Alaska isn’t normally trail-riding country. Only a mere handful of Alaskan guides and backpackers provide horses. The terrain is difficult, the weather and conditions harsh. Animals and riders must be tough to survive. Alaskan mounts are therefore selected for spirit, intelligence, stability, strength, and fearlessness. A horse that spooks at the scent of a bear or quits one hundred miles from nowhere is a danger both to himself and his rider.
I’m an old Alaskan hand. I’ve canoed solo across Yukon Territory and into Alaska, hiked the Wrangells, hunted grizzly and caribou in the Far North, and fished the streams, lakes, and seacoasts of America’s wildest and most beautiful state.
However, even I had certain misgivings when big-game guide and old friend Les Cobb called me at my ranch in Oklahoma, and asked me to help his wranglers move a remuda through some of the most primitive country in Alaska to a moose-hunting camp along the Yukon River. That entailed a 150-mile cross-country ride into the Central Upland north of Fairbanks, across the Yukon River (no bridge), then downstream through dangerous and unpleasant swamps and marshes.
“Good,” Les said. “We start in August.”
During a lifetime of ranching, riding, and roping – including a stint as a rodeo bareback bronc rider in my misspent youth – I thought I’d done everything with a horse that could be done. I was wrong.
I flew to Fairbanks, where Les picked me up in his old Ford pickup for the 100-mile drive north to his Lost Creek Ranch near Manley Hot Springs. There, we joined another friend, two wranglers, and a band of 12 Quarter Horse-crosses. Six of the mounts were veterans of moose, caribou, and bear hunts. The other half were 3-year-olds barely green broke; we’d complete their training along the way.
The boss of the herd was a big gray gelding, an Alaskan type of horse with the scars to prove it. Smoky took his job of protecting the other horses with a single-mindedness that’s resulted in his being mauled by bears and gored by a moose. Les started the gelding’s training as a 2-year-old by feeding him on a freshly skinned bear hide. Smoky would kick and stomp dickens out of the hide before settling down to dinner. In the process, he developed a grudge that he now takes out on every foolish bruin that so much as attempts to cop a wild blueberry within his sight.
As trail boss, Les would switch off between Smoky and Jasper, his 26-year-old Appaloosa. Gabe Rogers, a retired insurance man from California, drew a big, gentle buckskin gelding. The Lost Creek Wranglers, Bryan Parker and Chad Bembenek – both young hands in their 20s – and I split the colts among us.
Doc, my main pony, was a brown 10-year-old gelding with the personality of a wet saddle blanket, but he proved sound and surefooted. My colts were War Paint, a lanky brown-and-white Paint, and Blue Steel, a little roan Quarter Horse gelding both intelligent and inexhaustible. Both had only a few hours under saddle.
All were specially shod – thick shoes nailed on and clamped down with flanges – before we set out from Lost Creek with supplies overstuffed in saddlebags, rolls, and pack saddles. Wyatt Earp had endured a winter iced in on the Yukon not far from the ranch. Jack London wrote some of his short stories from cabins around nearby Eureka. The country has changed little since then, especially in the bush.
Any semblance of a trail ended at an old gold-mining camp. From that point on, we navigated by compass, map, and the modern miracle, global positioning system, climbing through conifer timber as thick as dog fur, into the Uplands, then across high-country tundra toward the Yukon River.
Alaska is a changeable country, miserable and even deadly at times, turning fairyland magnificent in the blink of an eye. Autumn begins in late July or August. It can snow in July, but more likely it rains.
A cold, wretched drizzle fell daily, soaking leather, clothing, skin, and morale. Mildew crawled into every crevice of my gear. I felt it growing in my ears and nose. My hat turned green around the band. Magnificent bull moose with racks the size of cottonwoods deigned only single, dismissive glances before moseying off into the cold rain. It was unlikely they’d ever seen horses before. Our cavalcade undoubtedly appeared slow and harmless toiling through the belly-deep muskeg and therefore of little interest.
In-between rain showers, fog settled so densely that we appeared and disappeared in and out of the mist like ghost riders in the sky. Camp consisted of a stretched tarp for shelter and a fire blazing in a hopeless attempt to dry out equipment. Riders too exhausted to care crept into damp bedrolls, while the horses grazed from picket lines, snorting whenever a moose or bear wandered near. On the move, I hunkered in the saddle waxing nostalgic over a roaring fire back at the ranch while icy water dribbled down the back of my poncho.
Evolution produced equines bred for covering great distances fairly rapidly on sparse graze. Horses in the Lower 48 sometimes founder on rich feed and inadequate exercise. That would never happen to these ponies. They had to live off the land and a supplement of alfalfa cubes at the end of each day. Les called a grazing break every few hours to keep up the animals’ weight and strength. They did well on the routine.
I frequently changed horses, from Doc to Blue to the Paint, leading the spares daisy-chained behind. The colts settled down after a few days of travel and no longer even humped up when wet blankets struck their backs at the beginning of a new day.
On the fourth morning, Alaska’s changeable personality abruptly changed, as it will. The weather broke and the fog lifted to reveal a spectacular panorama. We’d reached the Yukon River. It twisted through the valley below, casting back sunlight like a diamond string cutting through the dark forest. Beyond, snowcaps of the Brooks Range stepped toward the North Pole.
