The first story I ever wrote for publication back in 1983 featured my saddle horse at the time, a black gelding named Black Jack, a new set of pack boxes built by my friend, Henry Ketchie, and one helluva horse wreck. In More Cee Dub's Dutch Oven and Other Camp Cookin', Jack showed up in several stories including one about my old pard, Rich Rodgers, entitled "Shoe String Bull". That particular story chronicles a hunting trip in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area along the Middle Fork of Salmon River in Central Idaho. But, to paraphrase a well-known radio personality there is "more to the story"!
A large part of my patrol area lay within the Frank Church Wilderness Area, which necessitated that I spend a fair amount of time horseback during the fall. The big game seasons started with sheep season on September 1, with the deer and elk season going until just before Thanksgiving. The plan was for me to trail the stock in, patrol for a week, and then take a few days off to hunt with Tom and Bill Beck along with Rich, who would all fly in to meet me at Indian Creek Airstrip. I packed enough grub and grain on the stock to get by until they flew in. Being three days of hard riding from Camas Creek Trailhead, I considered it a real luxury and looked forward to having my groceries delivered by airplane. Since we planned to camp in the timber along the airstrip rather than packing our camp up a side drainage, I planned a somewhat more extravagant menu than usual. With that said I should first explain my normal menu plan when patrolling horseback in the backcountry.
Two things high on my list of things I don't like to do are dishes and having a big breakfast as soon as I get up. Dishes have a permanent place on that list whereas a big breakfast around mid-morning is usually a good idea. And after a day in the saddle, I like a big evening meal. After dinner I do the dishes and get my kitchen boxes packed except for the coffee pot and a cup. The next morning while the stock has a breakfast of grain, sweetened with molasses, I make a pot of coffee and eat a couple of granola bars. With just the pot and a cup to pack it doesn't take me long to get going. During the day I snack on a stash of snacks in my saddlebags, i.e., jerky, kipper snacks, and dried fruit.
Most folks who read this story have never horse packed a camp kitchen. Rather than bore you with an extensive lesson on horse packing, I'll just hit a couple of high points. First, it is very important that the packs weigh the same so that they balance when loaded on each side of the critter. Secondly, and just as important, the packs shouldn't rattle or make any weird noise once the horse starts walking. Even the smallest rattle magnifies when the packhorse in question gets excited and moves at any gait other than a normal walk. For example, unless you place a dishtowel between the lid and an aluminum Dutch oven, when the horse starts walking you hear an occasional non-threatening musical tinkle. Should any of a million things happen to spook the packhorse and he starts bucking, that same little tinkle in his mind begins to sound like the clanging of the Liberty Bell. Regardless of what starts the wreck, this clanging instantaneously ratchets up the intensity and makes it extremely likely the horse packer in question is going to have a very bad day!
There is a huge difference between loading your truck for a camping trip and packing everything on the back of a horse. That difference being one has a brain. On it's own, the best a truck can do is quit running, leaving one stranded on the side of the road somewhere short of the desired destination. When this walking, non-talking, transportation system called a packhorse malfunctions a call to the Automobile Association of America is not even an option! Malfunctions of almost any sort are instantly contagious to any other packhorses in the immediate vicinity. By now, even a non-horse packer can figure out the risk is extremely high when certain fragile items are loaded onto the back of a horse.
Anyway...the appointed day arrived and I trailed the stock from Little Creek Guard Station eleven miles upriver to meet the guys. I rigged a picket line and tied up the stock a safe distance from the strip before walking up to the end to wait for the plane. Right on schedule I heard the unmistakable sound of the radial engine on a DeHaviland Beaver flown by the flying service the guys were flying with. The pilot, Jim Searles, taxied to where I stood and cut the power. He and I started unloading gear while we waited for the Cessna with Bill, Tom, and Rich that he said was about fifteen minutes behind him. It took only a few minutes to unload and Jim was airborne back to Challis when the Cessna made it's landing approach.
If memory serves me correctly, Bill Beck fished a pint of sour mash whiskey from his duffel bag and passed it around as we began sorting gear for the 200 yard trek to our campsite. One pint of whiskey passed twice between four hunters equals an empty bottle! So at that point I walked back to camp and tightened the cinch on Black Jack's saddle before leading him back to the pile of gear. Tom said something about since it was such a short distance it would be easier to carry the stuff ourselves and save the hassle of packing and unpacking Black Jack several times. "Bulls#*t," I said, "Why should I carry something on my back while he stands around and does nothing?" In hindsight, Tom's idea was the best. Perhaps the second pint of sour mash Bill fished out of his duffel affected my thought processes at this point?!
The first couple of loads went without a hitch, packing the tent and every one's duffel. For the third trip, I started taking groceries out of cardboard boxes and re-packing then in my wooden kitchen boxes. Canned goods went into one box and eggs, among other things, went into the second pack. By now you've probably guessed what happened next. After I slung the boxes on the Decker Saddle, I handed Black Jack's lead rope to Rich and asked him to lead him over to camp while I made up another load. I heard the canned goods shift a little about the second step Black Jack took. My first thought was, "Oh hell, he can make it a couple of hundred yards like that!" Wrong! He didn't even make it ten yards before all hell broke loose. With Black Jack on one end and Rich on the other of a very tight lead rope they made several well-choreographed revolutions. Rich managed to keep his feet on the ground while Black Jack "crow" hopped with all four feet off the ground at least once per revolution. Every time he hit the ground the pack boxes slammed into his ribs causing even more anxiety.
In my heart I knew from the first jump the luxurious breakfasts I'd planned to fix each day after the morning hunt would not include any Dutch oven omelets! Black Jack scrambled a week's worth of eggs in under thirty seconds! Needless to say, this fiasco along with egg less breakfasts somewhat tarnished my reputation as a horse packer and camp cook, at least among these guys.
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