by Ed Anderson
On Sunday, August 17, 2008 Primo and I arrived at McKenzie Pass near Sisters, Oregon, to complete our 1350-mile thru-journey of the Pacific Crest Trail. We had started from the border of Mexico on April 19. We had traveled through state parks, county parks, a national park, several wilderness areas and national forests, BLM lands, and across easements through private lands.
This account is a very brief description of what I saw and what it is like to solo-ride your horse on the Pacific Crest Trail.
My best friend and dear companion on the trail was TLC Primo Eclipse, my registered Arabian endurance horse. I chose Primo for this trip because he is brave, strong, tough, has excellent feet, is very sure-footed, and is exceptionally agile. All of these qualities would prove crucial on the trail in the weeks and months to follow. Primo would go through places and situations where others might not.
Primo was the only horse in the spring of 2008 to head north from the border of Mexico. There were hundreds of hikers from as far away as Europe and New Zealand. When you travel alone with your horse over such long distances and pass over an around so many challenging obstacles, a very close bond developes. We became best friends. I was the other horse, he the other person. A mutual trust and a real sense if inter-dependance developed between us. Primo bravely faced horse-scary places like fast rushing streams to cross, sand slides, rock slides, down trees, horse-eating stumps and wierd-shaped boulders, tunnels, many types of bridges, the windmills in the Tehachipi area, moving shadows of windmill blades across the trail, and wide, sloped snow banks to cross. In May, we rode through a snow storm in the Angeles Crest - rain had unexpectedly turned into heavy snow. We pushed on to North Fork Ranger Station where the very helpful caretaker let me put Primo in a corral. He even gave him pellets and let me sleep in the barracks. What a luxury after all the snow. Primo would go on, even through a storm, if I asked him to. And he knew that I would not lead him into danger. If the situation looked risky or if it was impassable for us, we would turn back and find another way.
Thanks to the help we got from the Equestrian Center at Warner Springs Resort (they took good care of Primo and gave me a ride down), I was able to attend the annual "kick-off" party at Lake Moreno nearly 100 miles south of Warner Springs. This is a great event, attended by several hundred people, angels, aspiring thru-hikers, past hikers, wanna-be thru-hikers and many others. The atmosphere was friendly and I met many people. There were several informative programs, including a forum, demonstrations, vender exhibits, and a great slide show by Eric Ryback who, at 17, was the first person to thru-hike, in 1970, the Pacific Crest Trail. The BBQ dinner was special as was the breakfast on Sunday morning. It was at this event that I was to learn that I was the only person planning to thru-ride the PCT in 2008. I got a ride back to Warner Springs on Sunday morning, tacked up and packed Primo, and we headed north again. Since we got a late start that day, we only went seven miles and camped alone at a magical spot along Agua Caliente Creek where Indians had camped long ago. I discovered several Indian morters, and to my surprise and delight, one that still had the pestle in it! Primo was hobbled and grazing while I was taking a solar shower. When I dressed and looked for him he was gone. His tracks showed that he was heading back on the trail towards Warner Springs to visit his horse friends there. When I caught up with him I discovered that he had covered about 1/2 mile, hobbles and all. He had been living at Warner Springs for 2 days while I was at the Kickoff Party. From then on I was to always keep his bell on while he grazed and also kept an eye on him. He never wandered far again.
Some have asked me how riding the PCT is different from hiking it. Most think that riding a horse would be much easier. Riding solo on the PCT, compared to hiking it is a very different, and more challenging experience. The hikers can have it really easy because they have so many options. They can easily climb over or duck under downed trees. And slides and boulders are less of a concern for them. Their hiking poles are certainly a lot of help on slides or in snow. Hikers can carry thier water with them and can "dry camp' almost anywhere, while I needed to find camps with graze, water, and trees to highline Primo at night - so, we often camped alone. When the trail crosses a road the hikers often hitch-hike into a town or city and take a day off, a "0-day"'. They can check into a motel, take a shower, resupply at the supermarket, eat in restaurants, visit the laundromat, maybe take in a movie, make phone calls and even use the computers at the local library. A rider with his horse can do none of the above. Mine was much more of a wilderness journey - a journey with very little contact with towns and cities. I like it better that way.
The scenery along the PCT was varied and often spectacular. The grand forests, the individual trees, the wide variety of the millions of wildflowers, the wildlife, the hundreds of lakes and ponds, the impressive rock formations, the mountains and hills, and the very special horse-friend who was always there, all of these will remain fixed in my memories as long as I live.
Detours were sometimes necessary to get past obstacles or to avoid taking serious risks. We encountered hundreds of down trees during our journey. Detours, taken for various reasons, would take minutes to several hours and sometimes required that I cut trees and branches to clear a way through. I had brought along a folding saw with a very sharp blade 14 1/2" long that could cut from the tip. I could, if necessary, cut trees up to 16" in diameter. I made wedges out of wood. Once, a! 4" diameter tree blocked a narrow trail and had come to rest at a steep angle. The slope above and below the trail was also very steep. Backtracking there would have been difficult, so I decided to cut the tree. It took more than an hour to cut that tree .I had to be very careful not to get my blade pinched and to be sure that when the upper section did fall, there would be enough room for Primo to get past. Primo, tied about 25 feet away, watched. He knew that we would go forward.
