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June 30, 2020: Horseback Riding in Alaska

Some time ago Dave at Synergist Saddles asked me to write about trail riding in Alaska. We’d purchased several Synergist saddles for our Icelandic horses, and in 2011, during our first Lower 48 trek, we became good friends. I postponed writing this article because Alaska lends itself to short, rather than lengthy rides. The routes tend to be boggy, and there are no interconnected systems. But as I recently discovered, the shorter trails here are well worth checking out.

I sensed that it was going to be a different sort of summer, trip-wise, last February. Several cases of COVID 19 had been diagnosed in the Lower 48, and shortly thereafter, the US/Canadian border was closed. This meant that my husband Pete and I would not be doing a summer trek in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in 2020.

Finishing the ride - Independence Mine State Park in back - photo by Claudia

Come April, I decided to do an in-state, combination bicycle/horseback trek. I’d travel from northerly Fairbanks to southerly Valdez by bicycle, a distance of approximately 650 miles. At the midway point I’d ride the 20 miles over Hatcher Pass on the cutoff trail.

I embarked on the first leg of my trip on June 18, 2020, heading south on the Parks Highway. For the next three days I dealt with rain, headwinds, and heavy truck traffic. Places to camp were far and few between, so I averaged 50 miles a day.

The sun came out on Day Four. Within hours, I began wishing for rain because my lower lip was badly burnt. Day Five and I arrived at the Hatcher Pass Turnoff Road. I camped, and the next morning met up with Pete who’d trailered Raudi to my roadside campsite. He was accompanied by my friend Sarah who’d agreed to ride Hrimfara, one of our other Icelandic mares, and my friend Claudia who was riding her Icelandic mare, Katla.

We were all wearing masks – I remarked that we looked like banditos – and before, during, and after the ride, we maintained physical distance. This felt odd to us, given that we were long-time trail riding buddies. I wore a mask for the duration of the ride to protect my now very tender lower lip.

The sun was shining brightly as we set out in a Hobbit-like fashion. It was July 1. The Hatcher Pass Road is usually open July 4 to October 1 because of the high snow pack, but this year the Alaska Department of Transportation opened it on June 15th. We opted to do our traverse before the fourth of July holiday weekend, in hopes of beating the holiday rush. This was a wise decision; the bulk of the traffic consisted of in-state tourists who were out for a leisurely drive.

The first part of the dirt/gravel road was winding with a gradual climb. The three red-headed mares moved out at a trot, with Raudi taking the lead. A mile out and I heard the unmistakable rumble of a large vehicle. I glanced back and saw a semi with a bulldozer on the rear. Sarah and Claudia pulled over to the roadside and their mounts dove for the lush, green grass. Raudi instead bolted. I did as I’d done when, in 2011, we were faced with an identical situation in traversing Colorado’s Cottonwood Pass; that is, I rode it out. Raudi soon surmised there was no place to go but up, and soon she slowed to a trot. I dismounted and led her back to her buddies. The driver waved as the vehicle lurched by. A dump truck followed on the heels of the semi. A second semi then ground past.

We regrouped after the vehicles passed. Sarah noticed that Raudi’s rear boot had come partway off. Claudia held Raudi as I refitted it. I hopped back in the saddle. I was beset with a sinking feeling as Raudi appeared to have a hitch in her get-a-long. I remarked that it felt like she had a flat tire. I dismounted and walked her a few steps. Yep, Raudi was favoring her left rear leg. Sarah suggested that we call Pete and have him pick us up.

“Let’s check the boot,” Claudia said. I held Raudi’s lead in my trembling hands. Claudia removed the boot, felt inside, and pulled forth a giant pebble. I breathed a sigh of relief because my beloved Raudi was okay.

The remaining six hours of the ride was magical. Up we went. Our backdrop was snow-splotched mountains and our foreground was the tundra. Marmots chittered at us before ducking back into their holes. Thunder clouds began forming later in the day. My fears, that we might get caught in a hailstorm (common in these parts) were unfounded.

We arrived at Summit Lake, the literal high point of our trek, at 3 p.m. The ice at the lake edge had melted: the reflection was a mirror image of the surrounding peaks. The lower splotches of snow had a pink hue; Sarah explained that this was due to a specific kind of high country algae. The two-dozen or so hikers, bicyclists, and tourists in the pullout area were wearing masks. I was reminded of the time in which Pete and I arrived at the top of the Vail Ski Slope in Colorado. We were surrounded by tourists, all of whom wanted to pet our “cute little ponies.” These tourists kept their distance.

We walked our still energetic horses down road, to the far side of the pass, in order to give them a break. I was the first to see our trailer a mile down the winding road. Minutes later, we celebrated our accomplishment – Sarah is co-owner of the Lazy Mountain Brewery, and prior to leaving home she had stashed a growler in our rig. I was elated because the logistically most difficult portion of my journey was over. I unloaded my bicycle, and we loaded horses and gear into the trailer. I camped at a nearby Alaska State Parks Campground and the next day rode home, a distance of 40 miles. The remaining portion of my trip, the 300-mile ride to Valdez, followed.

The best part of this most amazing adventure was the horseback ride over Hatcher Pass. Yes, it was just a one day ride. But I discovered that even though it’s impossible to do long horse treks in Alaska, that it’s possible to do shorter ones. And so this is what I’m going to be doing in the months ahead.

Next: 182. 7/1/20: Beyond Words

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