If accessing wilderness and remote areas on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, such as the Tustumena Bench, seems unrealistic because of cost or the difficulty of getting there, consider travel by horseback. As a Refuge law enforcement officer, I have traveled the backcountry on horseback patrols to make hunter contacts without injury to horse or rider.
My recent trips entailed horseback riding on the Hansen and Funny River Horse Trails, portions of the Caribou Hills, and the west fork of the Funny River. During these recent backcountry trips, I was fortunate to work with experienced horse packing guides who made the journeys memorable.
As any experienced horse person knows, riding into the backcountry can provide many new and exciting moments such as our ever-changing Alaskan weather, downed trees across the trail, branches slapping your face, swamps and, everybody’s favorite, hornet’s nests. Despite these challenges, there is nothing that beats seeing the world from the back of a horse.
Having not been on a horse since my sister and I had ridden our family’s Appaloosa when I preferred to hold onto the saddle horn, I admittedly had to get comfortable in the saddle before riding off into the backcountry. So in 2007, I attended a horse-packing clinic in Montana to understand the basics and to brush up on the fundamentals of being around horses, preparing for and learning how to pack or “manty” your gear, and how to do it safely.
My first trip took place in late September 2010 during the early draw permit season for moose in Game Management Unit 15B. The Hansen Horse Trail parallels the Funny River and a 2-day ride eventually leads to the Timberline Lakes area on the Tustumena Bench. We set out with two riding horses and one packhorse to maximize mobility and flexibility during our wandering on the benchlands. While riding in, we encountered hunters both on the trail and camped who held draw permits for moose or were after black bear. We experienced decent trail conditions that were dry and clear of most deadfall due to the ambitious efforts of the Refuge trail crew.
And, of course, ground hornets. During my introduction to hornets, I quickly learned that the horse and its pack have to go in the same direction no matter what I wanted them to do. Nevertheless, we got past the hornets and on our way. The trail meandered through black spruce and birch with occasional stands of aspen eventually giving way to open meadows and alder-laden draws.
The following day put us above tree line at Top Camp, also called Lookout Camp, an area long used by horse packers. It was beautiful. A glance to the north gave views of the Kenai Mountains and Skilak Lake and, to the east, a view of the Funny River headwaters.
During that first crisp fall morning we were greeted with the sounds of a bull and cow in their mating ritual. The bull was a 3 by 4 with 50-plus-inch antlers. He paid us no attention as he intently followed the cow within 50 yards of camp. Below in the draw, we could hear and eventually see two bulls, plywood smacking plywood, as they dueled it out only to eventually disappear into the thick alders. The weather continued to cooperate for us and provide clear vistas to the north across the Funny where we observed a camp, possibly a caribou hunter, and eventually we rode toward the headwaters of the Funny River.
On a horse patrol along the Funny River area in 2012, I had the good fortune to ride a Norwegian Fjord named Cody. He was what his owner called an “honest horse.” And after working and riding him for four days, I learned to appreciate his easy going way and sureness, so I would say we were evenly matched. While crossing a rather small and narrow, but apparently dark and deep, little creek, I discovered that horses prefer water crossings that are wide and visibly shallow. It was about this time that my riding partner mentioned Cody might hop across — fortunately I had the horse-sense to grab the saddle horn. Who knew horses hopped?! As I directed Cody to the water’s edge he seemed to gather his legs up under him like a cat and got us across.
I came to realize a horse is always listening, and that wind can sometimes create a little chaos so thinking a little like a horse is not a bad thing. During these trips I learned that each horse has its own unique personality, and what causes concern for one horse would not even faze another. I also learned to watch my horse’s ears as they would tell me well in advance if there was a hazard coming up such as a big black stump, crooked branches or whatever else the horse decided was dangerous.
With the exception of the Fuller Lakes Trail, all Refuge trails and routes are open to horseback riding. But not all trails are suitable for horses. The trails were originally built for hiking and do not accommodate horses very well as they tend to be narrow and sometimes slick, so it is advisable to scout a trail before riding a horse there. Information on Refuge trails and horsepacking can be found on-line or at the Refuge Headquarters on Ski Hill Road.
Kelly Modla is a Federal Wildlife Officer at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.