Riding makes wilderness trekking more comfortable

Posted: Friday, September 03, 2004

COOPER LANDING Floyd Green showed up wearing spurs and a neckerchief, looking so country-western he would put Toby Keith to shame. Gaelyn Alexander, with arm muscles any tough woman would die for, tightened the horses' harnesses with practiced ease.

Watching all this while waiting for a trail ride to begin with Alaska Horsemen Trail Adventures proved comforting. Though I had been on horses many times, my hours in the saddle were limited to stadium rides or short trail rides on manicured paths.

This time we were heading into the Alaska backcountry.

Travel on horseback puts wilderness camping in a whole new perspective. From atop a horse the trail looks skinnier, the hillsides steeper. Sit on a horse, listen to horseshoes slip on unstable rock and try not to flinch.

Still, the ride ended up being memorable.

This may be why, at a time when some recreational activities are fading, trail riding is growing. A 1996 American Horse Council study ''The National Economic Impact of the Horse Industry'' said 2.9 million horses in the country are used solely for recreation by 4.3 million people who ride them. They are part of a $23.8 billion industry that employs more than 300,000 people.

Before our group of riders left the Alaska Horsemen Trail Adventures headquarters here near Kenai Lake, owner Alex Kime offered a short tutorial. This is Kime's eighth year offering trips that range from two-hour trail rides to multi-day pack trips into the Chugach Mountains. He is one of at least a dozen operators from Fairbanks to Homer that offer such trips, and each company has special places it takes clients to visit. Our destination was Crescent Lake.

''I absolutely love what I do,'' he said. ''I think in a nutshell it's getting the people out here and showing them what a beautiful place this is, sharing it with them. Get them on the right trip and put them on the right horse, and you'll never see a happier person.''

On the trail, the horses, accustomed to the routine and the terrain, followed each other. It was 7 miles up the valley from the trail head to Crescent Lake, a popular destination for hikers, mountain bikers and anglers. On the multi-use trails, Kime reminds his clients to be friendly, let hikers know they are coming and try to get out of the way to let others pass.

Getting used to the horse's bulk didn't take long, and within a mile everyone seemed at ease. Occasionally Kime would tell one of us to slow our horse down on a hill or keep its head from dropping to munch grass.

''They're working,'' he would say. ''They can hold off 'til we get there.''

Mostly, though, there was silence as the horses moved steadily along the trail, allowing their human companions a chance to appreciate the scenery. When we reached a high ledge that looked across the valley to a rise of mountains, we marveled at the beauty.

Normally, I might have been sweating beneath a 35-pound backpack, concentrating on making it up the steep hill and missing the view. From one vantage point we even noticed a moose running across the steep hillside across the valley. Minutes later, Green and Kime saw a grizzly, possibly two, on the moose's trail. From the safety of our perches across the valley it was like watching a nature program on public television, but better.

Farther up the trail, where it follows a steep canyon down to Crescent Creek, the horses picked their way over rocks and dirt while we leaned over for a closer look below. Kime pointed out the remains of an old gold mining operation, which apparently has been there for decades. In all my previous trips on foot to Crescent Lake, I had never noticed it. The difference in the view was amazing.

''Your perspective is really different from so high,'' Alexander said as she led the way, breaking errant low-hanging branches off trees as she went. ''You never notice these things when you're walking.''

Packing with horses makes camping different too. Four-footed friends make it possible to sleep on the thickest of sleeping pads alone in a tent big enough to hold five. Steaks and baked potatoes replace freeze-dried noodles. Folding chairs come out to provide comfortable sitting.

According to the Horse and Mule Trail Guide USA, a pack horse can carry as much as 175 pounds for a shorter trip or 150 pounds for long, 20- to 25-mile days. That means it's possible to bring such luxuries as fresh eggs, blocks of cheese, oversized tents and even wood stoves to keep warm. Some packers bring extra ''living quarters'' tents that keep bugs out and give groups of riders a place to congregate in the evening.

At our camp, a quarter-mile past the Crescent Lake Forest Service cabin, Alexander showed she had the horse-packing routine perfected. Within minutes she had removed the horses' saddles and bags, rubbed them down and tied them safely around the camp. They blissfully ate in the overgrown grasses while Kime got dinner started. Steaks the size of platters sizzled on the fire and acorn squash roasted in foil wrappers in hot embers.

Kime, who said he is most comfortable in the mountains, sat back in his camp chair and sighed.

''Isn't this just great,'' he said, as the lake sparkled in the dimming sun and the sound of a horse whinnying broke the silence. ''I just love it when we have a customer who comes out here and just gets it. They just see the beauty and appreciate it for what it is.''

We all sat silently. Later, after eating more food than seemed imaginable, I crawled into my massive tent, snuggled under a hugely lofty sleeping bag and felt my body sink into a 3-inch-thick sleeping pad.

Then I silently thanked the horses for making this cushy camp out possible.

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