Dismounting, we led the horses one at a time down steep drop-offs scabbed with dense timber, old landslides, and washouts. It was lung-busting labor. War Paint lost his footing and slammed into me in a storm of loosened rock, mud, and tree branches. Tangled together, we plunged to the bottom of a ravine. His iron-shod hoof came down on top of my foot during the melee to untangle ourselves. Only soft mulching soil prevented its being crushed.
Spread-legged and spooked, War Paint regarded me as though to say, “Another fine kettle of fish you got me in, Ollie.”
“If you think this is scary, wait until you see the raft,” I chided him as, limping, I led him the rest of the way down to the river.
The Yukon is a cold, strong river that at this point stretched a mile across. One of Les’ hunting guides met us with a powerboat and a flat-bottomed John boat. In a two-day operation fraught with the possibility of disaster, we felled fir logs, fashioned a raft around the John boat for stability, coaxed the suspicious horses into a makeshift floating stall one or two at a time, and pushed the raft and horses across with the powerboat. Fortunately, the procedure went off without a single hitch, other than a horse or rider taking a brief unintended plunge into the icy water.
“Now, it really starts getting rough,” Les warned.
Numerous streams junctioning the Yukon create vast swamps in the floodplains booby-trapped with mires and quicksand. Alders, willow, and conifers grew so thick, we often had to dismount and hack our way through with axes and machetes. Horses floundered in the mud and had to be roped out of quicksand. We horse-jumped smaller tributaries, waded the shallow ones, and stripped to our underwear to swim in the deeper glacial waters with our mounts. Legions of mosquitoes attacked with a distressing persistence that was enough to drive a shrink mad. Caribou and moose have been known to die of blood loss because of mosquito bites.
Twelve hours of pounding the saddle sometimes produced no more than an actual mile’s progress toward our destination. Muscles ached from strain and fatigue.
I spotted moose occasionally, sometimes an eagle or fox. Wolves serenaded from the hills. Bear sign increased. I glimpsed one now and then ghosting through the timber. Prowling griz made the stock restless. A full-grown grizzly is a half-ton or more of unpredictable nasty temper with enough power to overturn and maul an SUV. One of the fastest animals on the planet, it can outrun a horse at short distances. With the speed comes a terrifying set of claws like sharpened steel hinges and teeth in a mighty trap of a jaw. Les insisted no one leave camp without a .44 magnum strapped to his hip.
The only civilization we encountered in nearly two weeks was the tiny Indian settlement of Tanana. Its only access was by boat, bush plane, boot leather, or, in the winter, snowmobile or dog sled. That the school closed and the entire town turned out to greet and celebrate our passage attests to the rarity of horses in this part of Alaska. Some of the Indian children had never seen a live horse.
We began the final push to reach the moose camp, an abandoned trapper’s cabin set in the woods about a half-mile back from the banks of the river. Chaos erupted on the last night’s camp when Chad’s pale horse Dakota, Les’ Jasper, and another colt broke loose in a plot to go back home.
Tails ringing and hooves pounding, the trio stampeded up the rocky riverbank, leaped into the Tozitna River where it mouthed into the Yukon, and began stroking hard for the other side. We could be days combing them out of the bush if they succeeded in escaping – provided the grizzlies didn’t get them first.
Bryan, Chad, Les, and I vaulted astride other mounts and rode beans for leather in an attempt to turn back the deserters. Bryan and his mount made a beautiful dive into the river. As the wrangler slid off into the current to let his horse pull him across, he lost his grip on the slippery saddle leather and floundered in the cold water. A lot of Alaskans never learn to swim, Bryan among them.
Chad urged his palomino into the stream after Bryan. I hit the ground running at the stream bank and threw off my boots before I dived in. The water was so chill I thought I was having a heart attack. Les cast a long loop toward Bryan as, struggling and on the verge of being sucked under with the weight of his boots and clothing, he was being swept into the Yukon.
Chad reached the drowning man first. His palomino towed them both to safety on the far side. They quickly recovered and continued in pursuit of the runaways. There’s no time for navel-gazing in an emergency. The escapees were finally rounded up and returned.
The last camp of our trek, the twelfth, was wet and uncomfortable. Steam hissed from saddles, pads, clothing, and other gear arranged around a bonfire to dry. Although my 58-year-old bones had taken a battering, I felt warm and at peace with myself and the world.
Picketed horses rested at the edge of the firelight. Somewhere in the high country back from the river, a pack of timber wolves created original theme music for this wild and beautiful land. Alaska is truly the last frontier. There are so few places left like it in the world where riders can take off through unspoiled country as our frontier forefathers had done in that other Old West a century ago.
Charles W. Sasser has been a full-time freelance writer/journalist/photographer since 1979. He’s a veteran of both the U.S. Navy (journalist) and U.S. Army (Special Forces, the Green Berets), a combat veteran, and a former combat correspondent wounded in action. He also served 14 years as a police officer. He’s taught at universities, lectured nationwide, and traveled extensively throughout the world. He’s the author of nearly 50 books, and 2,500 magazine articles and short stories.