The Wheel of Misfortune spun; Day One of our wilderness hike up the Imnaha River Canyon in the Wallowa Mountains near the Idaho border was tough — primarily because we were a group of old people carrying backpacks and my husband Kyle, while riding, was leading two inexperienced packhorses.
Our guidebook listed the hike as easy.
It sounded easy — only 800 feet of elevation gain in 7 miles. But read the fine print: 18 creek crossings. The trail descends in and out of creek bottoms and at times crosses high above the plunging Imnaha River, making the total elevation gain significantly more than 800 feet.
Creek crossings, a lovely inconvenience for hikers, were terrifying for Star, our rookie packhorse. Star thought he had spun the Wheel of Misfortune at every creek. Even 2-foot-wide seeps stopped him in his tracks. To get him moving, my job was to hustle up from behind and whack him with my magic wand (a 5-foot-long switch.)
Once I grew a bit careless and waved my magic wand past the face of the rear packhorse. Instead of restarting the string forward, I sent them all to bucking and plunging through the brush. “Oops,” I muttered penitently, as Kyle fought to bring the horses under control.
It was toasty warm on Aug. 9 and a 1994 fire had converted miles of trail into a brush-field growing high overhead. It occurred to me as I was streaming sweat and hustling to catch up to the frozen-in-place pack string time after time, that I, General Ponytail, had been demoted to foot-soldier. However, I changed my mind about who had spun the Wheel of Misfortune when I looked up and watched my previously mounted husband sliding down a shale slope after his horse slipped and fell. I never envy Kyle leading the pack string.
Nor did I envy our friend, Bob Young, as he staggered up the trail, shouldering not only his own heavy pack but also gallantly carrying his wife Kathy’s pack after she suffered painful hip spasms. Suddenly, my sweaty 25 pound pack wasn’t such a big deal.
We thought it wise to have our other hiking buddies, Marv and Connie Knox, carry our 4-foot misery whip saw so that it would be easily available to clear logs. Regrettably, our saw arrived after Kyle had nearly finished chopping through his second log with an ax. Ironically, our befuddled packhorse Star astounded us by plunging into the brush and jumping over the belly-high uncut end of the log.
We were all more than ready to stop when we reached a lovely campsite at Deadman Creek. The creek seemed aptly named as I contemplated my weariness. Then Kathy came bouncing into camp. “Wow, wasn’t that a beautiful hike. This is so wonderful.” Now that she mentioned it … the hike was beautiful.
While horse packing, we rarely move camp, but our goal was to find the oldest tree in Oregon, an elusive 2000-year-old limber pine 8,200 feet up Cusack Mountain. So, in the morning we repacked and headed another 6 or 7 miles up the trail. The scenery alternated between glorious wildflower-strewn meadows below rugged cliffs and lovely forests interspersed with the biggest old-growth tamarack/larch trees any of us had ever seen.
However, the Wheel of Misfortune spun and Joe, our riding horse who had lost a shoe, was clearly limping. Kyle found himself demoted to hoofin’ it while holding the packhorses’ lead rope. Joe ambled happily behind enjoying a non-stop grass salad buffet.
With Kyle taking over the foot-soldier position, I was demoted once again, this time to camp-follower. The Wheel of Fortune had spun my way. I no longer had to hustle behind fast-moving horses and whack the recalcitrant beast of burden as we crossed 18 more creeks.
Day Three we hiked cross-country for miles up a steep ridge to position ourselves above the magnificent ancient limber pine. We came in from above because the precipitous slope tilts even steeper below the tree. After Connie demonstrated the slip-and-slide method of reaching the venerable old tree, the rest of us picked our way carefully.
Nearly 7 feet in diameter, the ancient tree’s massive horizontal limbs are comprised of long-dead, twisted stress wood. A 2 feet wide strip of bark spirals around the tree to nourish the one limb still tenuously holding on to life 30 feet overhead.
Upon return to camp, taking a solar shower became a priority. As my husband trekked over to the discreetly hidden shower, I dryly pointed out that his only pair of jeans were so dirty they could stand up by themselves. That was a mistake.
After washing up, Kyle came prancing out wearing his Stetson cowboy hat, a red and blue plaid shirt, olive green camo swim trunks, knee-high white tube socks and cowboy boots. Cowboy turned rodeo clown, he strutted, preened, postured and posed, proclaiming, “I have a celestial body — like Saturn I have a ring around the middle.” Later he confessed his current goal in life: live long enough to embarrass his wife. He can check that off his bucket list.
Because our friends who spin the Wheel of Misfortune with us are growing older, they expressed concern that we will quit inviting them on these trips. No way. Not only do our campfire conversations with them about life and walking with Jesus greatly enrich our experience, but they demoted themselves to serving as horse babysitters, camp cooks, dishwashers, water haulers and firewood gatherers while we climbed. These qualities were especially valuable when we spun the Wheel of Misfortune and ran out of fuel for our camp stove.
In the morning we awoke to threatening rain. Our trek back down to Deadman Creek was beautiful. However, the Wheel of Misfortune spun and our campsite was occupied. By now, it was raining in earnest. Trudging the mile back up the trail to an alternative campsite was a little less than enjoyable. The horses were confused. Make up your mind people!
The drawback of our alternative campsite became clear when Kyle took the horses down to a difficult watering access. Two horses broke loose and ran back towards the trailhead. Confusion and chaos reigned while neighing horses thundered back and forth across the wooden bridge until briefly stopping nose to nose. Marv, while attempting to grab a distraught horse, was deafened by an ear-splitting whinny, causing him to stagger back off the bridge. By then we all were running for halters and grain.
Our last day dawned bright with the promise of heat again. Taking our last opportunity, we made a serious effort to find Imnaha Falls. We spun the Wheel of Fortune when we discovered that the pristine pool formed by thundering water was crowded with bull trout. The smallest were 24 inches long!
Two things kept me moving down the trail as my feet complained vociferously: the thought of root beer chilling in a cooler and my brilliant idea for converting our rusty old horse trailer into a solar shower house.
Even after shoveling the horse poop out, the trailer stank. But the Wheel of Fortune spun, and we had one of the world’s finest showers. The horse trailer didn’t smell much better for the 14 hour trip home, but we sure did.