hematoma on her upper arm.”  Well, I thought, not too bad.  But I still pondered that such a bruise had come about so quickly and wondered to myself if she hadn’t broken the arm and was too hyped up to tell.

The group slowly reconvened at the same place.  Christine and Nancy were already walking back to basecamp and Lucy came to pony back Nancy’s horse.  They would meet us later after they checked Nancy out.

: : : : :

The seven of us with seven pack stock continued.

Its important to note that of all the pack stock on the trip, only three were mules (known for their sure-footedness).  The others were all horses.  Wag’s two horses (way ahead of the rest of the gang) and the three mules were experienced packers, but the rest of the stock were green.

The first 5 or so miles of the trail went fairly smoothly.  There were a few stops due to loose EasyBoots and a rock in a shoe, but other than that, no problem.  Then Hov and Gini, leading us, stop and call me forward.  “We forgot the valve for the stove.  We won’t be able to cook without it.  Do you think you can ride back and get it?” they ask me.  I ponder a second and respond with, “If I had a different horse, yes, but I don’t trust Will to go and come in a safe manner.”  His two pasture mates would remain while he would have to leave, he was already being a bit of a handful because of his manners issues, and frankly, I didn’t know the trails well enough to trust myself to guide said-green/cranky horse back to the group.  Oh, and Will can be pretty damn lazy (I rode with blunt spurs to try to conquer this).

Gini and Hov pausing to check the balance of the mules' loads

So, instead, Gini volunteered to go back.  Her borrowed horse, a 17hh TWH, wasn’t with any horses he knew and could move out really well.  She turned and headed back, and I took over pulling her mule.

A short time after she’d left, we reached the drop point for some of our gear.  The logistics behind what needed dropped where and who needed to double and triple back and around on the trails in order to abide by Park standards was outrageous.  I’m pretty sure I never again want to do a ride of this caliber in a Nat’l Park setting.  Eee gads!

We grabbed lunch after we dropped a couple loads and then headed onward – I was now in the lead.  Will Black was a happier lead horse for his two pasture mates (ridden and pulled by Hov) and they were happier following him. 

Not long after we left the drop point, we encountered a downed log (which I later came to find out that Wag and Melinda had to wrangle to get to the point that it could be stepped over).  It was at a 45⁰ angle with the lowest part slightly off the trail.  By this point the trail had become a single track.  The whole time to this point we’d been following alongside Big Creek and the trail would alternate from being right beside the creek to being many feet above it with steep, steep drop offs to one side down to the creek.

Due to the drop off factor, crossing the log was a little harder than it could have been.  The drop off wasn’t more than 3 feet here, but still not ideal.  Will Black and my mule got over it just fine.  Hov’s horse and mule, too.  Missy, following behind on her 3 year old Friesian/TWH had difficulty.  Hov and I stopped.  He secured his animals and went back to help get the horses over the log.  It took some doing, but eventually they got over.

I was sitting in my lead position, trying to get Will Black and my mule to stand politely while watching all of this.  Once she was over I quit watching quite as interested, but still observed while the others crossed.  Tom and the mule he was pulling got over fine, but when his 4 year old horse he was pulling went to go over, he fell over the bank onto his side.


The horse floundered about like a turtle on its back due to the heavy packs.  I lost sight of it while I tried to wrangle my animals into polite submission, but by the time I’d turned around the animal was standing, pack attached, and all was well.  The other two riders and stock crossed without incident.

We hadn’t gotten far down the trail before Tom’s horse’s load tipped and needed to be fixed and adjusted.  We got ‘er done and continued on, though we were very much behind schedule by this point.

We continued for probably another mile.  The trail had become very narrow.  The hill sloped steeply up on the right and steeply down on the left.  There wasn’t much room for error if a foot was ill-placed. 

I was plodding along in the front, doing my best to keep Will Black’s edge walking tendencies to a minimum as there was the tiniest of edge on the 2 foot-wide trail and I didn’t really have any kind of death wish.  I remember noticing how thick the rhododendron was through the area here, and how steeply down that drop off was, and how there weren’t really many trees to stop a tumble, and how I really didn’t want to go down there, and how I really hoped the trail would widen soon.  I didn’t realize at the time that my worries could come to fruition. 

