Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
We checked in and found the stalls, got her horse settled and the mules in their big stallion stall. It was the only stall left where the Sadie and Seven could be together. It is 18 foot long and 12 foot wide but very dark so I took a battery operated lantern and placed it up on a shelve on the back of the wall. It let the mules get used to the new space with a little light, because other wise it looked to me like a big dark cave!
Once we got parked, plugged in and awning out it stopped raining. We met up with our friends at the camp fire. As I was heading to bed I noticed that the clouds where just a thin layer. There was a faint circle of light around the 3/4 full moon, but what was weird was there was another off centered circle higher in the sky and brighter. Where the two circles met they joined and followed the circle around the moon. It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen!
The next morning was cool and crisp. Bev Duval came to ride Sadie Mae. We rode out at 9AM after a much needed word of prayer from camp owner Larry Blackburn. It was the kind of day you could tell was going to warm up so I did not bring a jacket. 18 mules and 2 good horses moved quietly through the woods making short work of the mud puddles. We stopped for lunch at Baden Lake, where Jane saw a copper head snake trying to eat a cat fish. The fish jumped and got away from the snake. That is not something that you see every day! We decided to ride with the long ride for the rest of the day! It was such a nice day and everyone was having a good time!
We stopped by what people call "The Big Rocks" for
a rest and took some photos. Seven and I climbed up on one of them. Upon arriving home, 8 hours later, we untacked, let the mules do some grazing. We met up with some other mule friends and a couple visiting from California who are thinking of moving here! We ended the evening with deserts and a CMA Club meeting.Sunday AM after sleeping in a little I got the mules ready to go early. A friend who is helping me with Dressage and I am helping her get to learn about mules was there camping. She came over to ride Seven. We ended up with Mule Pony rides for about five people! They where all having great fun! Nice way to get your mules warmed up for the trail ride too! The Sunday ride was 7 mules and 2 horses. We rode to Hang Glider Hill and had lunch. It was another warm day so we took it easy as the mules almost have their full winter coat on! We where all sorry to go home!
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Published in Western Mule Magazine, July 2008
Much to my friend Blue’s amusement, I had screwed up. He was nice about it, but I could hear the chuckle in the back of his voice over the phone. Just two weeks before our scheduled pack trip (higher elevation, cooler temperatures), I had body-clipped my mules after several 80 degree days at home. I would have to pack in blankets for my nearly naked mules to wear at night in the Smoky Mountains. At least the ride in and out would only be about six miles and I have one tough pack mule to boot.
I loaded the mules, blankets and all, in my 24 foot goose neck trailer, and met Blue off of Highway 40, just 20 miles from the Tennessee boarder. Lucky for me, he as able to guide me for one of the “less than boring” drives into a horse camp I have ever done. It was 11 miles, started out paved with lines on the road. It winded and twisted up and up, half the time I was already on the wrong side of the road. Then the lines were gone, the road went from two lanes to one, and then it was nothing more than gravel. It twisted and climbed, up and up, the cliffs grew and grew. We met a few cars but we were lucky that they where able to pull off. Finally, the road began to change back to pavement and flattened out into the scenic Cataloochee Valley of the Smoky Mountains. We pulled into the area near the horse camp and parked on the side of the road. I was a little relieved.
I tacked the mules and began loading the saddle panniers. Blue had his mules, Red and Beau, tacked up and packed in a jiffy.
(Yes, a man named Blue with a mule named Red, but that’s another story)
He has panniers that he was able to pre-pack and then just hang them from the pack saddle. I must invest in this before the next major trip. It is nearly impossible to balance the saddle panniers as they are already on the back of the mule. I rolled up the mule’s turnout blankets and strapped them over the top of Sadie Mae. With the blankets, tent, my food, sleeping bag, forty-five pounds of mule feed and some bottled water, I know she was glad we didn’t have far to ride.
