For the past year, my husband, Richard, and I have been riding the trails behind our ranch to prepare our horses for mountain camping.
For our first high-country adventure, we chose the Eagle Cap Wilderness in northeastern Oregon. An article in TheTrail Rider about the Minam River Lodge in Joseph ("Jewel in the Wilderness," Postcard From … Oregon, May/June ’05) had piqued my interest. This lodge is accessed only by horseback, hiking, or private plane.
We rode the 8.5 mile trail to the lodge on Lance, my 5-year-old Kentucky Mountain Horse, and Guillermo, Richard’s 10-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter. We then spent two days riding the river trail loops near the lodge.
On the third day, we packed up our gear and headed up to Standley Guard Station on the top of Standley Ridge. The steep, six-mile trail climbs from 3,800 feet to 7,200 feet in 4.5 miles.
We were told we could make it to the guard station in about three hours "if our horses were in shape." Although our horses were fit, it took us more than four hours, as we had to stop frequently to let them catch their breath.
Our First Highline
The guard station is a historic log structure. It’s closed for use, but makes a picturesque backdrop and is surrounded by deep green meadows. We’d trained the horses to hobble, so they did well taking small steps while grazing.
That night, we set up a highline, gave the horses feedbags with alfalfa pellets, and slept in our lightweight tent. The next morning, we awoke to intact high lines, with no tangles and peaceful horses. (We were thrilled that our horses were now experienced with high country, hobbles, and high lines!)For our next day’s ride, my husband had chosen the infamous Washboard Trail, described in a hiking book as "very steep and rugged country, not well suited to inexperienced horses or riders." We decided to continue on it unless it was beyond our ability.
We started the trail at the guard station and followed it toward the jagged Washboard Ridge. At first, the trail was easy, with little exposure and magnificent views of China Cap Peak and the Minam River drainage.
About 1.5 miles in, the west side became exposed; we were traveling on a rock ledge, our right legs steady on the horses’ sides to keep them away from the downhill slope.
At 7,310 feet in elevation, we came to a sign signaling Blowout Basin. A quarter-mile later, we saw the sign for Eagles Nest, the start of the most difficult part of the trail.
We walked for a few more minutes, then saw the steep uphill climb on chipped rock, with a sheer hillside on the right. Apparently, there have been several horse wrecks here. We kept our focus, easily climbed the "horse wreck" slope, and made it to Miners Basin, 4.5 miles from Standley Guard Station.
We watered our horses at Miners Basin, and let them graze in a soggy meadow. We knew the way back would be more difficult. Lance and Guillermo would have to go downhill on the chipped-rock section, controlling their hindquarters.
I led the way on Lance, who has much more experience. With my command, "Hip!" he sat down on his rear and made the tricky section look effortless.
Guillermo decided to swing his hindquarters to the left, the exposed side. I could hear rock coming off the trail, but couldn’t look back.
Later, I learned that Richard was bumping him with his spur to get his hindquarters back on the trail, but Guillermo just sped up. We were lucky they didn’t go further off the trail. (Richard did have his boots backed out of the stirrups, just in case he needed to bail.)
The next day, we headed back down the steep trail to the lodge. Going down was much trickier than going up. There was much exposure. On every steep part, I heard rock flying off the trail behind me, as Guillermo kept swinging his hip over the side.
When I had a chance to glance around, I was horrified by the sight of Guillermo going sideways down a narrow, exposed trail.
Once, the trail disappeared. While leading Lance, I found myself about 50 feet above the actual trail, on a steep talus slope. I yelled back at Richard that he needed to dismount and lead Guillermo.
I pivoted Lance 45 degrees, pointed him straight down, and commanded, "Hip!" He sat right down, using his back end as brakes and shuffling his front legs until we hit the correct trail, then made a sharp turn to get us onto the main, packed-dirt trail.
Back at the Minam Lodge, we shared our adventure with seasoned packers. One said, "You rode the Washboard? You’ve done what not a lot of people have done."
Although it made us feel good that we’d accomplished the challenge, we realized that Guillermo needs more experience going down steep slopes and controlling his swinging hips.
My husband rides him down steep trails with no exposure. I lead the way, listening to Richard barking out, "Hip!" knowing that we’re getting ready for our next high-country trip.
For more information on Minam River Lodge, call (541) 508-2719, or visit www.theminamlodge.com.