Monthly Archives: January 2015

Being Prepared – Survival in the Back Country

Throughout my years of working in the back country, it has always amazed me how many people go into the back country thinking, it’s only a few hours, I don’t need much. Survival in the back country depends on being prepared.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the back country over the years.  Now more than ever, there is easy road access to the outdoors for weekend warriors and top of the line equipment is easily accessible.  Manuals are written for just about everything, GPS navigation is inexpensive and the list goes on. The problem is: everything seems accessible and instant, but in the back country a very simple problem can quickly become significant. That’s when the dominoes start to fall.

Consider the following scenario:

It’s a beautiful day to head out to the mountains for some playtime. You grab your horse and tack and decide to head out for the afternoon for a quick ride to your favorite spot. You don’t see a cloud in the sky and its 28C. You grab a light windbreaker just in case, get on your horse and soon are enjoying the peaceful sights, sounds and smells of the forest.

A few hours later and a few extra trails – because you are enjoying yourself so much – you come across a mucky section of trail with lots of deadfall around you. Normally this is not a big deal, but today a moose comes out from nowhere on the trail in front of you. Your horse spins and bolts, knocks you off with the aid of a low hanging branch and gashes its front leg open while running through the deadfall.  You land on a fallen log and twisted your knee from your foot not clearing the stirrup.  To top it all off, your horse is gone.

Back Country Essential Items

Essential items to have on your person at all times.

Your horse might not have gone far. He may come back, but he knows where the trailer is and might be waiting for you at the trail head.

The problem is that you are15km from the parking lot. At a normal persons walking rate, the walk of shame back to the parking lot would take about four hours, plus you need to hike back up through the mountain pass you had previously been enjoying the view from, so add another hour (*) But you can hardly walk.  Now that the adrenaline is settling down you realize your mouth is pasted shut from thirst.

You double check your cell phone for service bars, which are not there, so you grab yourself a stick and slowly start heading back to safety.

It only takes about 1 km of walking in cowboy boots on a rocky or uneven trail for your ankles to feel like putty. Soon blisters start forming on your feet, sending shards of sharp pain with every step you take. You see some water, but it’s the local summer cattle watering hole with lots of manure visible in and around it, so you pass it up, waiting for a cleaner source of water. The sun is now baking your head, and your thirst is so bad you can hardly swallow. You have not even started up the mountain yet. As you work your way back up to the mountain pass in the heat, a massive headache kicks in, and suddenly you feel nauseous and everything starts spinning from heat exhaustion and dehydration setting in. You find a small tree with a sliver of shade and decide to take a rest. Time passes quickly in your weakened state and the hot sun drops behind the mountain. There may be hours of daylight left, but the chill quickly sets in as you sit there resting. You realize you’re not going to make it back before dark.

There are many possible outcomes to this scenario: your horse comes back and you manage to limp your way out, another rider/hiker/mountain biker finds you or you stumble upon a crystal clear mountain creek. Then again it could get worse: rain or snow may set in. Snow and freezing temperatures can occur in the mountains any time of year, even the middle of July.

While you don’t have to pack tons of gear with you, you do need to consider the what if possibilities that this example poses.  With some basic survival items most of the life draining scenarios can be avoided.

horn bag contents

Important survival items don’t take up much space.

You need to have a minimum of a knife or multi-tool and a lighter or waterproof matches on your person in case you get separated from your horse. In the summer, consider using a hydration camel water pack and water purification tablets. At a minimum with these items you can build a fire, make a shelter if needed, collect and purify water for hydration.

Your gear doesn’t have to take up a lot of space. Consider this for your saddle horn bags:

On one side: a small equine first aid kit with containing vet wrap(2), cotton padded wrap, a hoof pick, and duct tape (which triples as a temporary boot or an aid to help keep your shelter together).

On the other side: a survival kit containing survival blanket wraps(2), fire starter kit, H2O water purification tablets, toilet paper, triangular bandage, high absorbency trauma dressing and a small human first aid kit. In one of the outside pockets with easy access I carry a pen flare kit with bear bangers and multi colored flares.

camel water pack

A great way to carry water.

