Gunnison, Colorado. First you’ve got to get there. That’s right, there’s something standing between home in northeast Ohio and the West Elk Wilderness in south central Colorado, the chosen destination for three friends and I for a high country, western elk hunt.
That something is actually a lot of somethings, including 1,700 miles of boring pavement, another 18 miles of the most brutal, tire-busting, fender-scratching, mirror-bending, slip-sliding, boulder-rolling back road most of us will ever be asked to travel, and finally a horseback jaunt on a thrilling network of ancient pack trails which cut through picturesque and extremely steep mountain terrain.
Thus we saddled four well-conditioned and experienced trail horses and strapped down four perfectly-loaded pack animals including a couple muscled mules and another pair of horses.
According to outfitter, Jon Sund, owner-operator, marketer, wrangler, head packer and chief bottle washer for the Eagle Mountain Outfitters, the choice of saddle horses for this long and demanding ride into the nowhere of a vast hunk of western Rockies outback is not something he takes lightly.
Sund said that our horses worked hard the day before and they’ll work hard again tomorrow. And on this day, the day of our “pack-in,” each of our rides is ready to go.
He keeps about 40 head on the ranch including a generation of older, experienced trail horses that can be ridden or loaded with gear each and every day.
Sund said that he replaces a few horses and mules each year but as new replacements the animals are not used for heavy loads. Instead he invests in younger horses then works at conditioning them to become reliable trail horses.
So before being asked to haul loads or hunters, a horse has been through a program that takes two or three years and includes carrying light loads and traversing dangerous mountain trails.
Sund said he has be sure that the horse is safe and sure-footed before it becomes a regular on the trail. And as much as anything, Sund’s horses and mules can be counted on to perform without long periods of rest.
I was assigned Badger, a big white mare with a mild attitude. She was steady and sure-footed and seemed as happy in the lead as in the dust behind. I liked her because of her quick response to a tap or tug.
At one point I reined Badger out of the pack so that she and I could ride out ahead to get a picture of the string of animals and hunters. Badger rolled her eyes at me several times as if to ask if I was sure we were allowed out of order.
Indeed, these carefully conditioned work horses know the drill. The ride, for this fellow, is one of the highlights of a wilderness trip. Switchbacks up and down, shale slides to cross, creeks to ford and several steep trails to sweat along the way.
The what-ifs of a ride like this, along trails like this and on horses like this, can be scary to a worrier, but for the most part it is at least enjoyable if not thrilling.
Our rifles were resting in scabbards and jackets rolled behind saddles, the sun was shining and the mountain breeze comforting. One could not ask for more — or better. Picture perfect and on every inch of the trail, the promise of a great week in the wilds.
It pays to get a few hours in the saddle before a trip like this. An hours-long ride with lots ups and downs can be a demanding experience on weak knees and ankles.
We rode nearly four hours before reaching our drop camp tent, a canvas outfitters tent sitting on a reasonably flat slope some 10,000 feet in the thin air. In just minutes our string of animals was gone and a fine silence surrounded our camp.
A silence that is increasingly hard to find these days.
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