A Trip Through Paradise (Part 3)
If you have been following my adventure, you have experienced the trip to camp (in Part 1) and an amazing (yet sometimes scary) trip around Sphynx Mountain in Part 2. Today we will finish this fantastic journey.
After the previous day's experience, I really expected the rest of the trip to be a piece of cake. After all, we merely had to load our gear and ride out - well, sort-of. My host and guide was not the kind to shirk his duty. He'd promised a full trip. He would live up to that promise. Thus the trip out would take us through more uncharted territory (at least for me). This translated into about 10 miles to travel before reaching our starting and stopping point.
Of course, like any other day, first things had to be taken care of first! So while we brushed our teeth, washed our faces, and combed our hair, Chance (and the rest of the crew) took the opportunity to scratch their backs and take on a good coating of mud (which, to their disgust, we did not allow them to wear).
After breakfast - ours and our mounts - we began the process of reloading our gear. It's funny how things 'change'. On the way in we'd had more to carry (because we'd eaten a lot of the food), but it seemed like we just couldn't get things to fit back into the packs as nicely as they had on the way in. I guess that is just par for the course. So, we put our heads together and managed to make it work.
An hour or so later, we had everyone loaded (even Chance who hadn't forgotten his role as the 'spooky kid' of the crew) and ready to go. After another walk through camp to be sure we'd returned everything to its 'natural' state, we were ready to mount up for the ride home.
Today's route would backtrack about 2 1/2 miles of yesterday's trail before turning east. Back up along McAtee Creek past the junction with Cougar Creek we traveled in a northerly direction. Sphynx remained on our left but was hidden from view. About three miles into our ride we came to a pretty little meadow which offered unobstructed view of the McAtee Basin.
Soon the trail turned east and we began the climb up to Inspiration Ridge.
There are times in life when valor stems from complete ignorance. Today was such a day. While Gale had regaled us with stories of other people he'd taken along the route we were to travel this day, I assumed (and most likely correctly) he was sharing the most interesting stories. Thus to hear him speak of riders who had stopped speaking until long after they had descended the other end of the ridge we were ascending - well, I figured they were greenhorns. Since I was not unaccustomed to mountain trails - and since I had survived yesterday's experience without losing my tongue, today should be a piece-of-cake! Certainly the beginning of what I call "Inspiration Ridge" (the trail is known as the Inspiration Trail) looked harmless enough.
The first part was pretty tame. However, what looked like a mild, partially tree-covered ridge, soon showed its real face.
You've heard it said, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Well, when the picture loses its ability to communicate reality, you know you're experiencing something quite unique. I'm proud to report I did not lose my ability to speak. However, that is not to say I didn't start to chatter - I may have done so. I honestly can not remember. What I do remember was doing anything to keep my mind off of where my horse (remember BORROWED HORSE) was putting his feet!
As our trail turned southeast along Inspiration Ridge, I picked up this view to the north. That chaulk-colored hillside circles around the headwaters of Buck Creek.
If any of the following photos look blurry, they probably are. Taking photos in low light (it remained overcast the remainder of our ride) off the back of a moving horse (only a CRAZY person would have attempted to stop their horse along many sections of this trail because a stopped horse does not necessarily mean a non-moving horse) does not tend to produce crisp, clear photos. And, there is always the possibility (a likely one) my hand was shaking too!
To my right (south-west - mostly west) Sphynx once again dominated the skyline.
In all the interesting stories my guide had shared with me on our way to the ridge, there were two pieces of information he excluded (or my brain just blanked out). One - the length of time we would spend on this hog-back. Two - the narrow aspects of this particular 'trail'. Thus as things became more interesting, I ignorantly comforted myself with the thought, "This can't last much longer." WRONG!
To keep my mind off my horse's feet which were passing within inches of thin air on my left, I tried to enjoy the view. This is the Buck Creek drainage - a drainage we paralleled throughout this segment of our journey.
To the south-west we had a view down toward our campsight of the previous two evenings. While I cannot name with confidence the drainages upon which I gazed, according to the map this must have been the upper regions of McAtee Creek or perhaps the Gorge Creek drainage.
Have you noticed my horse's ears, clearly seen in most of the 'trail' photos? Always looking alertly ahead. This gave me a measure of confidence as the trail, instead of improving as I'd naively hoped, continued to get a little scarier and a little hairier!
To my right - more and more over my right shoulder - Sphynx continued to watch over our progress. Looking back upon its cloud-shrouded form, I couldn't help but remember yesterday's trail. While I still remembered vividly those narrow, rolling rock avalanche shoots my horse had calmly traversed, I now realized that trip was merely a warm-up for the real fun. After half-an-hour, I was really hoping the end of this narrow hog's back was just up ahead.
It wasn't! In retrospect I am thankful I did not know we would traverse this knife ridge about an hour. At one point, since I doubted I would ever hike this section of trail (and I'm not sure I have the nerve to ride it again, now that I know what I'd be riding into), I snapped several quick pictures looking straight down. I didn't dare look for fear the vertigo would pull me into the abysss. However, this one, while a poor medium to convey the feeling of the earth dropping away beneath your feet, at least shows where I might have been had my horse mis-stepped more than a milimeter.