I personally never leave home without my trusty Gore-tex jacket, a toque and some gloves – even when it’s hot. It doesn’t take long for the weather to turn nasty in our beloved Rocky Mountains. That said, take extra precautions to keep your gear dry as most saddle bags are water resistant at best. Heavy duty zip lock bags work great, and for those really important items (like toilet paper or your fire starter kit) – double bag it. Trust me on this one: there is no worse feeling when you desperately need an item and it’s soaked!

If your packing won’t pass while standing in the shower, then it won’t pass Mother Nature’s worst weather nor submersion in the water. Also keep your tack in good repair and constantly check important leather straps for cracking or wear.

Your survival in the back country is possible in this scenario, but only if you have properly prepared yourself and your equipment. Always tell someone where you are going and your expected return time. If you are going for longer than a day also leave a brief itinerary on the dashboard of your truck, visible through the windshield. Riding with others provides safety in numbers, however that is not always possible with our busy schedules these days.

Most rides will go off without a hitch, but what about the one that doesn’t go so well? As a professional guide I would always say, It’s not a question of if, but when !

(* Nay Smiths rule of travel for the human is 4km per hour, adding 1 hour for every 1000ft elevation gain).

Semi-Urban Trail Development on Vancouver Island

The Semi-Urban Trail

Or is it semi-rural? Whatever you call it, the Otter Point district near Sooke on Vancouver Island is one of the many areas in British Columbia where any notion of backcountry, is fast being swallowed up by development.

riding in william simmons park

William Simmons Memorial Community Park offers an easy 20 minute ride through forest to a meadow that offers grazing for horses and a picnic bench for riders. Be bear aware in all seasons.

For decades, locals have maintained trails through and around private acreages, crown land, forestry lands, and beaches. Increasingly, access to these informal trails is being cut off by residential subdivisions.

In the face of this challenge, equestrians in the area have realized that their best option is to join forces with hikers and cyclists to support the development of multi-use linear parks throughout the region. This is painstaking work that requires both a grand plan for the future and the patience to be satisfied with small gains as they come along. Sometimes it’s worth fighting for a piece as small as 1.4 hectares.

The Secret Park

Local riders all knew that you used to be able to follow a trail at the end of Eaglecrest Drive up to the forestry lands beyond. But blow-downs and washouts had over time made access impossible. Besides, the entrance was crazy-steep.

Half-hearted attempts to get the trail cleared again suddenly became quite focused in 2010 when the land behind it was slated for development. What would happen to the trail? A little research showed that in fact the 1.4 hectare area had been designated as park in an earlier subdivision. Ahah! A toehold to maintain public access. But how to go about it?

Fortunately, help was at hand in the Juan de Fuca Community Trails Society. Since 2005, this group of hikers, cyclists, and riders had been working with local government to identify and document historical trails and public rights-of-way in the region. The Trails Society readily jumped in with advice and contacts, and, as things progressed, manpower and tools.

Friends of Eaglecrest Park Society

Parks and trails in Otter Point come under the governance of the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area Parks and Recreation Commission of the Capital Regional District (JdF Parks). In 2010, JdF Parks was just starting up a stewardship program that would allow residents to participate in the development and maintenance of the community parks that are scattered throughout the area.

Riders and non-riders living near Eaglecrest Drive had previously formed the Friends of Eaglecrest Park Society (FEPS). This society was re-energized and applied to become park stewards. Because local residents showed an interest, Eaglecrest Park was allotted some funding.

Development and Maintenance

Our goal was to create an all-season trail through otherwise undeveloped forest a Natural Area Recreation Park. This JdF Parks designation is important because it means the park won’t ever be cleared for another use, such as a baseball diamond.

riding in eaglecrest

The Eaglecrest trail is a short, steep climb through coastal rainforest with a rest area at the top. There is a little side loop for variation. It???s especially popular with local riders as a leg-stretch after arena work. Be bear aware, even in winter.

Because we became park stewards, FEPS was fully involved when the trail was first cleared by JdF Parks in the summer of 2010. For example, our feedback resulted in the switch-back near the entrance being re-done to make it safer for horses. Since then, we have been responsible for maintenance. We have regular work parties to inspect the condition of the trail and do any tasks required, such as improving drainage or clipping back salal. We provide JdF Parks with quarterly reports that detail the condition of the trail and describe our work. We also comment on trail use, including photos, so that they know that the trail is being used by horses as well as walkers. JdF Parks is very supportive, and provides extra help and materials when required.

