Tracking Horses

When I was 21 I signed on with a big game outfitter out of Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory.  His concession area is in the southeastern corner of the Yukon and is approximately the size of Switzerland.  He told me once that he has only used maybe a third of the area and has hardly touched the rest.  Untamed wilderness that maybe only a handful of people have ever laid eyes on and I got to be one of those privileged few!  Talk about a dream come true and a nightmare . . .

I was the first girl, outside of family, to work for this outfit EVER.  They had been running this place for over 20 years and the owner and his brother had guided for the previous outfitter a number of years prior to buying him out.  I had no idea really what I was getting into.  I just knew I was going to be a horse wrangler and working in some pretty wild mountainous country.  I love horses, I love mountains, I love adventure.  But other than that, I had NO CLUE what I would be asked to do that summer.  I thought I would be going for only July and August and packed accordingly, not realizing I would be asked to stay until the end of September, which in the Yukon basically means winter.

I was the horse wrangler.  I was told I had 29 horses to have ready to go first thing in the morning or whatever time the head guide said.  Usually that meant I had to have the horses back in camp and saddled and ready to go by six o’clock on a hunting day and maybe a little later on a camp moving day.  No problemo!  Until they told me that they kicked the horses out with chain link hobbles on a few of them and a cow bell on a couple of the lead mares for the night and I had to round them up on foot the next morning.

Yep on foot!  In strange wild land that I had never been in before, I had to find horses that lived wild for at least 9 months out of the year.  Mares and their colts and a few geldings.  Half-tamed, shaggy beasts that ran together like a wild herd.  I was introduced briefly to them on a crazy round-up near the huge Liard River that cuts through the bottom of the Yukon.  They were a mass of shaggy bodies, flashing hooves, rolling eyes and high pitched squeals.  Beautiful in their wildness and totally intimating to a girl who was more accustomed to “trained” horses.  It took us more than half a day to find these beasts, adapt as they were at hiding out.  It took a plane scouting and quads and trucks to flush them out of the bush that day and I was supposed to do this every day coming on FOOT!

We rode in a the next day later to Ceaser Lake, the main base camp.  A ride like none I’d ever experienced before or since!  And I’ve seen a few now!  After trucking the horses 3 and 1/2 hours up the Robert Campbell Highway, we stopped and tied up the horses to load packs on and saddle up the ones we were riding.  There were four of us to trail in the herd of 25 lively horses.

Coming from Alberta and cowboy country I was dressed sensibly in a oilskin slicker and hat and cowboy boots for the drizzly weather.  Terry, the outfitter, mentioned putting on rain gear and rubber boots.  But I assured him I was well prepared for rainy weather.  I should have listened.  There is nothing like muck and muskeg in Alberta like they have in the Yukon and riding through that stuff is so different than anything I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.  It also explained why the horses were mainly heavy-horse mixed breeds.  Percheron, Quarter Horse and Morgan crosses mainly.  Heavy flat feet, thick, sturdy legs, deep chests and wide, thick necks.  No toothpick legs here to break in the muskeg they had travel through.

The ride in was tumultuous and chaotic.  Terry commanded that I had to get off my horse and walk him up and down hills.  At one point I tripped on my long slicker and fell down in the calf deep muck and my horse stood on top of my hand.  I couldn’t move.  I was lucky the mud had buried my hand and protected it from the hoof, but I was stuck!  Terry ended up coming back and helped me out of my pickle.  I was a little embarrassed as he again mentioned I should have worn my rain suit instead of a slicker.  I was starting to understand.

Many river crossings and slippery hills and thick bush later we arrived at Ceaser Lakes.  The camp was situated between the two twin lakes, with an airstrip cleared just behind the camp.  At the time there was 4 cabins and a cache on high legs to keep food and stuff out of a bears reach.  Unfortunately the cabin wasn’t spared.  A black bear had crawled in a tiny window beside the door and pushed out the big windows in the front room.  A grizzly had climbed in a proceeded to redecorate the cabin.  He ate the propane fridge and took huge chunks out of the main beam holding up the second floor.  The propane stove was banged up but useable.  Chairs and tables were scattered and wreckage lay everywhere.  We found a chewed up dish soap bottle about fifty yards from the cabin.  He must have looked like a rabid grizzly eating all that soap!  Upstairs, martins had nested after the grizzly left.  Martins are one of the worst critters to have in a cabin.  The wreckage was awesome to behold!  Insulation torn out, bedding shredded and poop everywhere.  Needless to say, after a harrowing 6 hour run to camp on horseback the last thing we wanted to do was clean up a cabin to eat and sleep in.  But we did.

The first few weeks of July were dedicated to cleaning up the cabins, organizing tack and supplies, trail cutting (cutting back the willow brush from the trail so it wasn’t over grown and impossibly to ride through), shoeing horses (they only shod the front feet of some of the older horses or ones prone to cracking feet, most of them ran barefoot which is unheard of most places), and breaking the colts (they called all their un-broke horses colts, most of them were 5 years and older before they were broke to saddle).  It was also BREAK-IN-THE-NEW-WRANGLER time.

