I have taken perhaps several thousand photographs of Elk Lake and the surrounding countryside. Of them all, I think this one captures the essence of the area. Big mountain backdrop. Colorful. A step back in time. Peaceful. Yet, a recent experience showed the 'potential' other side of remote country living.
The whole thing started simply. Two lovely ladies and two beautiful horses spending a few days riding the local countryside. Nothing unusual. Nothing unique. But - - - we all know looks can be deceiving. After all, that is what created the whole problem in the first place!
Elk Lake could almost be called 'Double Lake' or 'Two Lakes'. The "Narrows" is a shallow point creating a distinct break between the lake's south and north ends. This shallow section is typically not more than 3 feet deep this time of year. Its rocky bottom makes an easy crossing point for game and stock and even foot traffic.
If you miss this crossing point - particularly crossing further to the north, you have a story with a TOTALLY different ending!
You see, our prevailing winds are from the south. Thus the wave action keeps the lake bottom at the Narrows virtually muck-free. But, Elk Lake is primarily a mud-bottomed lake - so that muck and silt have to go somewhere. That 'somewhere' is in the holes and pockets north of the Narrows.
THAT is why we say: Don't cross here!
Yes, the water looks shallow, the bottom rocky, but if you notice, there are 'green' spots not far from shore. Those green spots harbor underwater hothouses full of lovely silty loamy MUCK - the perfect weed growing environment. But, these holes can be bottomless if you weigh enough - and, a HORSE appears to weigh enough! And so, the saga began!
The day started quietly. Lynda and Brook and Sharon and Mia headed off, saddles bags full, for a day riding Elk Lake's east side. Craig gave them specific directions on where to cross. If you look closely at the fourth photo you will see a large rock in the foreground and a large stick (sticking out of the water) in the background. Ideally one crosses heading from the rock just to the left of the stick. Believe me, this works. I did it several times. And, so did our ladies and their mounts - on the way over! Not so, on the way back.
You can't see the Narrows from the lodge. So, the first clue we had of impending doom was when Lynda ran up to the lodge, upset and breathless. "The horses are drowning, and Sharon can't swim!"
Craig thought, "What?!" I suspect he thought she was blowing things out of proportion. Not so!
To his credit he hurried down to the dock where he could see the Narrows. Sure enough - both horses were way off target,clearly stuck and exhausted. Thinking quickly Craig grabbed a long rope and a motorboat. Then he and Lynda motored out to the log where the horses were stranded.
Now, let's go back to those pictures. In the 5th picture down (right of center) you can see some logs sticking out of the water. This is where Sharon and Mia and Lynda and Brooke mired down. Craig manuevered the boat to the north end of the log but feared going closer and panicking the clearly terrified horses.
Attaching the boat to the log, Craig bailed over the side, grabbed the long rope, and hooked onto Brook who was north of Mia (thus in potentially more danger of sinking out of sight). Sharon remained on Mia to keep her calm as her buddy struggled for life and limb - moving further and further away.
According to Craig, he had to flip Brook over backwards (remember, she'd nosed into that log and could not go forward or back) then pulled and harrased her toward the western shore and safety.Brook fought bravely, but within a few lunges of firm footing her strength failed. When I arrived, she was just northwest of the grassy point shown in the 5th picture from the top. In her exhaustion she was lilting to her side thus the only thing showing was the top of her head, her ears, and her nostrils! Craig stood, armpit deep in water and muck, holding her head above water as her lungs struggled for air and her limbs trembled near collapse.
Meanwhile Sharon held her fears strongly in check as she waited on a slowly sinking Mia.
Were it not for two inquisitive kids who miss next to nothing, the story might have turned out differently. Craig had his hands full trying to keep Brook's head above water, Lynda was stuck in the boat, Sharon was stuck on Mia, and Mia and Brook were not going anywhere but down!
Into this cast of players strolled Jake. Really! To his credit he said, "I had just woke from a nap when I heard Hannah tell Nathaniel, 'Go get Dad. The horses are stuck in the lake.' Being half-asleep, I wasn't sure whether I was dreaming."
"So, I put on my shorts, stepped outside, lit a cigarette and casually wandered down to the lake. As I approached the dock I could see Hannah running back and forth like a chicken whose chicks we acting like ducks!"
