Horseback through the Gila Wilderness – 90% magic, 20% terrifying — Day 3

30 miles in 3 days – Day 3

West Fork, Gila River, Gila Wilderness — early morning

Dawn came softly.  I had just closed my eyes to a deep sky full of stars, and now I opened to a sky just lightening.  Carol’s and Allyson’s sleeping bags were not moving, suggesting that they were both still in the Land of Nod.  Behind me, though, I could hear firewood being thrown onto the morning fire.  Looking past my feet into the trees, six horses moved at a hobbled pace through the grass, heads down and cropping.  They had been released from their ties and sent out to breakfast. 

I resisted the urge to immediately go looking for coffee, instead rolling up my sleeping bag, folding my tarps, gathering my stuff into a coherent pile and taking my saddle pads over to where the saddles and tack were stacked.  My saddle blanket went with me to fireside to provide my seat cushion on the log.

Other than a bright good-morning, Corbin and Joe continued getting ready for our day: building up the fire, filling the coffee pot and the cook pot with water and setting them on the coals to boil, cutting fruit for our breakfast of oatmeal.  Corbin had made a comment the evening before that there’s something therapeutic about sitting and staring into a campfire.  I practiced a little pre-prandial therapy, since there was little I could do to help the preparations.  Eventually, we were all gathered, coffee mugs and oatmeal in hand and the day properly begun.

As we sat and compared nighttime noise stories – I had heard a Great Horned Owl and wondered if anyone else did – occasionally either Joe or Corbin would count to six.  If they only counted to five, Corbin would go in search of the missing horse.  This was something I had observed previously while in camp. Even though hobbled around the front feet, a horse can make quite a bit of headway, often ranging out of sight. He would encourage them back, usually with little trouble.  His horse, Biscuit, had an investigative nose.  She was often poking around the food stores, poking at Corbin’s bedroll, or at anything else she found interesting.  Poor Smoke, on the other hand, had little patience for her hobbles. This morning, as she tried to move forward, she stumbled over her front feet, sat back on her haunches, and stood in a quiver.  Joe looked at her and just shook his head. When I curried and cajoled her later, I noticed that she had a little scrape on each front foot, just above the hoof.

Well fed, once again, and it was time to pack up for our last day.  As we were ready to leave the fire, Corbin – or was it Joe? – told us that not long after we left the camp, we would come to a part of the trail that runs along on the side of a steep hill for about 1/4 mile.  Looking right at me, he said, “But Smoke is an old pro at this.”  Well, yes, maybe she is.  But I surely am not. 

Oy vey.  And here I thought the rest of our ride would be a stroll along the river, with the terror of yesterday’s Hells Hole put behind us.  Well, as an old country song goes, “If you got your confidence with you, you can do anything.”  We saddled up, mounted up, and headed out on our last 10+/-miles, including that 1/4 mile of hillside. I started working on my confidence right away.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the trail trended upward along the side of a partially wooded-partially rocky slope.  It wasn’t steep enough to switchback and we weren’t climbing to the top. Rather the trail continued laterally.  However, the challenge became obvious quickly.  Most of the hillside was composed of talus slumped down from the top. Here was a difficulty for the horses that they didn’t have to navigate coming down Hells Hole trail.  The trail was etched in across loose rock that clinked and slipped under their feet as they minced their way along. And then there was about 8 feet of slickrock slanted downhill to cross.

I engaged in both an out-loud and an under-breath conversation getting across that quarter-mile.  “Watch your feet, girl.  Ok, Smoke, be careful. You can do this.”  Alternating with, under my breath: “f**kohf**kohsh*tTrust Your Horseahsh*tTrust Your Horseahf**k.”  “Good Smoke, watch your feet, girl. Take it easy, Smoke.”   Well, she did and Joe, who’d been leading on Jet, with Kissee tethered to him, was waiting on the now-wooded and pine-needled gentling slope to give me a thumbs-up. I grinned and announced the obvious, “I made it, white knuckles and all.” Allyson, riding behind me, had heard my overt exhortations to Smoke, but fortunately not my self-talk.

