Wayne leaned back in his chair, his white mustache and slightly grizzled face expressive.
“Camp Rule #2,” he smiled, and I did too because I knew what was coming, “is that nobody touches the red cup.”
The Red Cup was Wayne’s coffee cup, badly stained from years of use. Lotta history in that cup. The first two-week Expedition #1, I somehow missed that memo and almost committed the serious crime of hijacking the Red Cup. I was stopped in mid-lift and invited to Put. The. Cup. Back.
I didn’t take it again. Washed it lots of times. Filled it a few times. That’s an easy rule. You can touch it if you put a sugar, a creamer (one each) and hot, freshly-brewed coffee in it for Wayne. Other than that…hands off.
‘The First Rule of Camp is to stay calm at all times,” he smiled at us.
Sawchuk operates a wilderness adventure company in the Northern BC Rockies. Every year since the mid-1980s he has run small group horse packing trips through the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area, a massive slice of pristine wilderness that he and a dedicated group of folks have worked hard to protect.
Good reason, too. Plans had been made to build roads, and as Americans have found out, roads mean logging, development, and losses. Permanent losses, terrible devastation of wilderness, and unrecoverable beauty. Clear cutting. As we saw repeatedly on our travels, wide swaths of cut trees even decades later haven’t grown back from the Bedeaux Expedition of the 1930s. Perhaps never will.
M-K is still safe, for now. Which is one reason Sawchuk, now in his sixties, is training young people to take up his cause, and bringing more people on his trips. His plan, in part, is to ensure that ours isn’t the last generation to enjoy the MK in all its untrammeled beauty.
And her wildness.
The trips aren’t for sissies. Some grow, some shrink.
Let’s just say if you are terrified of horses (yes, we had one of those, which boggles the mind) this is not the trip for you. Yet some folks show up anyway, and they either learn or they don’t. At the very least they are exposed, and sometimes that’s all it takes.
As Sawchuk says, that’s one vote in the right direction. In Canada, anyway.
Because to be exposed repeatedly during the course of long, hard, brutally challenging days to some of the most breathtaking scenery on the face of the earth is, well…kinda transforming.
Rule #2. Stay calm.
At all times. I had signed up for back-to-back trips, which isn’t very common (hell, one guy famously signed up for six weeks straight. I don’t know about you but by the time I got to four weeks, I smelled so bad even a grizzly wouldn’t consider me a viable snack). I had the chance to watch two very different groups of folks ride and hike these trails. Calm is essential, because shit happens.
Man, does shit happen.
Sometimes serious shit, like injuries (the woman who was terrified of horses was a waiting accident, and that’s precisely what did happen. Horses will treat you like dead baggage on their backs if all you do is hang on to the saddle horn and provide no guidance or direction and simply leave the reins on a horse’s neck, which is what she did. I will stop here, you get my drift.)
On our first trip we had shouters. Screamers. Yellers.
That’s not calm. As Wayne said from the back of his nearly 30-year-old horse Bonus, who is superbly trained, “Yelling is bad karma for the trip.” It’s also bad for the horses and general sense of capability.
The first trip I rode in the forward middle, if for no other reason than to escape the noise level from the back. One of the uber capable young guides said, kindly, that he thought that one of our riders (a woman of 60) was hard of hearing. She shouted incessantly, screaming WHOA and STOP at the top of her lungs. Sometimes for reasons, sometimes not.
That’s just not calm.
The problem with this, as in life in general, is that if you’re shrieking all the time, it’s damned hard to tell if there’s a legitimate issue. Such as, a pack sliding off a horse’s back, someone falling off, a saddle issue. They happen. It’s a rare day indeed that a green horse carrying heavy panniers doesn’t try to force himself through a pair of trees far too close together to accommodate himself and his load. Experienced horses have learned to gauge that distance, and most stay on the trail through the forest for that reason.
Horses “blow up,” especially green ones, terrified of the trail or the weight or being bullied by established pack horses who kick and bite (even though muzzled, to prevent grazing along the way). They’re peckish, horses, and anyone who rides in a group regularly learns to let go of riding next to his best buddy if the horses don’t get along. Or, if they’re constantly irritated, as with unnecessary and excited noise for no reason.
It was a bit exhausting to listen to this one woman yell, and others yelled too, so the back of the line- some 23 of us, pack horses and paid clients and guides alike- was loud and genuinely annoying.