To be continued…

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Home again

I made it home.  I actually made it home a day earlier than anticipated. 

Things didn't go quite as planned with the pack trip.

I took a few hours yesterday to type up the whole thing so I can remember and learn from it.  I'll be bringing the story to the blog in three parts.

It was tough to write up.  I've only fully hashed it out verbally to one person.  I'm not quite sure I could do it many more times.  Its not easy to tell right now.

I'm recovering and well though.

Memories like the below photo are what made the trip unbelieveable. 

Phenomenal new friends.
Phenomenal new experiences.
Phenomenal memories to last a lifetime.

Laughing our asses off as we try to get into the "jacuzzi".

Monday, June 25, 2012

Missing my horses

I miss these sweet faces...

Can you tell who's needy and who's not?  Hope my little grey is growing lots in my absence.  Additionally, not the greatest of shots, but I made both their halters.  Thinking about mass making halters here very soon to sell at our endurance ride and to others if they're interested!

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Additionally...Griffin is supposedly half TWH half Arab - which makes him 100% awesome.  What do you think about this TWH's markings and color compared to my little guy?!

That hip is a bit different - and I swear I'm gonna try to get a better conformation shot of Color before I leave - but seriously, first horse I've seen with markings and color like Griffin. 

Color is a TWH.  He's gaited.  A direct son of The Pusher.  The folks who have Color looked at photos of my Griffin and videos of him moving and think there is a high likelihood of Griffin being a grandson (or maybe a son - though why someone would pay big bucks to breed a non TWH mare to a fancy TWH stud makes no sense, so I highly doubt that).  Supposedly the trait Pusher throws that people want is grey coloring with that blaze and the tall white stockings.  Additionally, the strange front sock with a dot around the knee is common.

I'm more than aware that color isn't everything and could mean nothing.  But the head shape and facial expressions Color makes are so like my little Griffin!  Griffin just has a little bit more of a refined head.  Shorter backed, too.  A conformation comparison of photos of the two would help to make further determinations. 

It makes me excited to think that Griffin may not have a total train wreck of a pedigree though.  He's a phenomenal little horse so far.  He's got a lot of potential and I'll love him no matter what.  But I'd honestly written him off as far as chances that he could have any past greats in his blood.  I reckon he's my lucky pick from a bad situation.  You know, maybe something like the Eighty Dollar Champion?  I can hope.  ;-)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Packing, Decker-style

The Decker system of pack saddles was developed in the early 1900s in north-central Idaho.  Prior to Decker packing there was the sawbuck method.  The Decker system brings more durability, versatility, and a greater humane nature for the animal because it can be packed more balanced.  The system is fully adjustable for different sized animals and allows for loads to be more dynamic so the animals can breathe easier.

© Liz Stout

© Liz Stout

A pack animal should be able to optimally carry a fifth of their body weight.  Because the Decker system is so versatile many things can be packed.  Bob has designed many different boxes that fit different tools (chainsaws, axes, etc.), propane tanks, and other oddities.  Paniers allow gravel and mulch to be packed which aids in the building and reinforcement of trails.  Additionally, lumber can be packed with the aid of a lumber bunk to the saddle.  Bob has also packed a multitude of strange items like wheelbarrows, galvanized steel tubs, and even coolers of trout to be packed to the headwaters of a trout stream.

© Liz Stout

© Liz Stout
© Liz Stout

Once a saddle has been fitted to the animal in question, loads must be assembled in a balanced fashion.  From there, a 7' x 8' untreated canvas sheet (manty) is used to wrap up the loads and is secured with a rope that has an eyesplice at one end and a backsplice at the other.  Once loads are mantied up and tied, they can then be tied to the saddle with a basket, barrel, or box hitch.