And still the trail continued. On and on we traveled down the narrowest ridge I had ever traveled - on horseback or foot. To the right the slope slid down and away at a dizzying speed. To the left there wasn't anything left to slide away. It was gone! One step too far in that direction and my horse and I would have fallen straight down at least 1000 feet!
However, there are times when it is just not wise to think about what 'could' happen. After all, if I let my imagination go, I know, even many months after the experience, I could NOT have stayed on my horse's back. So, to keep my imagination in check, I tried to enjoy the view. Still looking south-east (mostly south), I continued to behold beautiful views into the Buck Creek drainage.
When I mustered the nerve to twist around in my saddle to the right, Sphynx continued to dominate the skyline to the northwest.
If you're starting to wonder if I'll ever get off this hog's back, you're beginning to feel like I felt. After all, one can only enjoy so much excitement - and I had just about had my fill for the day! Yet it went on and on and on and . . .(you get the picture - and, believe it or not, I didn't take many pictures along this stretch of trail).
One last view of Sphynx for the trip - now a more distant highpoint on the horizon - and our trail turned from south-east to south to a little south-west.
Around the bend, and without any warning, I found what I had been looking for during the last hour - a wide spot in the trail! While we were technically still on the ridge, it was no longer a knife ridge sticking its blade into the sky. Things had mellowed (and leveled) out and I was more than ready to stretch a few fear-cramped muscles. Apparently I was not the only one for, a few minutes down the trail, our guide called for a lunch break.
I don't know if stock get nervous traversing narrow trails. Perhaps they do but hide it well. Perhaps they do not because their imaginations are less active than those of their riders. Or, perhaps it was just that my borrowed horse had traveled this trail before - more than once. Perhaps a 1000 foot drop inches from his feet no longer caused his muscles to bunch.
Regardles of the reason, as we remounted after our lunch break, I was singing my mount's praises. He'd taken me safely through the hairest 'adventure' I'd ever experienced on horseback. As our trail took the short drop down to Lizard Lakes, I realized even with such a steady mount, this story could have ended a LOT different IF, somewhere along that knife ridge, we had met up with the Grizzly whose tracks we had followed just a day earlier.
What does a horse do when it meets a bear in the trail? Even as I relaxed knowing I would probably never know, we passed alongside the smallest Lizard Lake (two little lakes - the one along whose shore we passed was little more than a tarn) and headed down the meadow to the south. About the time I heard the claws on bark, the mule I was leading suddenly rushed past Chief - and that with Chief doing his best to bolt forward. As I grabbed for my horse's reins and the mule's lead, I was looking for the bear. (The brain is an amazing thing. Although, to this point I had never met a bear in the woods, I knew what I had heard and what my animals had heard and smelled.)
Sure enough, to my left, a sow was anxiously pacing back and forth. Now, keep in mind, this is all happening at mach speed. Yet, even as my mind whirled and my hands and body sought to control and calm my mounts, I was grabbing for my camera. I HAD to get a photograph of this bear.
If this picture looks at all clear, it is completely due to a good photoshop program. Nothing (including my hands) was in a state of non-motion. Yet, I did manage to catch about three shots of this agitated mother bear - but her genus I will not attempt to designate with certainty. It all happened TOO FAST and my photos are just not clear enough. But, a bear is a bear is a bear - and I could not help but thank God we did not make her acquaintance up there on that hog's back!
The rest of the trip (outside of a well-behaved, completely trustworthy horse who had carried me safely over the worst trail I'd ever traversed suddenly became VERY antsy as we approached the trailhead) was mild in comparison to everything else we had experienced. While the map is a bit deceptive, we took the right fork (heading a bit south-west when the main trail turned east) and cut across an alternately open and timbered hillside to junction with the trail we had traversed two days earlier.
About three-quarters of a mile further we reached our destination - seen here from the top of the ridge before we began our decent. I imagine everyone (people and animals included) was happy to call it a day. We were all ready for a more 'civilized' and 'safe' environment. However, I will never forget the memories made, the experiences shared, or the companionship enjoyed on this trip. I have seen paradise - and at times I felt like I'd surely been to hell and back - and yet I survived it all (and enjoyed most of it).
Would I do it again? Probably. I do not think one should let such unique opportunities pass them by. And yet, I might ask to be blindfolded for portions of the trip (but most likely not!).
Lady of the Lake
If this story has stirred your sense of adventure, the maps below chronicle our trip.
Day One we traversed the trails marked in orange - from the 'Trailhead' to 'Camp'.
Day Two we traveled the green loop. We started at 'Camp', took our longest break at 'Lunch Break', and returned, by day's end to 'Camp'.
Day three we covered the trails marked in pink. We started at 'Camp', headed north-east, then turned east, south east and finally south to end up at the 'Trailhead'. (Note: The map for day three incorporates the south half and the north half of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness map. Unfortunately the maps are not presented in the same scale. Thus, where the maps join, they do not match perfectly.)