“So I understand you wanted to hear about selling?”
I was standing on the side of a mountain in the Muskwa-Kechika Wilderness, sweating. All around me was dense brush. My horse Leon had blown up — he was anxious that the rest of the pack string had disappeared into the heavy forest up ahead. He’d had no patience for being led methodically up a very steep, slippery, rocky slope.
Being in heavy muck boots rather than my familiar hiking shoes, I didn’t have the balance to move swiftly, especially on steep, rocky clay that had already been churned up by about fifteen large horses. Better to take it slowly, watch my feet and take my time. Not a NASCAR race. At 66, and having done plenty of these kinds of trips, I’ve learned that nobody hands out hero buttons for showing off how fast you can get up and down a mountain.
It’s how safely you can do it, especially with heavily-laden pack horses.
Sometimes, a horse that has decided to go ballistic can make that challenging. We had been standing quietly at the base of the mountain waiting our turn. However, as soon as the butts of the pack horses ahead of us had disappeared, Leon got very anxious.
Horses do that at times, and those with less experience, like Leon, are more likely to do it than others. It depends on lots of factors.
I was saying Whoa buddy, whoa buddy, softly, calmly, but it had no effect whatsoever. Screaming and yelling your frustration are the marks of a rank rookie.
Not many choices here. Alex, one of the guides riding in the back, had seen my horse panic. He called at me to toss the reins around the saddle horn and let him go. That was our only choice in this situation, and I was quite happy to hike. I could catch up to him later on one of our lunch breaks.
I barely got one rein up and around the horn before Leon whacked me to the ground on the steep, narrow trail and took off. I was more concerned about that trailing rein than much else. These were extreme conditions, and you want to protect your animals.
As soon as I stood up, the next two pack horses, Percheron mixes with large sets of heavy panniers on either sides of their bodies, slammed into me like a bowling pin. For the uninformed, Percherons are enormous. They are draft horses, bred for work, and their hooves are the size of crock pots.
Shit, man. Ow.
We had just begun our day. I was already bruised and injured and we had hardly begun working our way through some of the most difficult terrain in this wilderness. The next four days were going to be brutally hard, and I was starting them off with a bang. Literally.
Now Guy, an Aussie on his third trip with MK Adventures, was standing quietly behind me on the trail as we waited, asking me about selling.
WTF? Right now???
Seconds before, a plaintive whine had wafted down from the front of the pack line.
“Julia come get your horse…..”
Leon, who was still very new to the pack line and these adventures and had suffered at the hands of a very poor rider for the two weeks prior (he had reason to be anxious) had committed the supreme insult of coming to a stop behind her and this person’s adopted ward. The “ward” a 65-year-old woman who was terrified of horses (and she signed up for this trip why, for god’s sake?) and was hanging on to her saddle horn like Quasimodo. Leon was doing what horses do- wait in line. Not biting or kicking. But this rookie was threatened for some reason. It apparently didn’t occur that perhaps, if Leon had shown up sans rider, something had happened at the back of the pack. As someone who has done close to forty of these trips, if I let a horse go, it’s for a damned good reason.
I hadn’t whistled an emergency because it wasn’t. I was walking. The horse was temporarily unsafe. That’s what happens on these trips sometimes.
Of course it didn’t occur to her. She’s a rookie.
The smart thing to do is quietly wait and see. Usually whatever is going on becomes pretty clear in time.
Steam was coming out of my ears. Rookies- and most especially for some reason on horse trips, elect themselves assistant wranglers and assistant guides for no other reason than anxiety. It’s a stress response, as natural as breathing. Experienced folks don’t do that. We’re probably far more aware of what we aren’t good at and if anything, keep asking questions which makes us look like rookies.
One of the smartest women I know, my mentor of 33 years and a serious outdoor woman all her life, told me that the three smartest words she ever learned were,
“I don’t know.”
The next three smartest words were,
“Please teach me.”
Rookies spend a lot of time talking about what they know, or think they know, trying to convince you and themselves that they aren’t rookies.
It’s what they do. It’s their job. Unless you’re the guide, whose job it indeed is to teach, about all you can do is ignore them, stay out of their way and hope to hell you don’t get injured because of a decision they make. That doesn’t mean you don’t watch out for them, because you do- but the more fearful and inexperienced, the more likely they are to be an additional liability.
Christ, Guy, WTF?
