Working for the outfit east of Atlin, my first season, I had a string of accidents that happened in a short span of time between two different hunts. I wasn’t given the moniker, Accident Queen for nothing. A couple of these accidents could have ended really badly, but I think my poor mom was back home praying her heart out and that is why I’m still here today. This is the story of how the second accident came about during the retrieval of Hunter Greg’s moose.
This was the last hunt of my first season working for the outfit east of Atlin, BC. A few days earlier we had wrapped up Hunter Ron’s hunt out of Trout Lake, where I had been bucked off of my horse and then taken a dunk in a creek I was trying to cross on foot. We prepared the cabin for winter and then trailed the remaining horses to Line Lake Camp. There we met up with our new hunters and prepared to head east towards Caribou Camp. This camp happened to be the closest to town and would be our last stop before sending the horses out to the Ranch for winter.
I was excited because I would be left with guides who had been brought in at the last minute and didn’t know the way from Caribou Camp to the mining camp where the truck and trailers would be to pick up the horses. I was to be the only person left in camp that had taken the trail, and that meant I would be the one guiding the guides out. I was pretty stoked!
Since Caribou Camp was a horse-only camp, that meant we would need to pack absolutely everything in that we would need and not have any airplane support during the week like most of my other camps that year. Outfitter Al came with us to start and once the hunters got their animals down, he would pack out the meat to Line Lake and fly it into town for butchering, leaving a much lighter load for us to pack out to the mining camp at the end of the hunt.
Riding towards Caribou Camp, I was told to take the lead and give Buckles her first trial as lead horse. This was the mare that had nearly been given up as wolf bait at the beginning of the season due to her flighty nature and horrible packing skills. She was infamous for routinely dumping her pack if it was off by an inch. I had started working on her as a saddle horse a number of hunts previous and now it was her moment to shine.
She was a really good riding horse and was pretty responsive to me by now. I was super proud of her as we stepped off down the trail leading the big buckskin Bert and the half-Belgium Magnum. Some horses are definite followers—don’t ask them to lead EVER! Some are great leaders, refusing to stay in line and always pushing to the front. And some are great at both and those are very hard to find. I was happy to learn that Buckles would make a good leader, because lead horses are much harder to find.
Buckles and I ended up taking the whole string of packhorses (all eight of them) into Caribou Camp by ourselves, because the guides and hunters stopped just past the Terahina River to check out a caribou herd they had spotted. It was a bit of a nervy job making sure the pack string didn’t tangle up and no packs came loose, but we did it and arrived in camp without a wreck.
Then I had the big task of quickly tying up the eight packhorses before they got into trouble and unpacking their loads by myself. Everything in Caribou Camp looked just like we had left it in July, minus the long green grass and flaming stands of fireweed. I untied the latch of the old log cabin door and entered to find a huge mess. Something—most likely a squirrel or pine marten—had torn apart the cabin! The foam mattresses that had been left hanging from rafters had been attacked and pieces of foam littered every surface of the cabin. As if a foam blizzard had happened inside.
Well I had my work cut out for me that day! So after giving the horses their oats and hobbling them to graze, I turned my attentions to cleaning the cabin and organizing my food and getting a chili started for supper.
The men arrived near dark with the news that Greg had a moose down! Outfitter Al asked if I would come with them in the morning so that I could bring the meat and horns back to camp, allowing them to carrying on with their hunting without having to stop.
So that’s what we did. I rode out with the guys in the morning about an hour from Camp towards the Terahina River again. When we got closer to the moose carcass, Al stopped on a high point to glass around and make sure there wasn’t a bear or something on it. Only ravens had found it, so he turned his attention to the mountainside due east and promptly spotted a herd of caribou with four bulls bedded down in the willows. Greg spent the next ten minutes debating whether or not he should go after the biggest one of the bunch, but Al talked him out of it, saying it was only the second day of the hunt and there were bigger ones around.
We remounted our horses and rode down the knoll into the willows to where the moose was lying almost hidden. In fact Buckles nearly stumbled across the carcass before spotting it out of the corner of her eye and jumped away, blowing nervously. Bell, the big, black, man-eating pack mare, decided rather passionately that she didn’t like the rank smell of the moose and put up a huge fuss. (This was probably her 20th season packing animals out of the mountains and still she acted like it was her first one) We got her straightened out and then commenced with the butchering of the moose that was already gutted and skinned the night before.
I held onto the big gray Percheron-X Andy, while the men loaded up the boxes with the ribs, brisket, and neck meat, before lashing it all down with the diamond rope. Then Andy’s half brother, Amos, another big gray, stood quietly while they lifted the massive hind-quarters into the biggest set of pack boxes the outfit had. Finally it was Bell’s turn. She was supposedly the wisest of the packhorses and Al decided she should carry the precious cargo of the front shoulders, cape and horns.