The West Fork Gorge is stunning. The walls are crenelated and hoodoo-ed. The river slips between the walls, sometimes pushing the trail up against the foot of the cliffs, sometimes forcing the trail up and over little ridges.  A lot of rock on the river edges and in the river bed, rock of not insignificant size.  Some of the riversides are a drop from a level trail, down a rocky slope and up on the far side.  Smoke picked her way carefully down the rock, stepping between rocks in crossing the river and jostling up the far slope.  Occasionally, her foot would step into a hole, pitching us forward. I did a lot of standing in my stirrups – stand-and-lean-back going down and stand-and-lean-forward to get up the other side. I peeked at the walls and spires of the gorge as much as I could.  We stopped at several river crossings to water the horses and took advantage of those moments to pull out cameras and make record of the beauty and drama. This was part of the magic I didn’t want to miss.

Corbin on the trail along the river in the West Fork gorge
Carol takes a picture while Raider eyes another snack.
Last lunch before leaving the Wilderness

Eventually we encountered people.  And dogs. And noise.  Backpackers setting up camp under a rock overhang.  Hikers with two loose dogs; they held the dogs as we walked by. More hikers, casual as they stepped off-trail.  Just as we were plunged into the vibrant fall colors and through the flood plain covered with Chamisa as we left the Gila Cliff area, we rode back into that environment after crossing the boundary out of the Wilderness.

Leaving the West Fork gorge and into the Gila River flood plain.

Coming into Woodys Corral, we were met by Joe’s support team with their trucks and trailers.  I got my last dismount assist, took Smoke to a rail and tied her up.  I unloaded my personal gear and put it in Carol’s car.  Then, I unbridled Smoke and with Corbin’s help, pulled off the saddle, the saddle pads and blanket, saddle bags, rope and all the accoutrements of the trail and took everything to Joe’s truck. Time to say goodbye to Smoke.  I rubbed her muzzle and scratched her forehead and down between her eyes.  I reached under her chin and gave her head a hug.  Another muzzle rub and another attempt at a head-hug.  I guess Smoke isn’t a hugger; she tossed her head up and away from my attention. So, ok, I get it.  Well, bye, Smoke.  And thanks.

My selfie on Smoke

Horseback through the Gila Wilderness – 90% magic, 20% terrifying — Day 2

30 miles in 3 days – Day 2

Prior Creek to Lilley Park. Hells Hole Terror. Along the West Fork Gila River

The half-moon set sometime early in the night.  The temperature dropped and my head got a little cold.  Solved that by pulling my fleece vest from my “pillow” stack of clothes and wrapping it around my head.  Peeking through the armhole of the vest, I gazed up at the star-struck night sky.  Saddle pads do not a soft mattress make. Hips sore from being launched onto and sliding off a saddle do not an easy rest make. But the stars made up for a lot. I must have fallen asleep because suddenly, it was dawn. 

The fire was crackling as Corbin moved around in front of the flames, throwing firewood on.  Horses were released from their overnight ties and hobbled, turned out to graze on the sparse grasses. I got dressed in the confines of my sleeping bag, pulled on socks and shoes and rolled up the bedding. Stumbled over to the fire to find my cup left on a rock and made a cup of instant coffee. No creamer but mocha/chocolate powder made a sweet substitute.  Rocks were fireside patio chairs, topped with saddle blankets for cushions.  Breakfast was foiled and laying on the coals to heat.  Red chile beef tamales, bread and fresh fruit.

We didn’t hurry breakfast, taking time for coffee and a bit of conversation even though we had about 10 miles over 5 or so hours of riding.  What’s the trail and schedule for today.  What is our destination. Where will we find water for the horses and for ourselves. And for me, what terror awaits.

