City Slicker Turns Cowgirl in Colorado
by EVELYN KANTER
Siesta lived up to her name. When it was time to saddle up again after lunch, she was snoozing in the sunshine. Gently so she wouldn’t startle, I stroked her velvety nose and cooed for her to wake up and get moving. Since I had just roused myself from a similar post-picnic doze, using my saddlebag as a pillow, I couldn’t fault Siesta for falling asleep on her feet.
We were both around 13,000 feet above sea level, deep in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of southeastern Colorado, ten miles from the nearest paved road. Our picnic site was alongside a sparkling lake, but the thin air of the high altitude kept me from hiking its perimeter and investigating a small waterfall that dropped into the lake from a rock outcropping.
I have been astride horses and zipped inside sleeping bags and tents many times in several decades, but this four-day pack trip was the first time I combined the two. Also, it was the first time I had been responsible for the care and feeding of a horse, including tacking up and grooming. Since all my previous experiences involved getting on a steed already saddled and giving it back the same way, it was an appealing way to combine camping out, which I enjoy, with something new. Even better, mine was a “surf and turf” trip — four days of packing followed by two days of whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River, including one adrenaline-charged frothy day rocking and rolling through the Royal Gorge near Colorado Springs.
Our first morning, we rode from our campsite in a high alpine meadow to the crest of Venable Pass, which separates the San Isabel Forest and the Rio Grande. The trail included sections as narrow as my living room coffee table, with sheer drops off the side. Siesta plodded carefully. She did not want to topple into the canyons any more than I did. Even so, I leaned my body into the mountain to counter-balance. We dismounted several times to let the horses negotiate more freely.
The adventure started at the trail head a few miles from Bear Basin Ranch in Westcliffe, Colorado, a working cattle spread that also operates pack trips for dudes like me. While trail chief Kevin Madler loaded our gear onto the pack horses, we got a lesson in basic horsemanship from Chrissy Cicha-nowski, who grew up on her grandfather’s cattle ranch in Gunnison and was riding before she could walk. The word “rodeo” peppered her lesson, as when she said you could “start a rodeo” if you cinch the saddle too tight or put on the bridle parts in the wrong sequence.
Chrissy also taught us how to work around our mounts. Since horses can’t see directly behind themselves, we were told to pat their hindquarters and keep talking when we were at their rumps, so they wouldn’t spook and kick.
We were eight riders — a brother and sister, their spouses and a teenager belonging to one of the couples, another couple on a rare vacation without their two teenagers, and me. Guiding us were two wranglers, plus three pack mules to carry the gear and food. Chrissy also brought her dog, Chewy, who carried his own provisions in a true doggie bag strapped over his back. Chewy was our scout, racing ahead and doubling back, tail wagging happily. This, I thought, is what riding the range is supposed to be.
Chrissy’s horsemanship lessons paid off when a worn leather buckle on Siesta’s hackamore (a kind of bridle) broke as we bushwacked through a thicket of low brush. In essence, that left me without a “steering wheel” or “brakes” to control Siesta once she figured out she was now boss.
Learning the Ropes
Thanks to the wrangler’s instructions, I knew enough to grab the lead rope and make the mare stand still. In moments, Chrissy was at my side, knotting the dangling leather pieces together securely enough to hold until we got back to camp.
Not that I didn’t have my urban cowgirl moments. While riding one day, I left the reins loose enough to allow Siesta to decide her own path through a dense cluster of spruce and lodge-pole pine. Her head and neck were already in between two narrowly spaced tree trunks when I realized that while her bulk would squeeze through, the extra width known as my legs would not. I pulled the reins back hard. Siesta backed up, and I heard delighted laughter from the two riders right behind me. They entertained the rest of us by retelling the story around the dinner campfire.
One night, a rustling noise by my tent awoke me. It was Siesta, who had gotten loose. Although this was mid-August, the temperature had dropped to around freezing. I was snug and warm inside my sleeping bag and dreaded the effort of struggling out of the bag, putting on a jacket and shoes, groping my way out of the tent, and then reversing the process after retying her.
Once outside the tent, I did freeze — but in wonder and awe. The sky was filled with so many dots of light there were no empty spaces. We were seven miles from the nearest lightbulb or neon sign, and the campfire had long since burned out, so there was not a spark of ambient light to dilute the view. Everyone except Siesta and me was sleeping, and with no wind, there was no sound to mar the quiet. It was intoxicating.
Kevin and Chrissy took turns cooking and trying to outdo one another with culinary creativity, seasoning meals as much with their playful teasing as with pinches from a plastic bag of secret spices prepared by the ranch chef. While they clanked and stirred in the makeshift kitchen, we took care of the horses.
On the last day, we rode through a thatch of aspens, their smooth silver-green leaves tinkling almost imperceptibly in the gentle breeze. Kevin pointed out a birch with deep gouges in its bark, evidence that bears do, indeed, climb trees. The high alpine meadows were polka- dotted with colorful wildflowers – delicate creamy-white yarrow and light purple columbine, fiery red-orange Indian paintbrush and deep purple aster – filling the clearings between the evergreens. A small herd of elk sunned themselves by a stream, oblivious to their human audience.
Back at the trail head, I removed Siesta’s saddle for the last time, brushed off the trail dust, and gave her an affectionate hug. She winked.
“Surf and Turf” trips start every Monday, May to September, from Colorado Springs, and cost $850 per person, including two nights’ hotel room for the rafting and all meals. Contact American Wilderness Experience in Boulder at (800) 444-009; Website: www.awetrips.
com, or Bear Basin Ranch, Westcliffe, CO — Tel: (719) 783-2519 (summer) or (719) 630-7687 (winter); E-mail: email@example.com; Website: www.gorp.com/adventur
For information on additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical
Index under “Co-Horsepacking.”