Rosemary Jorna and Howard Taylor

Rosemary Jorna from the JdF Community Trails Society and Howard Taylor from FEPS, clearing a drainage ditch on the Eaglecrest trail, December 2014. The two groups often work together on projects.

It’s only 1.4 hectares. What’s the point?

The point is that the Juan de Fuca Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission has, with community input, developed a vision for the area that involves linking together whatever land they can get to create a network of multi-use trails. Each time we secure a couple of hectares of land for equestrian use, it is another link in the network.

Becoming involved with this project also means we are consulted when new developments come along. For example, FEPS was invited to meet with the developers of the 220 hectares beyond the park to discuss the trail they were offering as an amenity. Now the developers know that a horse-friendly trail would be well-received in any proposal they make.

One Thing Leads to Another

As a direct result of the success of the Eaglecrest project, JdF Parks contacted the Sooke Saddle Club about the possibility of including horse facilities at a new park they were developing in Otter Point, William Simmons Memorial Community Park. The Community Parks program doesn’t have a large budget, and was there any way to get funding? And if so, what facilities would be desired?

william simmons park

The park has shared trails, but some picnic areas are off-limits to horses. This kind of planning keeps everybody happy.

With the help of BC Horse Council funding (Recreation and Industry Grant), the Saddle Club ensured that William Simmons Park in Otter Point has trailer parking, a horse and rider rest area, hitch rail, and manure bin. These are convenient for riders, but are also permanent structures that state clearly horses belong here.  Road crossings are a major concern for semi-urban trails. So, the Saddle Club ensured that there is a Horse Crossing sign on the road that connects the park to trails through a nearby subdivision. The subdivision trails are also horse friendly, thanks to club input and monitoring.

The Saddle Club regularly inspects and reports on the condition of the trail and facilities. Recently, William Simmons Park was expanded, and the club was contacted again for input on the expansion.

Building the Network

rest area on equine trail

The hitch rail and other amenities in the rest area were built to rugged park standards.

William Simmons, like Eaglecrest, is a small park, only 6.6 hectares, but it is has been identified by the Juan de Fuca Community Trails Society and JdF Parks as the hub of a trail network for the region. The next piece is close to being in place. JdF Parks has a permit from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to develop a 1.6 km trail along an unused right of way that leads from William Simmons to another area with park potential. We can’t wait to see hoof prints on that trail!

Tips for Semi-Urban Trail Development

  • Get there first. Park development is often done on a first-come, first-served basis. If trails are being actively used by horses, then horse facilities are more likely to be provided.
  • Make maps. Work with local riders to identify current or historical informal trails on public or private land that have the potential for development. Also consider roads–which ones could easily incorporate riding paths?
  • Understand the politics. Find out how, when, and where trail-development decisions are made in your area. Find policies you can support, and work from there.
  • Create a voice for yourselves. Form a legal society so that you have an official place at the table, when development is being discussed.
  • Think multi-use. Hikers, riders, and cyclists have some different needs, but many more common interests. Cooperate and educate so that horses are welcome on your trails.
  • Find money. Look for grants and other sources of funding that will help make your projects possible and desirable.
  • Geocache. You want your trails to be used. Geocaching is a great incentive to use the trail, and provides evidence of use.

destroyed geocache

There are three Amazing Backcountry caches in the area: William Simmons, Butler Trail ??and Eaglecrest.

Riding in Costa Rica – By the Light of Fireflies

The late Costa Rican afternoon had cooled down enough for a trail ride – about 25 degrees Celsius. We finished up a full, yet relaxing, first day of reflection at the Horse-Empowered Retreat at Painted Pony Guest Ranch. Now we were excited to go for our first ride of the retreat, the first of a few planned for the coming week.

Criollo mares at the retreat

A special group of Criollo mares were our guides at the Horse-Empowered Retreat.

We were a small group of women from Canada and the U.S. with varying levels of horse experience – from beginner to expert – and all with a passion for horses and warm countries. We were all of a “certain age,” and ready to learn more about ourselves through immersion in a retreat setting on a working ranch.

I had been to this guest ranch before in the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica and fell in love with the place. I had returned to facilitate my first Horse-Empowered Retreat here, a retreat combining equine-assisted learning, natural horsemanship, yoga and cultural activities.

