Imagine riding a horse through snow on a warm sunny day in August. This may sound like an impossible contradiction, but I did just that on a high country pack trip with Icicle Outfitters & Guides of Washington State.
Icicle Outfitters offers everything from day rides near Leavenworth and at Lake Wenatchee State Park, to drop camps where they pack in gear for hikers or hunters, to full service pack trips. In the winter they even have sleigh rides.
My sister, niece, and I took a pack trip in the Glacier Peak Wildernessarea. This allowed us to visit an area we aren't equipped to haul our own horses to, and to take rides ours aren't conditioned for. Also to explore an area we know nothing about with a guide to keep us from getting lost.
Pack trips sometimes involve a traveling camp where you bring the camp along and stay in a different place every night. Others pack in a base camp where they set up once and take day rides from there. You can venture farther from the starting point with the traveling camp, or have a more elaborate set-up with the base camp option.
We selected a base camp trip. The first day we rode in with pack mules carrying our gear. The mules left after dropping off supplies. On subsequent days we rode out on different trails and saw lots of beautiful places. The last day of our trip, the mules came back to pick up our gear, although we did not ride back with them. They passed by us on the trail coming in as our group headed out. Even with our head start, the pack mules beat us to the trailhead because we stopped at a beautiful high mountain lake along the way to do some fishing.
The Cascade Mountains have dozens of remote lakes with excellent fishing opportunities. A three or four piece rod works best because it fits in the rod case or tube which is both easily packed in on the mule, and can be tied onto the saddle for use during the trip. On some lakes, a float tube is also a great option for some off-shore fishing. Small high-mountain trout bite small lures such as power bait or flies. Anyone planning to fish needs to purchase a fishing license prior to their trip because the wilderness has no stores.
We saw up close the results of the 'Let it burn" policy for wilderness areas after riding many miles through eerily beautiful stands of burned trees. Some had peek-a-boo views of snow capped mountain peaks between them. Wildflowers and new young trees grew amidst the stands of dead trees. Strangest of all were the occasional untouched tall live trees that managed to escape harm while all those around them burned.
One day, we rode to Entiat Glacier. Along the way we passed first through meadows full of brightly colored flowers, then later through isolated patches of slowly melting snow in unburned woods. Another day's ride included lunch near an old historic trapper's cabin and fishing in a high mountain stream. Best of all, somebody else had to saddle and unsaddle the horses.
Camp food provided by the professional outfitter would be very hard to beat. We dined like royalty on dutch oven meals. We had dinners including salmon, pork chops, and fruit cobblers. They also cooked wonderful breakfasts with things like hot fresh cinnamon rolls or eggs and potatoes as well. Quite a switch from the usual hot dogs, burritos, and pancakes we eat when camping on our own, and someone else to wash the dishes. It's great to sit back and relax on vacation while other people do all the work.
Our guide liked dutch oven cooking so much he said he even cooked that way at home, He said using charcoal briquettes makes it an exact science, but coals from the fire mean guesswork. The amount of briquettes varies depending on the size of the pot and the material it is made out of. For a 12" cast iron dutch oven, 15 coals on top and 9 on the bottom cooks at 350 degrees. For aluminum add 4 more briquettes each to the top and bottom. On the average, for each 2 inch increase in pot size, add 2 more each to the top and bottom of the pot. For baking bread or biscuits, change the ratio to 4 briquettes on the bottom and 18 on the top for the 12" cast iron pot. To change the temperature, 2 briquettes more or less changes it up or down by 25 degrees.
After dinner, we sat around the fire toasting marshmallows for s'mores and listening to stories. Packers who spend as much time in the woods as our guide have some interesting tales to tell. He met some interesting characters over the years. One time he came along an old fashioned steamer trunk lying in the middle of the trail. He got off his horse to move it and got pelted by rocks and sticks from the owner of the trunk hiding somewhere in the trees. Further down the trail, he came across another trunk.
On his way out a week or so later, he again came across the steamer trunks. This time a couple miles farther down the trail accompanied by their owner. Quite friendly this time, displaying no sign of the earlier hostility, he claimed to be on the way to Darrington to pick berries.
“That's over 50 miles away, on the other side of the mountain,” the guide informed him.
The man had no grasp on reality thinking he would make it over a mountain before it snowed dragging first one trunk then doubling back for the other. The forest service crew had to go in and pack him out.
Deer liked our camp almost as much as we did. A doe with two fauns and a spike buck who was most likely her yearling son hung around most of the time. At night more deer snuck in to the area where some of the horses stayed tied to a highline, while others roamed free grazing on meadow grass.
The deer wanted to eat the ties off the saddles to get the salt where they rub against a sweaty horse. All the saddles had to be bundled up in the canvas used on the mule packs to keep the deer out. The mule pack canvas also made great (if a bit smelly) blankets over the sleeping bags, keeping us warm in our tent on the cold mountain nights.
Brightly colored birds called evening grosbeaks enjoyed eating ash from the firepit. One especially brave bird flew down to munch on cooler ash near the edge of the pit while we all sat around the fire having breakfast. His shyer companions flitted around nearby trees waiting for us to put out the fire and leave before they took their turns.
I recommend that anyone who is not accustomed to horseback riding try a day trail ride at a horse rental stable before booking a pack trip. If you enjoy the day trip enough that you feel like you want to ride more when it ends, then a pack trip might be for you, but if you want off the horse an hour into the ride, it would not be a good idea.
Most seasoned trail riders would enjoy a pack trip. People with only arena riding experience might also want to try the day ride on a trail first. Some arena riders feel insecure when suddenly faced with the lack of walls around them.
We planned our pack trip with Icicle Outfitters as a once in a lifetime experience, but enjoyed it so much we can't wait to go again.
Tags: Cascade Mountains Horse Camping Dutch Oven Cooking Fishing Horse Pack T