On the way to the camp, we met a few walkers who where very interested in what we where doing and where we where going with all that stuff and extra mules. I guess they are not used to seeing pack mules or even mules for that matter. We crossed the bridge to the open meadows where the elk come down to graze at dawn and dusk. It was a warm day and we rode out in t-shirts. The creek was running quickly and making a soothing sound. The meadow was quiet and the first butterflies of the season where fluttering around us. We came up to a wet spot in the dirt road where there were around 50 butterflies drinking. As we rode up on them, they all took off at the same time and fluttered around us, one of every color and shape.
At the trail head the pack mules backed up behind the lead mule and danced around the pole at the end of the gate with out a hitch. We began our trip deep into the Smoky Mountains.
The trails started out easy but slowly began to climb. We stopped and rested the mules each time they began to blow too hard. The leaves were still not out on the trees but each side of the trail and the mountainsides were covered in greenery and small wild flowers. We stopped for just a minute at the Giant Popular tree to have our picture made. There are just a few around the Smokies and ‘I am told’ this one is the biggest one and it is registered in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Half way down the other-side of the mountain and almost to our camp-site we ran across what turned out to be just the first of many downed trees, blocking the trail. This one was particularly bad as it had landed at long angle across the trail about was about hip height. There was a trail off to the side but with a sharp angle of loose dirt, roots and still some difficult logs to step over. Blue’s mules went right over after he dismounted and gave them a little encouragement. So I dismounted Seven, Sadie Mae followed Blue’s mules and stepped right over. But Seven did not want to go through that area. His only other choice was to jump it. I climbed over and as soon as I got clear asked him to jump. With great form and the best grace a 1,250-pound Belgian mule can show, he cleared it easily. We soon reached Camp Calledwell.
There where two other hikers on one side of the camp so we set up on the other side. We found a log to set up our saddles and packs, but had more trouble and discussion about where to tie up the mule’s high-lines. They have to be tied between two trees and long enough so that they could not reach any trees to chew the bark off. Most of the trees that where big enough to tie to either had a smaller tree between them or were too far apart for my rope to reach. After the mules where set, the decisions turned to tent placement. Finding a place that was flat, soft and also would not collect water was a priority. We were expecting some rain that night. Blue and I each found a place near our own mules, but only the rain would tell us if we made a wise choice.
We collected firewood and with some effort (Just to see if we could) used a flint and striker to start the camp fire. A few times during the night I woke and checked on the mules. Even with a heavy cloud covering the almost full moon made the camp look like a Wal-Mart parking lot. We didn’t seem to have any unwanted animal visitors that night. The rain finally came at 5:30am, and it was not hard to miss on my tent. I stayed in bed till the rain let up, but Blue was already up eating breakfast.
It rained a little while we were tacking up, but we decided to chance it anyway. Blue had put on his black rain duster coat and so began Seven’s weariness of him. Poor Blue could not even walk through the camp without Seven backing up and snorting at him. I wish I could explain to Seven that Blue didn’t become a monster just because of that black coat. Some times what the mule is thinking is a mystery to us all.
We headed back up the trail we had come down the day before and Seven jumped the big tree for me again. This time, I rode Sadie Mae and led Seven with no pack. This was his first time being led for very long and he did very well and enjoyed the freedom of going down the trail with no rider. He seemed to enjoy jumping small logs and mud puddles all day, something I don’t let him do when I’m riding him. We climbed and climbed. Sometimes the trail was just a small hiker path with a long hillside up and down to either side. The view became more stunning as the mountains opened up.
I was so glad to be riding mules! I could see horse tracks (very round) in the dirt, and it seemed like every hundred feet, one of them had taken a step off the trail. Considering the elevation, I was glad to be riding my steady Sadie Mae. Having once been a pack mule for elk hunting in Wyoming, the tight trail and high elevation was nothing extraordinary to her.
In the Smoky Mountains, there are so many old trees, huge, and with such character in their shape and bark. It was eerily quite in certain parts of the forest: no planes, no cars, no other people talking, no birds. We stopped for rest at a hiker parking lot entrance. The mules took the opportunity to graze and got every blade of grass they could.
