Packstring

I showed up at the barn as daylight was arriving. Tim had caught and fed the animals, and was in the process of saddling them. He handed me a hoof pick, and I went around lifting hooves and scraping out the caked-in mud and manure. I found a few small stones and pried them out. We led each saddled animal into the trailer and tied them to the side. They knew what was up.

At the Pete Lake trailhead, we led them out and tied them to the side of the trailer. Maggie, Polly, Buck and Cisco had pads and lumber carriers attached to their Decker pack saddles. Stoney got a set of pannier boxes. This seemed like one of the most important steps of the whole process–loading each animal with about 100 pounds of lumber, making sure the loads were securely tied and properly balanced. Finally we were ready to go. I climbed up on Apollo’s back, adjusted my feet in the stirrups, took the reins in my left hand and Maggie’s lead rope in my right. Polly was tied behind her. My three were eager to get going. We followed Tim and his guys.

I’ve done enough trail riding that my body remembers how to do it. It’s not a passive activity. Attention must be paid to the animals, and the body has to shift weight. It’s not like walking under one’s own power. Apollo didn’t try any tricks on me–some crafty old horses will attempt to wipe a rider off against a tree or deliberately go under a low-hanging branch. Or they’ll dawdle, try to snatch a bite of brush as they pass, or nip at the animal in front of them. Apollo is a handsome paint horse and takes his business seriously. I gave him my apple core at lunchtime. He said, “For me? OK, I’ll eat that.”

The ride to Pete Lake was shady. Most of the leaves have come off the brush. Mosses are plump and velvety green after the fall rains. No one else was on the trail. A few juncos flitted and chirped. Hemlock needles fell in a quiet patter. There was the creak of leather and lumber, the clop and thud of hooves. We stopped for a break at the lake, and checked cinches and loads before heading up the Waptus Pass trail. I have memories of toiling up its steep switchbacks on hot days, rainy days, cold days. Today the horses were sweating instead of me. It didn’t seem fair.

Before long we found the mudhole. The animals didn’t care for the deep mud, and tried to lunge through it. No doubt that it needs a fix. We unloaded the lumber and hardware and left it stacked next to the cedar tree the trail crew fell for bridge stringers. The work will be done next season. It was midafternoon, and time to head back. Apollo and I led the others down the hill–he liked that. His ears went up and he was an alert lead horse. I could feel him sniffing the air, sensing his environment. Tim and I got off to walk down the steep part, to spare the animals and our knees.

The afternoon drained away. The temperature dropped, and clouds came over the Cascade crest. I reached behind the saddle to find the wool jacket I had tied there. Shrugged into it as I rode, savoring the warmth. The packstring was zombie hiking. This is what the trail crew calls a long walk after working all day. You’re tired, you fall silent, your mind empties, you just want to get back so you can stop walking. Tim had stopped his murmuring “Step up here, boys…..don’t be a dipshit, Buck….” There was a perceptible change in speed as Apollo recognized places on the trail indicating we were almost back to the trailer. We removed the pads, lumber carriers, and pannier boxes. Led everybody into the trailer and tied them up short for the ride back. It was getting dark, and rain spattered the windshield.

We ended the day where we had started it, in the barn. Animals were fed, unsaddled, checked over for hoof problems or sores. They all went out in the corral and we could hear them rolling on the ground to get the feel of the saddle off their backs.

As Tim said, it was a good day because nothing bad happened. Packing with horses and mules is always unpredictable, and so are the mountains. But we did well, and the string is ready to have their shoes removed so they can head to winter pasture in a couple weeks. Another season is winding down.

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