Then I realized what he was saying and why.
Guy’s an Aussie. It’s his accent. Sailing is what he said.
A few days prior I’d found out that this quiet, unassuming man, an executive for Qantas Airlines, had spent a few years in preparation to spend a month on a racing yacht with seventeen other souls.
In the late winter Pacific ocean, China to North America. High seas.
WTF, man, WTF. I was duly impressed. Had reason to be. I wanted to hear all about it. You bet I did.
Part of what Guy had gone through was working with people who had likely annoyed the shit out of him, as I was letting this rookie do now, and he was defusing the situation. Those of us who do these trips regularly, and I do, as does Guy, see this kind of behavior all the time. In close quarters you have to bite your tongue, or you risk exacerbating the situation.
He knew exactly what he was doing. Distracting me, and letting me blow off steam. Making it funny. It WAS funny.
Smart as hell.
God I love guys like this.
OMG your horse is standing behind me OMG this so so terrible it’s completely out of control OMG what are we going to DOOOOOOOOO…….
JULIA come get your horse.
A major emergency is a torrential rain making the river rise, taking out your campground and your gear, scattering all your tents, people, horses and saddles. THAT is a major emergency. Not a riderless horse behind you in line.
All you can do is laugh it off. These are the kinds of situations which, on adventure travel, teach you unbelievable lessons about patience, about keeping your counsel, about not blowing your top, about simply walking away from a potential blow up.
Guy has seen some pretty extreme conditions. The Pacific in late winter? Hell, I wouldn’t do that. Not on your life.
Guy had shared a 70-ft yacht with those seventeen people, sleeping in four- or six-hour shifts, suffering constant jet lag, getting drenched with huge cold waves hour after hour and learning to sleep on an angled (shared) bunk while the boat methodically slammed down every six seconds onto another concrete-hard wave while tacking. Getting right back into cold wet gear a few hours after getting out of cold wet gear. Even while wearing a dry suit, which helps, but my god, your hands.
You get tired. Irritated. Angry. Exhausted. But you have to stay on top of things at all times, because if you don’t, someone can get swept overboard by a wave because they aren’t clipped in. That is what happened on another boat. A very experienced sailor. She was lost at sea.
Talk about life lessons.
The key is preparation. Guy had put in months of prep before his sailing trip. He showed up ready.
And, he’d also learned to ride (as did his son, Lachlen) before coming on this adventure. He knew the drill. While the website says that you don’t have to be an experienced horseman to come, it sure helps to take riding lessons, and in every way you have to be fit. Fit means resilient. Able to handle injuries and discomfort and the demands of long days of constant work.
I turned to him, and we discussed sailing. He stood quietly with me as I let off a bit of steam. We grinned the shared grin of people who had seen one or two rookies in action. When I thanked him for letting me blather, he said, kindly,
“I might need to bend your ear at some point. You never know.” We laughed.
Michelle, one of the guides in the back, made her way past us in the dense brush to move Leon- terrible, awful, threatening, riderless Leon- in front of the two rookies. Major calamity avoided, riderless horse moved up two spaces in line.
For crying out loud, grow up.
The thoughts rise unbidden. I’m well aware they aren’t generous. That’s why I go on these trips. You get to see yourself in action, study your thoughts and behaviors good, bad and ugly, take responsibility for them and learn from them. If you’re lucky perhaps you see things that you need to, make decisions about them, and that is your blueprint going forward. You get to see where you’ve done the same things, where you’ve shown up as an asshole or a jerk. People are mirrors. If you’re completely oblivious, you simply impose on others. Are a danger to others. And have no clue you’re doing it. The worst get defensive and angry and self-righteous.
Seen that too. Especially this trip.
The real beauty is in the good people who showed up prepared responsibly, ready to work, and happy to poke you in the ribs when you need it. That comes with confidence. Guy had plenty of it.
If you aren’t a regular adventure traveler, you may be seduced into thinking that the typical adventurer (man in this case) who hies off into the hinterlands uses “antlers in all of his decorating” a la Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.
Or, is like the inimitable Bear Grylls.
You couldn’t be more wrong. That’s part of the delight of these trips.
Guy is in his early fifties. Slightly stooped, a bit of a paunch, slim. Quiet, unassuming, he looks precisely as what he is: a thirty-year executive with Qantas. Not exactly Norm from Life. Be In It fame, but not exactly your buff surfer dude either. Not even Crocodile Dundee.