© Liz Stout

© Liz Stout

It all sounds pretty daunting, but its really not too bad.  Its definitely something that requires a bit of time and a lot of hands-on learning.

I'm a bit of a neat-freak so when I folded my manties I was rather anal about how they had to be.  Bob can fold one up in 1m:27s - but he's been doing it for 42 years, so its only to be expected.  I think I did mine in 4m:16s when I had to "race".  I don't really care how fast I do it as long as I do it right.  I know I will get faster with time.

© Liz Stout
© Liz Stout

Monday morning - Wednesday will be the real test of knowledge as we pack up 8 animals to head into the backcountry.  I'm very excited.  Lots of interesting photos to follow!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Leave No Trace

***See *updated* packing photos below!***

I had a different childhood than most.  I chose backpacking and other outdoors opportunities over things like sports.  I grew up in an outdoors atmosphere surrounded by people who had years and years of experience.  Taking different approaches to have a minimal an impact on the wilderness as possible was second hat for me.  It just seemed like the thing to do if I wanted to be able to enjoy the outdoors for years to come and help others to experience it, too.  Why ruin a good thing and make it so that others may not have the same opportunities to enjoy nature the way I do?

Unfortunately this way of thinking isn't second hat for everyone.  Many are ignorant about how their actions are affecting the world around them.  They don't understand how trash, pollution, and removing parts of a food chain have huge effects.  They can't see "the big picture".

As a stock user and an avid outdoors person, the Leave No Trace Trainer and Master Educator courses with an emphasis on stock in the backcountry seemed like a logical choice for me.  I really didn't understand when I was signing up quite what I was getting into.  But I really enjoyed what I learned and that I now have the ability to pass this training on to others who are interested (we will be having the same courses I took + packing + a pack trip in WV next summer for anyone interested!).

  • I have learned the importance of camping and traveling on durable surfaces to prevent new trails and trail widening (thus stopping vegetation from growing and further fragmenting the habitat of our wildlife); 
  • I've learned how to have a campfire that has very little impact on the environment (the only impact being the wood that is burned - no sterilization of the ground); 
  • I've learned how to properly tie my horses to prevent damage to tree limbs, bark, and roots; 
  • I've learned methods of explaining to non-stock(horse) users on trails how to cope around horses that pass them and why it is important (most don't understand the flight mechanism of horses); 
  • I've learned how to help prevent/minimize the spread of invasive/non-native plant species by cleaning truck and trailer/brushing out manes and tails before and after visiting a new area; 
  • and, here's the kicker, to help the aesthetics of our trailheads and campsites, I've learned to not clean out my trailer when I get to the campground, but to put manure back in the trailer and take it home to dispose of it in a better place.
A lot of these things are common sense.  But sometimes you have to teach common sense before it can sink in and be obvious.

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Stock users and trail riders get a VERY bad rep most everywhere we ride that is a public multi-use trail.  If we want to KEEP riding and camping in these places we need to be careful to be more respectful of other users and of the land we're using.

This doesn't mean you have to pick up every turd your horse drops on the trail.  It doesn't mean you have to pick up everyone's trash all the time.  It doesn't mean you have to preach your  way of mind to everyone you pass.

It means you need to be AWARE.  You need to be aware of your actions and how they may be viewed by others.  You need to lead by example.

You don't have to be a purist in Leave No Trace principles for them to work.  You just need to be aware.  EDUCATION not LEGISLATION will preserve our wildlands.  Working smarter, not harder.  We need to educate trail users on how best to use trails.

Prevent avoidable impacts.  Minimize unavoidable impacts.

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Many of your are like me, you love the outdoors and you love riding your horse.  Many of you realize, like me, that you can get more from your outside experience by riding your horse.  We see things other people don't see because we horseback ride.  Our horses can watch their feet so we can see the beauty around us.  It lets us appreciate nature even more.  And, of course, we enjoy the bond we have with our animals throughout the whole experience.

