Monday, September 29, 2014

Dolly Sods Ride

West Virginia has a lot of public lands around the area I live and grew up in. These areas have very few restrictions to horseback riding, too, which is phenomenal. Our local riding groups have pretty good relations with the Forest Service, too. I've ridden in other remote/wilderness areas in the state, but never Dolly Sods.

Riding at Dolly Sods has been on my bucket list for years now. The local clubs and horse folks do a ride up there once or twice a year, but I'm always so busy on those weekends with ski patrol things and otherwise that I haven't been able to go. I realized that in order to make the dream come to fruition I'd need to take things into my own hands. And so I did.

Yesterday Kenai and Q and I along with my friend Danny and his dog Jack headed up to do a 10 mile ride at the Sods. Danny planned to hike with the dogs while I rode. Because the Sods is a wilderness area and far from any semblance of cell service, having someone with me was key. We were able to rendezvous multiple times on trail, whether I walked back to him or paused for a time and waited.

The weather was absolutely PERFECT. Low to mid 70s, slight breeze, partly cloudy, low humidity. Bonus? The leaves up there were PEAK. Photos do absolutely ZERO justice to how incredible it was. I was in a zen-state for most of the ride, completely blissed out about where I was and the fact that I was riding my horse in that place. 

The trail we did, Blackbird Knob, is noted as 4.7 miles on the map. I figured we'd go out and back for a good 10ish miles. Danny was totally up for a good 10 mile day on foot.

By total fault of my own, I didn't bring a rasp with me - something I usually bring Just In Case. I haven't trimmed Q's feet in a couple weeks either, so they weren't quite perfect for her boots, and rather than risk the integrity of the boots, I just decided to see how far we got barefoot without issue. Answer: all 10 miles! Over some seriously gnarly terrain. I was super proud of my little mare. It was a great self-trimming ride by the end!

I didn't know how the footing would be for certain. I know it can be gnarly up there, but I just wasn't for sure how the percentages of good vs. bad would play out on the trail. I wanted to ride some relatively gnarly stuff (one big reason for riding the Sods) because I wanted Q to be able to practice over rough terrain similar to what the OD rides have - and that was my only goal. It's a good thing I had no great goal other than that, too, because the trail was so gnarly for 85% of the way that I was forced to walk if I hoped to keep a sound horse!

Added bonus? Q was absolutely OUTSTANDING all day. More forward down the trail than she has been in a LONG time. And not too spooky either! She loved having Kenai out front to guide her through most of it, as he could easily keep up with our 3mph walking pace. I think I'm really going to have to look into getting a dog that loves to run/can handle heat for future conditioning pursuits in coming years for Q and potentially any horse I may have that has confidence issues; Q gains so much confidence by having something in the lead be it dog, person, horse, or bike.

Something Karen noted in the past week or so about Ashke on trail really got me thinking and was confirmed in a small way yesterday: Karen noted that Ashke seems bored with certain trails and more eager about new ones. I think this applies to Q, too. At home, she's not thrilled with having to do the same thing again and again (and I'm not either), but on new trails and away from home she's typically much better. At the Sods, she wanted to Get Down the Trail and See What's Around the Bend more than she ever has. I was even able to practice some great tailing!

I'd expected all day to get a sharp warning from someone about my off leash dog (Danny's, too) but no one ever said a thing. (Kenai is seriously the best. His blaze orange vest provides a visual, his e-collar provides a safety net for having him return to me, and he knows his job is to be with me and not pay mind to others. He'll remain within 30 feet of me and keep my pace. If Q stopped, he'd stop. If it was an extended stop, he'd find a place just off trail to lay down and wait. Do I know and recognize and accept the dangers of off-leash dogs? Yes. That is my risk to take.) I did get  oodles of comments from other trail users about Q though!

Most comments were just remarks of surprise about the fact that a horse could handle that terrain. All but one interaction were neutral or positive in nature. Everyone I ran into all day yielded to Q and I, and I thanked each and every one of them, and picked up quick, but amiable conversations with others as we passed. I even paused for a time to talk to some curious folks about the fact that Q was barefoot and how that changes the way she'll navigate terrain (more focused on how and where she places her feet than a shoed horse may do - something these folks thought was really cool!). Those folks shared with me their experiences with Morgan horses and their sure-footedness.

The negative interaction with another trail user re: horse use was the only unpleasant part to the day. An older woman, probably in her 70s, was passing us with her hiking partner (presumably husband based on their behavior) for the second time as we both returned toward the directions we'd come from. Danny was about a minute behind me on trail, Q and Kenai and I were bopping along at a sedate pace, just enjoying the area and watching our footing.

The woman asked if I was allowed to have a horse back there in a quiet, yet accusatory tone of voice. Yes, Know Before You Go - a rule all should follow before heading out to do any activity in the wild. I noted that yes, horses were allowed.