However Bell had a different idea and decided to put on a big ole hissy fit. She ended up dumping the load twice and wouldn’t stand still to be packed a third time, before I whipped off my fleece jacket and tied it around her eyes. She calmed immediately and didn’t budge and inch while Al and I managed to pack her and tie the horns down securely before taking the blindfold off. She remained calm, if not resigned to her heavy load.
I quickly mounted Buckles and settled deep in the saddle, praying that she too wouldn’t act up like her mom. All the horses were a bit spooked from the stink of moose all around them. Al handed me Bell’s lead rope and Andy and Amos were tied on behind. Immediately I turned Buckles for camp and off we went, leaving the men to carry on with their hunt. Bell snorted and danced a little at first, but settled quickly to the steady pace Buckles set.
We headed up the grassy valley and I kept glancing back, keep a careful eye on the packs to make sure they weren’t shifting. I knew if one of the horses dumped a pack there was no way I would be able to repack on my own. Halfway to camp I noticed Amos’ pack was shifting because the big gray was on the end of the line and was jogging a little to keep up with the others. I slowed Buckles a bit and was immediately frustrated because Bell started shoving at Buckles and nipping. So Buckles started speeding up despite my best efforts to keep her pace down.
The pack on Amos shifted even more and I started praying. I found a spot to stop and tied Buckles to a tree and quickly went to the Amos and tried to shift the pack. For some reason the front end was raising up and the open boxes were tilting backwards and if they kept shifting the way they were, the box was going to flip and dump the hindquarters of meat and cause a big wreck. I did the best I could, but didn’t accomplish much. Amos was a little stressed but was still calm, so I took a big breath and remounted my horse and headed down the trail.
Every few seconds I was checking back on the pack, praying. Just a little further Amos! Come on Boy! Just when I didn’t think we were going to make it, I recognized the stand of timber right before camp. The boxes were nearly at a forty-five degree angle tip and Amos’ normally white-gray coat was black with sweat.
A soon as the cabin came into sight I stopped the horses and quickly tied them to trees. Immediately I went to Amos and set about to get the offending boxes off of him as quickly as possible. The packbox on his offside was sitting at a very uncomfortable angle, far back on the packsaddle. I pulled the diamond rope off and the packbox tipped even more backwards from the weight of the hindquarter. The pack saddle rope that was supposed to hold the box in place had slipped out of it’s groove. Amos shied to the side and I quickly tried to right the box. I put my shoulder under it to lift, but it was far too heavy, well over hundred pounds. So I undid the knot holding the box onto the saddle and let the box drop to the ground, not realizing one of the guys had tied the two hind quarters together with the packsaddle rope.
Amos reared, wild-eyed and bolted forward squealing. Unfortunately for him, both quarters were still tied to the saddle and he bucked and reared and plunged back down the trail we had just ridden up. I watched him go with a sinking feeling in my stomach, fearing I had just caused a huge catastrophe that might end with a horse seriously injured or worse. I heard a huge roar and bellow coming from the horse and trees breaking . . . More thundering and crashing in the bushes and then finally . . . silence. I debated going after him right then, but decided to give him some time to calm down and also I had my duty to the other packhorses who were both carrying heavy loads as well.
I unpacked Andy with little problem and then because it was so eerily silent, I thought I’d better go check on Amos right then. One hundred and twenty-three yards down the path, right beside the spring from which we fetched our drinking water, I found the big gray horse lying on his side with a web of ropes tangled in his legs and the two moose hindquarters just behind, neatly paired together still.
The gelding raised his head, his black eyes sad, and with a great heaving groan he struggled to stand again. But the rope snagged over his knees preventing him from rising and he sagged back down, snorting pitifully. I felt along my belt for my knife and then remembered that I had lost it back in Line Lake camp. I had to dig in my pocket for the back-up Swiss Army knife and began sawing at the ropes. I didn’t care at this point if I was breaking the cardinal rule of outfitters to NEVER CUT A ROPE. Finally I could peel off a couple of the ropes and leaped back as Amos thrashed around wildly to regain his feet and then thunder up the trail leaving the dirty, grassy moose quarters behind.
I took one look at the massive chunks of meat and shook my head. They could stay right where they were until the guys returned. I returned to unpack Bell, having to put my fleece jacket back on as a blindfold, so she would stand still as I gingerly lifted the horns off the pack.
Amos came back to stand with his brother Andy and I checked over his sweat soaked body for wounds. He seemed fine except for a couple of cuts on his shoulder that stained it reddish pink. I doctored him best as I could and sat down to regain my breath and calm my shaking body.
I was very thankful the horse hadn’t killed himself or me in the process!