To say the least, all the wildlife worth gazing at in the peace of wild day also heard it and likely said, “Screw this, man. I’m outta here.” They don’t need chaos either.
It sounded chaotic back there and sometimes was. Small things were all too often treated like major emergencies.
Rule Number 1: Stay calm at all times.
Wayne had some time back instituted a whistle system which apparently is still in its relative infancy. One whistle meant stop, problem. Two was let’s go, we’re good. Three, was come help me NOW. Another meant mount or dismount, and after four weeks I still couldn’t recognize it, and simply watched folks ahead of me or asked a guide for the instructions. The first ride eschewed the whistles and simply screamed and yelled.
For nearly the whole trip.
Wayne would hear the commotion, dismount. Drop the reins. Once the reins were on the ground Bonus didn’t move an inch (we’re gonna miss that horse, Wayne said, sadly). Then we had to wait until someone told us what was going on. The horses would keep moving forward until they had caught up to Bonus, which is common, as they are herd animals. Meanwhile in the back people continued to yell WHOA STOP repeatedly, without realizing- and it is just common sense- that the horses are stopping on their own terms at the head of the line, assuming there’s room. Or sometimes they make room.
Calm at all times. The horses will stop when they stop. Just calm down for a moment. People forget that while yes, this might be your first time on the trail, Sawchuk’s been doing this for three decades. He’s patient, calm, and happy to wait until someone tells him what the Great Big Emergency is. Given some of the genuine Great Big Emergencies that Sawchuk has experienced (ask the guides), chances are what you and I see is pretty pedestrian. Not that it’s not important, but compared to most things, likely pretty simple to fix.
That’s what calm does. Offers perspective.
The only time I used the whistle myself was when I was galloping behind an out of control pack horse-turned green riding horse ridden by a very green rider who insisted on riding him. We were hurtling through smallish trees and the trail jinked this way and that without warning. Ten feet behind her I could see it coming as she had no control whatsoever. Her horse was anxious because he’d lost sight of the pack up ahead. She went right, he jinked left, and she went flying. At 67, not a good thing. My horse, also anxious and a bolter, fought me when I pulled him to a stop and pulled out my whistle.
Three strong whistles, then RIDER DOWN. We had guides coming up from behind who could hear, and she was in the weeds and out of sight. This is the only time I yelled. She was fine, dinged, but fine (note to riders, yoga helps. She does yoga).
All right, two others. Once when a +2000 lb horse appropriately named Big Rig stood on my left foot, and another when my second horse, Leon, leapt out from under me as I was lifting my right leg over the saddle to dismount and slammed my head on a rock. Both comments are unprintable. Didn’t panic, but did express myself colorfully. You should see the bruises. Better than a Florida sunset and they last longer.
Panic kills. It causes people to do ridiculously foolish things, rather than to watch what’s developing, and consider your options. Calm- as well as a sense of humor (that helps in the high wild) about the inevitable, like injuries and horses that stomp on your feet- allow you to be highly creative and solve problems.
Problems in the wilderness are legion. They range from the perpetual deadfall while riding through old burns, when trees eventually topple across your path. The pack horse Locket, who traveled behind Wayne, carried a chain saw when an ax was too small. The rest of us (mostly) sat, waited, and swatted the deer flies and horse flies and mosquitoes.
Unnecessary delays caused by wholly unnecessary panic becomes a problem. Here’s why: you get a sudden, tremendous downpour. Rivers rise. You come into a camp really late at night and discover complications or issues that are a real concern. Making camp in time to break down the panniers, get the saddles, bridles and halters protected under thick canvas tarps and setting up a “blue sky” plastic tarp overhead in case of rain take a great deal of time. Unnecessary delays caused by unnecessary panic and fake emergencies on the trail can cause real issues late in the day.
You can see the life and business analogies.
The wilderness forces people to see and think differently. It’s not just a ride along a garden path. These are long, long days of rising early, cooking breakfast, breaking camp, getting the horses (who have wandered off at night to lusher fodder) packed. This takes about three hours or so, depending on when the horses are gathered up like so many large errant butterflies, jangling the bells on their necks, and tied to the trees to be loaded up for yet another day.
Calm at all times.
People today aren’t naturally good at this. It’s an art form, and a skill you can develop. We carry our angst and anxiety with us the same way these huge Percheron-mix pack horses carry our panniers. Would that our anxiety be as easy to unload. Truth is, time in the wild is the forest bathing the Japanese love, for the colors of bush and rock and sunset and sunrise and milky turquoise glacial streams (totally potable) have a way of washing your shit away.