"Stepping out onto the dock I could see the backs of two horses. Craig was struggling with one. One gals sat in a boat. The other sat on her horse - or should I say floated above her horse. I yelled at Craig, 'Hey, do you need any help?' Obviously he couldn't hear me. So, I jumped in a kayak and headed into the melah."
Always the one to lighten a scene, Jake's first words, as he rowed toward the two very upset ladies were, "Gee, gals, did you think they were seahorses?"
I'm not sure how much that calmed their nerves, but by the time I showed up, Jake was armpit deep in the muck and busy lightening Mia's load.
I was working in the lodge when Hannah and Nathaniel came running in hollaring, "I don't know if Dad needs your help or not, but the ladies' horses are stuck in the lake."
Like Jake I thought I was dreaming. "What?"
"The horses are stuck and Dad is trying to get them out. I don't know if he needs your help or not."
"Where are they?"
"At the Narrows," came her breathless reply.
"Impossible!" I thought to myself. "How could they be stuck in knee deep water?"
Nevertheless I took off at a run heading directly to the Narrows not the boat dock. When I arrived, Craig was holding a trembling Brook's head above water while Jake , only shoulders and head showing above the water, was offering Sharon a piggy-back ride to the boat. Later I learned Jake was sinking into above-his-knees deep muck with each step. Thus each stride became a wrestling match - the prize being Jake's shoe! At one point he became so stuck Sharon had to crawl onto the log while he worked his leg (and shoe) free. However, persistence paid off, and he finally deposited non-swimmer Sharon safely in the boat.
Meanwhile Craig roused Brook out of her exhausted stooper and forced her to get her feet back under her. With the water merely up to her cantle, he handed me the rope with orders to 'Let her rest a bit.' Then he headed over to help with Mia.
While I waited for Brook to gather strenth for the final push and Jake and Craig discussed Mia's situation, some regular guests (and great friends) drove around the corner of the hill. They said they caught sight of the activity, grabbed their binoculars and, focusing on the situation, said, "There's a HORSE in the lake!"
Their approaching vehicle and an unseen barking dog were enough to push the slowly sinking Brook back into action. Seeing her growing agitation and fearing the further she sank the harder the battle to break free, I began hollaring at her and pulling on her lead. In three big lunges she reached the firm bottom of the Narrows. Thus as our friends hurried down to the shore, I led a dripping, trembling, weed and silt covered Brook to the safety of the bank.
Mia's situation remained dire. Although she was on the south end of the log (and thus did not have to be 'flipped' to get her free), she was a LONG way from solid footing - and still sinking! So Craig and Jake began pulling while the ladies yelled at Mia to cooperate. However, two-to-one are no odds when you're playing tug-o-war with a 1,000 pound animal up to its belly in muck!
I could see we were getting no where fast - and even from my distant viewpoint it was clear Mia had given up. Obviously more drastic measures were needed. Our options were few. Mia had to be convinced to help!
Handing Brook's lead to our horse-savey friends, I broke off a willow branch and began stripping its leaves and stems while heading for the struggling crew. Jake was closest to the horse so he took the 'whip', and I grabbed the rope. Lynda bravely bailed out of the boat and joined the fight.
"Hit her! Hit her HARD! She has to want to get away from you! She has to help us or we'll loose her!"
Thus the final battle began. I have never seen a horse in such a precarious position - nor one who fought so hard to escape her trap. One minute she would be moving forward. Next she'd nearly disappear under the water. By the time she reached the shore, even her ears were filled with water and muck!
Back at the trailer we helped the ladies remove the water-logged gear from their tired mounts. Nothing had escape the weeds and silt!
It was more-than-painful to watch Lynda extract her electronics from their water-filled bags. However, the loss of her cameras and cell phone were clearly offset by the relief in having her horse - and her life!
Leaving the gals to continue assessing the damage, we headed for the lodge to shed our wet clothes, do a leach check, and wash off the layers of silt and muck which had worked their way into every crack and crevice!
As Laurel, Jake's wife put it, "I tried to get his underware clean. It wasn't worth it! The socks are still doubtful!"
However, I think Jake with his gift of gab summed it up the best, "I had silt in places even my doctor hasn't been!"
Thus ended just another day at Elk Lake. Thankfully they aren't all quite this dramatic!
Lady of the Lake