Primo came to understand, and accept, that we lived on the PCT, and that there were no other horses. It was interesting that he would sometimes, after his evening graze, come over and "join up" with myself and a group of hikers while we were talking in camp - as though this group of people were other horses, his substitute "human herd".
Primo enjoyed the "smorgasbord' of horse-edible plants that he found along the trail. Once he decided which plants were good, he would spot something that he wanted to eat from 20 feet away and would stop abruptly when we got there. I would always let him graze along the trail because I could never be sure what the graze would be like up ahead or at the next camp. Graze at our camps varied. Often it was excellent or good. Other times it was fair, thin, or none at all, and I would feed Primo extra feed. Arabians are desert horses and can go longer without drinking than some other breeds, and since we were walking, there was very little sweating. So, if Primo had recently had a good drink, and we came to a beautiful meadow off the trail, with lots of graze and nearby trees, but no water, we would make camp.
During our journey we had to trailer around Mt. San Jacento and the Sierra Nevada because of the risks of trying to cross deep snow with a horse. 2008 was a year of hundreds of lighting-started fires in Northern California. There was a long wait in Sierra City. I hoped that the fires affecting the PCT would come under control, and that the closed sections would be reopened. I had become very discouraged because of the fires and smoke. I decided that it would be best to trailer around the closed sections and much of the smoke and then pick up the trail again at Burney Falls, California. I would ride from there to a planned exit at at McKenzie Pass near Sisters, Oregon. I had made a family commitment that I would return home by August 20, and we were to reach McKenzie Pass on August 17, where an endurance rider friend was to pick us up. She brought us down to her beautiful ranch in Sisters and another endurance rider friend trailered us to Ashland where I had left my rig. We made it home with a day to spare. Oregon had no fires going while we were there, and it was a really wonderful part of my trip to see blue skys and dramatic clouds while riding through its grand beauty of the several wilderness areas and Crater Lake National Park .
Some have asked how we resupplied and what Primo ate besides grass while we traveled. To supplement his graze I planned an average of six pounds of processed feed per day. This was sealed in Food-Saver bags without the vacuum so bags would be flexible for easier packing. I packed, three pounds in each bag, always including one five-pound bag that Primo could eat while I packed a resupply into the pommel bags and saddle bags. The air-tight seal of these feed bags prevented smells from attracting bears and other critters.
It was necessary to resupply many times during our journey. This took a lot of planning and I ended up relying on several different approches. The approach that I used most often, especially in Northern California and Oregon , was to drive ahead and hide or, most often, bury our caches near PCT trailheads or road crossings. All of our food was pre-packed in air-tight plastic bags as described above. I would bury a cache well away from the trail or trailhead. I would first carefully peel back the ground cover and then dig a shallow trench about three feet long, eight to ten inches deep and about ten inches wide. Primos food bags, and my main food bag (a 12 1/2" x 20" OPSAK with several Ziploc freezer bags containing different catagories of food), would be placed in along with exactly ten mothballs on top. Then the soil went in with the original ground cover on top, with leaves, pine needles, and branches over for camouflage. When we arrived at a cache, sometimes weeks later, I would, saving the original ground cover, dig up the cache with my digging trowel and recover the food bags and all ten moth balls for reuse in my "bear charms" (it would not be environmentally acceptable to leave them). I would then refill the hole and replace the ground cover and camoflage. My criteria was to leave that spot so that if a person were to pass by he would not notice that a hole had been there. What are bear charms? In parts of the Yukon cotton tobacco sacks with mothballs inside are known as "bear charms" To discourage bears I used them in camp around my main food sack (the OPSAK) and surrounding my tent. I would like to comment that no bear ever got into my caches or came into my camps.
The second method of resupply was directly from my well-stocked horse trailer. When we reached where I had left it parked. I would, leaving Primo in good care, drive my rig ahead, caching along the way. To return to Primo I would hitch a ride, take public transportation (if available), or get a pre-arranged ride back offered by an angel. I would have always obtained permission in advance to park the rig in a safe place.
The third approach to resupply required angels who would let me park my rig in a safe place on their property, or drop off my resupplies with them so I could pick them up when we passed through or near. Or, angels could meet us at pre-planned locations. This assumed that cell phone service was available. My wonderful wife, Jereen, met us several times while we passed through Southern California.
The following is my sincere thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, to all of those fellow endurance riders (members of the AERC - American Endurance Ride Conference), Back Country Horsemen, and other angels who helped in so many ways to make our journey possible. In this e-mail message I am including others who would want to know about our adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail. Next year I hope to return to McKenley Pass and continue north to Canada.
Ed Anderson aka "MendoRider" on the trail.