At one point, we came upon a very old fence. Blue told me that it was made of Chestnut wood and that it was probably older than his and my ages combined. He had some fence on his family’s land that was made of chestnut wood as well and said it seemed to last forever. The trail followed the fence line and the ridge. On the other side of the fence was private property, I could not help but feel jealous of the lucky dogs who own it!
After a few miles the ridge broke open to green pasture. We tied the mules and were able to go through a gate to a nice stone table and seats for some lunch. This was at 5,600 feet (pretty high up for North Carolina). The wind was blowing very hard. It seemed to be getting colder and the clouds in the distance were lifting off the lower mountains.
As we mounted up, something strange happened. The wind just stopped, dead, not even a light breeze. It was silent for almost a minute and then it picked up again. As I rode down the trail I saw Robins and some Chickadees and an Eastern Towhee, a bird I had to look up later. A chipmunk peeked out from behind a tree trunk twice at me and then ran off to another part of the woods.
And then it started hailing. At first, it was a few drops but then the noise came hard on my hat and I pulled on my rain slicker. I could hold out my hand and catch little frozen dots. It only lasted a few minutes before it changed to a shower of rain. We rode down and down the trail, reclaiming all the upward steps we had taken before. This was on the other side of the mountain and Sadie Mae seemed to know we were headed to camp as she took advantage of the downward momentum.
We came to a few downed trees but most had a path around them. Some required dismounting because it was so tight getting through the trees. Blue had one tree he had wished he had dismounted for as it squeezed his leg as his mule Red went through. At one point we had to do a short “Man from Snowy River” reenactment and as I told Blue right before I slid down “I know the mules can handle all this just fine and they are built for it, but it still makes me a little nervous!” I pointed Sadie Mae toward the hill and down she went with Seven in tow, not a problem. At the bottom we were rewarded with a nice rushing creek and a waterfall. By then, the rain had stopped.
We returned to camp to heat soup and hot chocolate. After a rinsing my hair and a change of clothes, I told Blue I was ready to stay a few extra days. That night, we could see the stars, and the moon was very bright. The mules felt quite pampered in their turn out blankets and I am sure where the only pack mules east of the Mississippi with blankets on.
By morning, the clouds had moved in again, I got up and started packing. Looking around, I wondered how I was ever going to get all that stuff back on the pack mule again. But it all fit in wet tent and all, since I was now short 45 pounds of grain and most of the water bottles. I did forget to pack my light folding chair until the last minute, so it was tied on rather strangely to the top of the pack. On the way out, we rode the lower trails that crossed so many creeks I lost count. It was truly beautiful and the mules moved out; they knew we were heading home.
We hit the elk meadow after about two hours of riding and started back towards the trailers, past the Ranger Station and then by an old church that was built back when the first people settled here. Once in a while you would hear the church bell ring; it seemed everyone who visits here pulls the rope at least once. As we rode by, Blue’s mule Red spooked a little bit, even though there was no one around. Blue said it was the Holy Ghost that scared him.
When we got back to the trailer, we loaded up and headed back upon those 11 miles of twisty road. It was going very well until we met a mini van coming up the gravel hill. The driver backed to the edge as far as she could, but it didn’t leave me much room on the inside of the curve. I had to slide my truck very close to her van and then drive a little behind it before turning the corner to get my trailer through. After that, it was smooth sailing all the way home. When we got home to Eastern North Carolina it was warm with some spring thunder showers, no blankets necessary!
I have been trying to hold on to the relaxed, peaceful mind set I came out of the woods with.
Many Thanks to Blue Goodson for another great pack trip, I can’t wait to do it again!
Friday, October 3, 2008
Fall is here and Shannon and I have had a very busy summer!
Late Spring Shannon started riding me at least three days a week so I knew something was up!
We went to some of our regular rides with the mule group and it was nice to see all my long ear friends. July was pretty quiet but very hot and I stood in the stall with the fan to get out of the hot sun and take the flies off of me.
Shannon showed me a magazine called Western Mule Magazine and my photo was on the front. She was very excited and everyone kept calling me a star. I am not sure why but I guess it is good to be on the front of a book with photos of other mules in it.