Every night we would chain hobble 15 or so of the 29 horses and put a bell on a couple of the lead mares and let them loose to graze.  In the early morning I would don my rubber boots (I retired the cowboy boots after the first ride in) and tromp around the yard looking for tracks to signal which way the horses left camp.  This took me a long time to figure out especially the longer we stayed in camp as the tracks were always fresh and with that many horses there were so many tracks it was darned near impossible for me to figure out which ones were the freshest.  Of course the horses always tried to trick me and and split into groups and left different ways from camp.  That’s where the cow bells dangling from the mares’ necks came in handy.  Most of the time if I stood really still I could hear a faint ringing to indicate which direction to start scouting.  Of course I started to think I was going crazy because I was always ALWAYS listening for bells and I swear I could hear bells ringing, when I shouldn’t have.  I still do, some days.

Sometimes I would find the horses easily and near camp and I would un-hobble them and hang the chains around their necks.  The chain hobbles had quick release snaps that I would un-clip and then clip them around their necks behind their ears—not too loose as to get caught but not too tight to choke them.  Most of the time, they were really far off and I was jogging miles to find them.  A few time they were 10 kilometers away.  Once they were almost twenty.  I was in very good shape after a few weeks of running in rubber boots after those darn horses.  When I first started wrangling I didn’t really know the horses, so I would just start un-hobbling the first ones I found and they would start running for camp.  The other horses would look up from grazing and start hobble running after them.  Let me tell you a horse can run fast even with his front feet tied together!!!  They can even swim rivers (which is another story).  They just can’t run for as long as they could without them.  After the first time I chased the horses into camp with hobbles still on, I was yelled up one side and down the other.  NEVER run horses in with hobbles on!  At least that was this outfitter’s policy.  So the next times I’d start un-hobbling and the horses would start running I anxiously ran after all the unhobbled horses and would throw myself in front of them to stop them and then hurriedly bend down beside their stamping feet and try and unclip the chains to hang around their necks.  More than a few times I was butted in the head by impatient knees or trampled by a horse unwilling to wait and left lying in the mud for the next horse to jump over me.  Some might call it stupid or fearless.  I just thought I had no choice.  I didn’t like getting yelled at and I wanted to do my job right so I wouldn’t get humiliated in camp again.

I think I cried every day for six weeks.  But if there is one thing horse wrangling in the Yukon taught me was that if you think you have no choice you will do a lot of things you never thought you could do!  And if you stick with something you eventually get good at it.

Eventually tracking got easier as I got to know “my” horses and their habits and as I got to know the areas we moved on to.   I’d venture to say by the end of my three months up there I was actually pretty good and even impressed the outfitter, guides and myself with my work-ethic and persistence.

Learning to track takes training.  Attuning your eye to details previously undetected.  It takes patience and persistence.  Dedication.  You don’t start out a master tracker, but with lots of practice and learning from mistakes you get better and better as you gain experience.  Our walk with Christ is much that way.

Sometimes I picture my walk with Jesus much like tracking horses.  Often I can’t see God but He has left His “track” there for me to follow.  So that in following His track I may find Him.  Many times I can’t “hear” Him or “see” Him, but I know He is there because His tracks are there. Sometimes in following His tracks I lose my way but by some miracle I stumble back onto them.  Sometimes I lose my way but end up hearing Him or seeing Him and can run in His direction.  Or sometimes I need help.  I need a more experienced “tracker” to show me the signs I missed.  But God is there, He’s always present.  The more I draw near to Him, the more it will come easier to “track” Him as I come to know His ways, His personality, His character.  Then I will be able to find Him in the unlikely places—places I never suspected before.  I will be able to join Him, be with Him.    But follow I must and NEVER GIVE UP!  God is nearer than you think.  And the REWARD is great.

“Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate.  For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.” James 1:12 (the Message)

“We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how our troubles can develop PASSIONATE patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.” Romans 5:3 (The Message)

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9 Responses to Tracking Horses

  1. Tracy says:

    Beautiful pictures. Quite a story of perseverance. Must have been quite the adventure/experience.

  2. Terry and Ruth Wilkinson says:

    Great story, better application. Really enjoyed it!!

    • I wondered if you guys would see this! I have always been very grateful for the chance you took on me! Thanks for taking such a greenhorn and training me and pushing me beyond what I thought I was capable of. It was quite the experience and shaped a lot of who I am today. I’ll never forget it! It also opened a lot of doors for me in the future and gave me a work ethic and confidence I’d probably never have if I hadn’t persevered through those 3 months.

  3. I remember you telling me how hard it was but never fully understood all the details! Great memory! You are amazing and talented and hard working!! 🙂

  4. Donn Wilkinson says:

    I hope it was not me that yelled at you for chasing the horses in with hobbles. Enjoyed reading your blog

    • Jake says:

      The only time I remember you ever yelling Donn, is when I was struggling to hold onto Mocha’s lead rope when we were trying to break him in. Wow the bucks that horse threw! And you falling or should I say “bailing” off at the top of a buck. You must’ve fell like 9 feet! And then you broke your shoulder or something!!! Yep that’s the only time I heard you yell that summer! I think it was justified.

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