I went to find Smoke, who was hobbled and befuddled.  I tried to lead her back; she stumbled and mumbled.  Once I took the hobbles off, she was happier and came along peaceably. We curried, saddled and packed. The packhorse, Kissee, was loaded and strapped.  Breakfast fire was extinguished.  We were up and off. 

Smoke is loaded and ready. Carol finishing up with Raider
Allyson preps Young Gun

We had several miles of quiet, peaceful Ponderosa pine forest to travel along the Prior Creek drainage.  Prior Creek was full and running, and the horses slurped water up through their “straws.”  Upstream a little further, we dismounted, let the horses graze and filled our own water bottles at the spring source.  Joe and Corbin trusted the spring water and only filtered it through their kerchiefs into their bottles.  The three of us took advantage of Carol’s filtration system to remove all doubt, filled 3 water bottles each for a total of about 6 liters.  This water had to last us until tomorrow.

I rode second in our line, behind Corbin in the lead.  Behind me, I could hear Carol, Allyson and Joe in conversation, though I could not hear enough to follow.  A word or phrase but not a thread.  I let that go and just rode, staying present and holding in memory my surroundings, my experience of Wilderness, and my body’s movement in concert with my horse. Looking at the Ponderosa forest, seeing an owl take silent wing from a low-hanging branch. Knowing in the moment that this would be one of the highlights of this trip.

We cut across from Prior Creek trail to Lilley Park trail, somewhat reversing direction and headed for our lunch stop.

Hells Hole. There is only one way to get from the plateau to the river and that is down.  Hells Hole is the point Joe chose to make that descent.  It is called Hells Hole because when you are on the edge of it, you can’t see the bottom.  One and one-quarter mile down the side of the gorge.  A narrow trail switchbacking along a sheer face and definitely no gentle fall-away. And me with my fear of heights and edges. Compound that by being several feet off the ground on a horse and not in control of my own fear – um, feet.

Of course I knew it was coming.  Joe told us the route well in advance and I had the topo map.  He had ridden the route a couple of weeks before to check the trail conditions and water sources and confirmed that even he was a bit nervous going down; he assured me I could walk if I needed to.  From our lunch stop to the edge of the abyss, I repeated my mantra: “Trust your horse. I can do this.  Trust your horse. I can do this.”  I got as far as the first switchback, looked down into an eternity of empty space and called out, “Joe, I can’t do this.”  We stopped the horses, he got me down off Smoke, neither of us went over the side in the process.  For the next 1/2 mile or so, I walked at a horse’s pace behind Joe, the pack horse and Smoke, followed by Allyson, Carol and Corbin on their horses.  Joe walked too, to slow the pace enough for me to keep up.  I could hear the breath of Allyson’s Young Gun at my back and her frequently calling “Ho” to slow him down.  Finally, I could see trees and a slight leveling of the trail.  Joe stopped the horses, came and boosted me up on Smoke and I felt, whew, we’re almost there.  No.  We rode the trail for a few hundred yards around several more switchbacks and then out onto open edges again.  Back off my horse, back on my own two feet, down another 1/2 mile at horses’ pace. Until finally, the river was in sight – and a most wonderful sight it was. I got back on Smoke, to let her do the walking and to rest my burning thighs.

West Fork, Gila River, Gila Wilderness

We dropped into the river, literally, crossed over and continued for a mile or so to the campsite Joe had planned for the night.  Repeating the routine of the night before, we unsaddled and hobbled the horses, staked out sleeping areas, gathered firewood and started the dinner fire.

Joe and Corbin — bedrolls
Campfire 2nd night — one cook pot and one coffee pot.

This night, the sun set on the cliffs and hoodoos of the West Fork gorge.  We sat by the fire later into the night, talking and sipping hot tea.   I found a spot for my sleeping bag that had a nice little concave area, perfect for resting sore hips. I crawled into my sleeping bag with my saddle blanket on top for warmth, wrapped my head in my fleece vest again, and watched the stars brighten until I found sleep. 

West Fork, Gila River Gorge, Gila Wilderness
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