I'm asking you to think about how you use the trails in your area.  Now what can you do differently, maybe something mentioned above, maybe something mentioned on the Leave No Trace website that is a part of their other principles - what can you do differently to leave a little bit less of an impact or to augment the experience of someone else who may be using the same area (horse user or non-horse user)?

© Liz Stout

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

*Updated!* Packing photos

Clearly the Blogger App from my phone doesn't do photos well at all.  Thus, I'm redoing the post.

Gini, she's the reason I'm here!  She's also sending home two pack saddles with me for the summer.  Griffin is DEFINITELY learning to pack, and Q will likely get a lesson or two, also!  Oh, and Gini won Best Condition in the Old Dominion 100 several years ago...HOW COOL IS THAT!?

My packing partner Rebecca and I with our teacher, and Montana packing legend, Bob Hoverson.  Bob spent 42 years packing as a part of his job with the Forest Service.  He has written a book and has put out a DVD about packing Decker style.  Its been a lot of fun learning from him and getting to know him over the past two weeks.

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of learning, meeting new friends, and playing in the Smokies.  I'm now a Leave No Trace Master Educator and can teach any of you the LNT information I have been taught.  In addition to all the LNT information, I learned a LOT about how to properly pack a horse into the backcountry.  I will be applying all the LNT principles and the packing knowledge come Monday morning.

I made the decision on Thursday to travel east for the weekend to stay with my Aunt and Uncle and visit my grandparents.  The Smokies are pretty, but ee gads are they HUMID.  I though WV was humid...WV is NOTHING compared to this.  Basically everything I owned was damp in some way/shape/form.  Yuck-o.

I mosied the 2 hours east with a stop in Asheville to eat the sushi I was jonesing for and to do a little boutique shopping.  I hadn't bought myself any clothes since October 2011.  That's a pretty good amount of time and I'm proud of myself for being able to do that, but I gave in yesterday and bought a cute green dress that will be very versatile.

I've done 4 loads of laundry and am currently packing/repacking my car for the trip back to the mountains for the pack trip.

We have a limited number of stock that we're allowed to take into the park, so getting in the equipment we need to build the hitching rails and the people we need to do it is tricky.  Lots of preparation and planning ahead! 

We will be traveling a total of 34 miles to install hitching rails on the Appalachian Trail.  I'm excited to experience my first trip and settle into "life at 3 mph".

The lumber bunks featured here are how we will pack pipes and lumber onto the Appalachian Trail to build the hitching rails.

I'm really excited to finally apply all I've been learning - and I'm really excited to get to pull a string of animals! 

More posts will follow in the upcoming days, I plan to rehash what I've learned and memorable moments into a series of posts while its fresh in my mind.  Photos will be minimal until I've returned home to my  CS4 capabilities.

And obviously a bigger keg would be easier, but we learned how to properly pack a keg into the backcountry.

I've been doing my best to keep up with everyone while I've been away; only one more week until I return to the "real world".  =)

On one of the many natural balds with a 360 degree view of the Smokies.

WW: On the Farm

The 3 year old on the left and the 2 year old on the right; babies gotta get some down time.
I love Oliver's ears
"Are you my mother?"  ...more like, "Are you gonna EAT ME?!"
Baby peacock by the way.  Two of them this year.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Friesian Sporthorse Adventures!

AKA Liz's dream come true.  Full-blood Friesians, and the sporthorse version, are just so MAJESTIC and BEAUTIFUL.  Squee!

I mean, just LOOK at him!!  Eli is a 7 year old Friesian x Percheron gelding.  He's A's baby.  He's been under saddle for a year now.  His quick, feisty personality complements A's perfectly.  They're a very good match.

I had a blast watching A work him.  The areas she has to work him back home in WV aren't the MOST ideal, but they do the job.  (We labored our butts off to wrestle a bunch of panels into a round pen so she has another option in the upcoming week.)

Time to stretch!

I've watched her journey with Eli via Facebook for the past year or so.  I've always dreamed of meeting him in person.  He's so dreamy.

Loooove him! 

Thanks, A, for helping one of my horse dreams come true!  Now, for autumn weather and FOX HUNTING!