If you don’t bring so much shit with you that you cover everyone else with it that is, but that’s another article entirely.
One of the side benefits of a trip with Sawchuk is that you end up- if you’re willing to do the work- with outdoor skills that heretofore were completely beyond your ken. Perhaps more importantly, you get efficient at tent set up, breakdown, and the complex business of organizing the large orange panniers that each horse carries.
That’s your food, house, supplies, everything in there. And for the health of the horse, those panniers have to be completely balanced. You can’t have one side five pounds heavier than the other. Scales and math are involved, and the business of ensuring a safe trip for the horse as well as you is protected.
Calm at all times. And don’t take the Red Cup.
Horses are funny animals. I’ve ridden them since I was four, which makes a very long time (I’m 66). I am still a rookie. Not because I don’t know how to ride, but because every country, every outfitter, every state, every stable, every horse presents a different challenge. Calm is essential, as horses are fight or flight animals. The animals on our trip are largely experienced, large (Percheron mixes, that means BIG), but no horse is bomb proof.
To wit, one moke on our first trip, who claimed to have worked with horses for years and had a great deal of experience, wandered off into the tall weeds and bushes on a river bed while we were waiting for one of the newer pack horses to get his panniers repositioned.
Here’s the setup: we’re in grizzly country. Grizzlies are massive brown bears. They can burst out of the brush at any time (although unlikely to do so with such a large group). This man was Black, wore brown clothing, and was quite tall, and wore a big brown hat.
So when he marched at speed out of the weeds after relieving himself, he startled the holy shit out of nearly twenty horses, who turned in terror and ran back towards the river because the guy looked like a grizzly. Scared the shit out of me, too, before I recognized him, but my concern was to get my horse under control. The herd will sweep all the riders with it right back into the river — where accidents can happen.
No horse sense at all. None whatsoever. Horses and people get hurt that way.
Calm at all times. Rule #1.
Shortly after beginning the second leg of my trip, with a brand new group, we rode over some lovely mountains and through rocky streams. The horses push and shove and kick at one another, jockeying for a preferred spot or trying to be near a favored horse buddy. There’s no way to control that kind of activity, and in this kind of adventure you wouldn’t want to tie the horses into a string. Given the challenges of the terrain and the fact that each horse has to pick his own way across a fast moving river or over rocky trails, they are best left to their own devices.
As we rode to the top of the pass before descending into another mountain range, I was riding behind one of my favorites, a massive red roan named Hank, when I noticed that his right front hock was bright red. So was a rear leg, but the front leg was bleeding profusely.
I called Wayne’s attention to Hank. Turns out he had cut himself a very deep, nasty cut on some rocks, likely during a river crossing, possibly while being jostled by other horses in a hurry to get…well wherever. Like us, like life.
A bit chaotic.
That cut would eat up most of our bandage supply over the following two weeks. One of our farriers, a young woman named Michelle, expertly cleaned and dressed the wound while Hank patiently endured the attention. He would get a reduced load, but still had to work. And would the rest of the summer.
That injury, because the horses are in every single way our top priority, was an excellent lesson in why being calm is so important. When folks panic unnecessarily, they injure. The bandages have to go first to the horse. To wit: When I later twisted my left ankle on a loose rock while dismounting about two days before the end of the trip, we barely had a single Ace wrap bandage left. The other guide expertly wrapped me up, with the admonishment that it had to go back to Hank if possible. Supplies were low.
No problem. The tight wrap and a Tylenol allowed me to put my work in for the night, gathering firewood and schlepping water before setting up my own tent and collapsing onto the soft bed of damp moss that made up the forest floor under my tent tarp. I returned the bandage two days later, mostly clean, and still usable for Hank. New supplies would be coming in on the river boats which carted the new clients for Expedition #3. New clothing, fresh gear, more food, lots of medical supplies for Hank.
No need for panic.
As with most of life.
Horses, even the best ones, even the ones whose owners claim they are bomb-proof, will panic. Traveling with 23 of them potentially teaches you to be respectful primarily of their needs for calm leadership. No horses, no trip. No horses, no way out of the MK wilderness. Kinda makes your priorities pretty clear.
Calm at all times. And Never Take the Red Cup.