She insisted that horses were not allowed in wilderness areas. No, you're wrong. Motorized vehicles are forbidden in wilderness areas, sometimes bikes, not horses, at least not here. I assured that they were allowed here, noting that there are few to no restrictions on horse use in West Virginia.

She insisted that it was a Federal law that horses couldn't be in wilderness areas, and then noted about how much "damage" they do to the trails and how the poop attracts flies. Okay, lady. You show me on the trail today where you've seen "damage" from horses that counters that of human foot traffic. I'll give you the poop and flies thing, but seriously, if you're in a wilderness area and worried about poop and bugs, you've got bigger problems. I told her that her point could be debated (more so in reference to the "damage") and she jumped on me noting that there was no debate. Woman, I work for the Federal government. I am also a Leave No Trace Master Educator. I also spoke with a USFS employee twice on trail today as we passed and he did nothing but smile at me and tell me to have a great ride after our second interaction. If you want to accuse someone of ill-knowledge about horse use on trails, you've picked the wrong individual. I've been trained to talk to people like you with a smile on my face, kind words of understanding from my mouth, and active listening techniques. I see where you could think that hooves cause damage, but in truth, it isn't much more than your own two feet. We're trained to abide by the same Leave No Trace principles of foot travel in these areas as you are. I understand that the white chalk marks from metal shoes on the rocks may be unsightly, and the manure isn't ideal, but the marks you've seen today and the poop remaining is the result of a 40+ person ride on one day a week ago. The 'damage' from that is MINIMAL all things considered! I didn't see a single trash item from those folks, nor did I observe hoofprints OFF trail in relatively preserved, pristine areas. They did a superb job at maintaining the area considering the large numbers that were present. And no, such large numbers are not advisable, but sometimes it happens.

Danny and Jack showed up at that point, helping me to further bite my tongue than what I was already doing (because all of my thoughts listed above in italics were about to come spouting out of my mouth for real), and I instead continued to smile - as I had been doing - and told her to have a nice day, and Q walked onward.

It's worth noting that Q stood quietly and politely for the entire interaction. Good mare.

Such a seriously amazing day overall. Just what I needed, just what Q needed.

Have some photos and videos to tell the rest of the story. Words just can't do it justice.

Atop Dolly Sods, not quite to where we parked

Looks bare already on the opposing mountainside, but in truth, it was plastered with oranges, reds, and russets

Emerging into Dolly Sods proper from a brief time in the woods. Color explosion.

Photos just don't do it justice!

I was pretty psyched.

Look at that happy, relaxed expression!

Eager ears, all day.

Traversing down the trail.

Wandering the woods with such colorful blasts was an experience!

Happy ears.

A tunnel of mountain laurel and red spruce.

Kenai BOUNDING up what I was about to lead Q DOWN!
Talk about gnarly terrain! Q handled it with grace though.

A photo that doesn't quite do justice to what I led Q down to cross the stream.

Black water typical of the high elevation areas in WV

The canter video above was one of the few areas of good footing all day!

Climbing a particularly gnarly section of trail up from the second creek crossing; we rode down this later with zero issues


Such a good horse.

If that rumor I heard about Indian Graves being re-added to Fort Valley is true, I think we're ready!

Unmused Q is unamused. Haha.

This section of forest was 95% beech, 5% striped maple

Photos do NOT do the color justice.

The colors are so dulled in most photos compared to real life.

So freaking beautiful. Once again, dull areas in the distance that seem bare of leaves were really reds and oranges.


My trail partners for most of the day as Danny and Jack stayed further back

A sample of what the footing consisted of for a large portion of the day

Yes, horses can travel these trails!

Trail. Creek bed?

Kenai's feet are all black from Dolly Sods mud

And in case the above photos have not clued you  into what the footing was like, here are four videos to further demonstrate. Watch for how Q chooses to place her feet. She was slow yet methodical in the trickiest of areas. In the final video, she took a line I wasn't anticipating, and then careened off trail while I noted to her that I accepted that she was sick of the rocks, but too bad because the trail does not go this way and as soon as we'd cross the creek (not pictured) she'd be done with the worst of the rocks. (These videos were taken through the worst of the worst sections.)

This is where Q and Kenai stood and lay while I took a nap at the midway point of our day.

Relaxed animals are relaxed.

Blueberry bushes turn red in the fall.

Gah, this photo is SO DULL and dreary in comparison to what the day truly was.

Q chowed down hard the second half of the ride.
She also drank, and peed, and pooped in the time we were out.
Good endurance poneh.

A great shot Danny snuck of me cantering Q toward him at some point

And now for a video of me tailing Q up a short section of trail.

And a short clip of me leading Q across a rocky section of creek - my phone memory filled up and cut the video short! I remedied it after, but definitely wasn't going to make Q repeat for the sake of a video.

And here's a clip Danny got of me tailing Q up the super steep stuff after we crossed the creek. Note Jack struggling up it after us!

And finally, a short clip of Q crossing the boardwalk we had to cross to begin and end our day.

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