However, this same man regularly puts himself into extreme conditions, builds his skills, pushes his limits. By every measure that I can see, he belongs in the wild. Calm, capable, quiet, never panicking, and thoughtful of others. Strong. Prepared, and fit to take on the job.
He would put nearly every big-muscled man at my local gym to shame, not only with what he knows about sailing and outdoor skills, but his quiet, easy competence and confidence under extraordinary circumstances. His humor, (which is Aussie, and after four years in that country, one of my favorite traits of those folks) and his ability to swiftly see and act on what’s necessary.
In the first leg of my two back-to-back trips with MK Expeditions, a Canadian man named Eddie was along. He is one of the wranglers’ fathers, a monumentally capable, sweet, happy man who had gone on a previous trip. Our head guide, Wayne Sawchuk, had invited him when we had a cancellation. Not only did Eddie leap at the opportunity to spend two weeks in the wild with his supremely capable son (a farrier, wilderness guide and search and rescue expert) but his exquisite good humor lightened the load for the lot of us every day.
Eddie’s also no Gaston. He looks like what he is: a middle-aged Canadian man, greying, no bulging biceps. But if you made the mistake of judging Eddie on the fact that he’s no Gaston, you’d be a damned fool.
Because he is, in fact, the quintessential mountain man. He is, in fact, Paul Bunyan, the real thing.
People forget, in this world of appearances over authenticity, that big muscles aren’t necessarily a big help. Most of the military’s most elite forces are compact, lean folks who seem very quiet and unassuming. As a military veteran, I met plenty. Many, you’d never guess. But you’d better not cross them, either.
I would choose Guy or Eddie over any uber-muscled Lumbersexual any day. Eddie knows the wild, how to hunt, he knows the woods and the challenges. He is uber-competent. A delight to be around. By Eddie’s own words, not an expert rider, but by god in every way someone you can count on. If I had a sore day he was right there to help me lift a heavy saddle aboard Comet, the horse I road when Leon was demoted to pack horse for a while to calm him down.
What would you have on your trip? Beefcake that looks like “can do” or real competence?
At the end of my second trip, Guy and I were sharing a moment. I’d had several injuries- let’s be clear, I push myself very hard, and this was one of the toughest physical trips I’d ever done.
He said that I had “amazed him.” Had been an inspiration. Coming from Guy this was a high compliment. I’ve got some fifteen years on Guy, so perhaps he was a bit surprised. I often am, too, by what I find when I take on adventures like this.
I’d been badly injured a number of times and with the exception of perhaps three rest days (when we are allowed to sleep in) I was up before 3:30 every single morning setting up camp, before the guides were up, sometimes in the cold and rain when my hands don’t work worth a shit because I have Reynaud’s. I love the work and I love the challenge. Moving warms me up and helps me deal with the pain. Besides, you learn a hell of a lot more having breakfast with the guides than sitting around with rookies who are complimenting each other on how well they ride horses so safe a four-year-old could damned near ride to Alaska without incident.
Before I began doing adventure travel, I had this romantic notion of what the guides looked like. Their attributes. I clearly had seen too many Disney movies (yes, I’m a original cast member from WDW in 1971 so I have an excuse). I am regularly beyond delighted to report that those who belong in the wild may well surprise the hell out of you. They’re usually the ones not bragging about their competence around the campfire.
They’re the ones gathering wood to put under the tarp for the morning coffee just in case of rain. Ensuring that the water pails are full for the first folks up so that the kettle is steaming hot for breakfast for the early risers. Making sure that the tarps cover the gear in case of a downpour.
They’re just competent. Concerned for the group, keeping an eye out for what people need, and offering it as best they can. They’re not ISO hero buttons.
I really admire people like Guy. Eddie. People who are simply excellent at what they do, push their boundaries, don’t claim geography they don’t own and know how to make you laugh when pressurized steam is escaping the brain pan.
Beefcake is nice to look at. Competence, capability, quick humor are priceless. If you recall from Beauty and the Beast, Gaston, with all that gorgeous hunky muscle and the chiseled cleft chin, was a jerk. An arrogant, dangerous, self-absorbed asshole who could have cared less about anyone else.
The true Paul Bunyans often don’t look at all like mythical characters. But they can save a life. Save a trip. Save your sanity.
They remind you in every way why you signed up for the trip.