It was not my first time riding in Costa Rica, but it was the first time anywhere that I had such a special night ride. It was special for it combined the cultural aspects of Costa Rica, the unique landscape and a unexpected treat at the end.

Sky and Esteban of Painted Pony Guest Ranch

Skye and Esteban of the Painted Pony Guest Ranch give me a natural horsemanship lesson.

We got ready to ride out on gorgeous Criollos -matched to our abilities. My mount was Skye, a mare I have ridden in the past.  She is smart and spunky, and the dominant mare in her field who has helped me in my journey to develop my leadership skills.

Our tack was comfortable and western that afternoon, though English saddles were available. The saddles were synthetic, a sensible choice for a country with an annual rainy season and the mold problems that entails. The horses know both neck and direct reining, and they are highly sensitive to leg and seat.

The Criollo breed are sensitive and sensible horses with stamina. They also have a special gait, which makes them a very smooth ride especially at the trot. It feels more like a glide than a trot. The gait is Paso Trotto – trotting on the front end, walking on the hind. They naturally go into this gait and I found it easy to keep them there.  As this was our first ride as a group, we took it at a walk.

After a final spray of bug repellent for horse and human, we headed out on our trusty steeds for supper in a small village. It was great fun to ride through pastures and trees, up and down some gentle slopes, across a creek then through the village itself. The fields were high with grass after the rainy season and some of the pathways were overhung with huge trees, their trunks and lower branches encased by giant philodendron vines. The creek was low-banked with a trickle of water and a bit of mud. It had nearly dried up after two months into the dry season.

On the trail

One of our guides, Esteban describes another trail for another day.

Our guides were the owners of the Painted Pony Guest Ranch and Casagua Horses Tours, Kay and Esteban Peraza. They pointed out novel things along the way, such as cashews growing on bushes, sloths resting high in Guanacaste trees – the national tree of Costa Rica – and howler monkeys leaping from branch to branch over our heads. A flock of bright parakeets streaked overhead like little green rockets.

Horseback riding in Costa Rica is common because of its ranching and cowboy culture, and i have seen people riding mules as well.  Riders are welcome everywhere so we received friendly waves and smiling faces as we rode through the village.

Pre-sunset in Costa Rica is a time for visiting and relaxing before the evening meal.  Adults and teens were gathering on porches or chatting in clusters on the roadside.  Children were riding bikes or playing soccer on the dirt roads.   Dogs sprawled in the dust on and by the roads or, feeling protective, dodged out of their yards to bark at us as we rode by.   A few small and acrid fires smouldered by the side of the roads as residents burned their trash for the day.

The horses were relaxed about monkeys moving suddenly in the trees, laundry on lines, pinwheels whirling in gardens, dogs of any size, chickens on the road, motor bikes and bicycles. They have done this ride before and their training prepares them mentally for all sorts of events.

Sunset arrives about 6 PM in Costa Rica and we arrived at the cantina as the light was fading. We tied our horses to the fence or the trees then strolled in to supper.

Breaking the pinata

Watch out, it’s pinata time!

The house special was pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, delicious with a cold beer. There was a child’s birthday party there that evening, and we were included in the celebration. Dessert was birthday cake and watching the fun as the kids swung at the pinata, often to the peril of the adults. There was a lot of laughter, the universal language.

Time to mount up and go home.  There was no moon this night. There was nervousness about our return ride, but we were reassured that all would be well. “Trust your horse, ride with a loose rein and stay balanced.” Off we went with light horses staggered in between dark horses.

As we left the dim lights of the village and headed into the black, the warm night became magical with sound, instead of sight. The rustling of the warm breeze in the trees, the soft thuds of hooves, the relaxed blowing of horses and the sighs of riders.

It was spectacular crossing the last pasture before home because it seemed there were stars everywhere.The sky was filled and the air around us and the ground…Fireflies!  We were surrounded by thousands of pinpoints of flashing lights.

After our exclamations of wonder, we rode the rest of the way home in silence. We trusted our horses too, as that is the best way to ride by the light of fireflies.

The next morning over a typical country breakfast on the porch of the main ranch house, we talked about our special ride and what it meant to us.  It taught us that our horses will take care of us when we can’t see where we are going – figuratively and literally.   It opened our hearts to the rewards of embracing new experiences.

We were going to have a great week together.