Posted on Friday, February 1st, 2013
I love scouting trips. By definition they’re unpredictable and there’s always a chance of getting lost. I admire guides who have enough confidence in themselves and theirhorses to risk exploring new trails with a string of clients in tow, and I enjoy the sort of people who intentionally sign up for 8 days on horseback with only a vague, abbreviated itinerary. Furthermore, thanks to a lack of expectations the positive aspects come as pleasant surprises and the inevitable negative events are easily shrugged aside.
This first Canyon Country Trek was 10 days, with 8 days of riding. The route took us in an immense arc beginning roughly on the Utah / Arizona border, then north and east, and south again to end at the border 80 miles or so east of the starting point. We rode through an astonishing variety of desert formations: slickrock, sand dunes, slot canyons, razor ridges, and cliffs in various shades of vermillion and apricot, and through a variety of vegetative zones from sagebrush and cactus in the low country, across pinyon- and juniper-covered benches, to stands of towering pine, fir, aspen, oak and maple glowing with autumn colors. We trailblazed through downed timber and galloped the sandy floors of deep canyons. After dinner we gathered armloads of wood and sat around a blazing campfire while the moon rose over the ubiquitous sandstone walls. Throughout the night we listened to the comforting shuffle of horses tied to a highline, and –naturally– the occasional howling of coyotes.
The Canyon Country Trek (later to be renamed the Canyon Explorer Trek) started when I was talking to the outfitter about a possible new route. His “territory” is vast, stretching from the Navajo Reservation of southern Utah and northern Arizona, across the width of those two states, bounded on the south where the Colorado River runs in the depths of the Grand Canyon, and north to Bryce Canyon and Cedar Mountain. It’s larger than some states, and he knows it well. When I suggested a ride that included Canaan Mountain, the Paria, and Snake Gulch, he didn’t even blink. “Yup, we can do that,” he said referring to himself, his son, and a nephew or two who make up the crew. The caveat was restricting this ride to people who had already done (read “survived”) one of his other camping trips. The reason wasn’t so much a question of riding ability, as of attitude. You must be willing to ride into camp at the end of a long day in the saddle, care for your horse, pitch your tent, and then offer to help with chores. Some people love it, some people don’t, and since there would be enough surprises as it was, this trip was limited to clients who had already passed the test.
As we rode along Justin or Jason or Mel would point and say something like, “Over there is such-and-such canyon. I was there once years ago and it would be good country to see again, if I could find the trail.” It occurred to me that there is so much interesting country out there to explore, that the ride should be about the reconnaissance experience rather than about following a defined route. So we changed our original plan, and created the Canyon Explorer Trek: every second year a chance to return and explore some new corner of the rugged, isolated Colorado Plateau.
To be honest though, there are a number of variables that were never in question: the scenery in every direction is nothing short of breathtaking, the horses are fit, uncomplicated, and unbelievably sure-footed. The meals are hearty, plentiful and varied. The guides know the country, know their horses, obviously enjoy their work, and most important, they have a sense of humor. Those things you can count on.
A defining moment happened one afternoon on the timbered slopes of the Bryce Plateau. Justin turned around in his saddle, looked at us with a sly grin, and said, “I hate trails.” Then he and his horse took a sharp right and dropped out of sight. What else could we do but give our horses plenty of rein and follow. And after all, that’s what we came for.