In August we made our long trip up the big hill to that cooler place in the mountains. I think they call it Grayson, I am not sure why other than all the rocks are gray colored but I am not sure about the “son” part. Shannon hurt my feelings by mostly riding Sadie Mae and leaving me in the stall a good bit. I was happy when her Mom came and took me out for a walk and some grass. Finally on the last day Shannon rode me but I think it was only because her Mom was riding Sadie Mae.
The next day I thought we where going home but we ended up at a show arena they called Fletcher. That was where we met a man named Chris Cox, he was very nice and I trusted him right away. He had a funny accent, I think they said he is from Texas and Australia, not sure where those places are and how can you be from two places at once? We rode for three days with Chris telling all the riders what to do. Shannon learned some different ways to ride me and we tried some new bending techniques. Boy, I have never worked so hard in an arena. Chris Cox rode me for a little while and I liked him very much. I was very good so he did not ride me long. Some of the horses where not behaving well and Chris rode them too but for longer. Now I know why Shannon was practicing with me so much! She told me to be very good because I would be the only mule there and we needed to make a good impression for this Chris guy. Chris genuinely loves horses and now I think he loves mules too! Lots of people where watching the group and our friend Holly who I usually see on the mule rides, was there too. She helped Shannon by holding me when there was a break.
I am not sure why but Sadie Mae was very upset to be in the stall the whole time I was out there working so hard. She had to be tied and she screamed a lot, then she even bent the metal wire on her stall front! We where both very happy to arrive at home, just like Shannon told me we would when we left that Fletcher place.
We all had a welcome break from riding for a week or two when we returned! I got fatter than usual and then Shannon started making me wear that black mask, it makes me so upset because I can’t eat the grass as well. On Saturday and Sunday’s some of Shannon’s friends bring their horses over and we ride around the fields and lakes in the area.
In early September Shannon tacked me up on Friday night and we ran around some barrels, over some poles and practiced starting and stopping, backing and side passing. I knew something was up! Early the next morning she loaded me and the short eared mustang up in the trailer. She said we where
going to have fun! That always worries me a little.
We arrived at a nice outdoor arena and I heard people saying that this event was called an Extreme Trail Challenge. Shannon took the Mustang over to the arena first. When they came back the horse said there were lots of weird objects and things in that arena and that I should be careful! After getting tacked up and warming up in the open field we rode over and it was our turn to go in! I remembered doing something like this with her before so I kind of got excited. We side passed over and got some paper out of a box and then headed for some logs and brush on the ground, no big deal. But then, ahead of me was a thing that had all different colored arms. Shannon asked me to walk through it! I got my head through and then decided I did not like the way those arms were touching my body. I jumped up in the front and threw myself forward to get by without getting hurt! This must have surprised Shannon because she got behind my motion. We started going to the next obstacle and I realized something was different. Shannon was pulling on the reins but I could not feel her ques very well. It seems my chinstrap had broken! We completed about thirty obstacles like water, dirt hills, jumps, and bridges all in about 12 minutes. Shannon could not convince me that a scarecrow who was standing next to a bale of hay she wanted me to get near was not going to hurt me. The scarecrow had her arms stretched out and big eyes. She was not moving or speaking so I was not going near her! We finished by running through a corn maze, I don’t think Shannon was very happy with how fast I wanted to run in the maze but I stopped when she sat down and said whoa so we could make a sharp turn. I was hot and sweaty when we got done. Shannon walked me around to cool off and I gave a little boy a ride! We stayed the rest of the day and I was surprised when my name was called over the loud speaker, everyone clapped and Shannon gave me a big hug! She told me that we had won the Advance class in the Trail Challenge. I heard other people talking about how cool it was that a mule had won. They also said that we won by only three points beating a guy who had won the last two times.
So now fall is here and I am quickly growing a thick coat of hair and just waiting for Shannon to start feeding us all that good hay I saw her put in the barn this spring. Looking forward to seeing everyone on the trail and the show ring this fall!
Hope you have a cookie for me when I see you!
Lucky Number 7