Saddleback Ride in the High Sierras - Nearing Vogelsang Pass


Who IS that masked man?

Feeling very cozy in my tent cabin at Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, I opted not to arise early and watch the sunrise this morning. I was thinking ahead of our trail ride to Vogelsang Camp, appreciating that we were going to travel on the Lewis Creek Trail and come down into camp over Vogelsang Pass. The pass is a high ridge that divides valleys on either side. Atop there, affords people some awesome views to both sides I was told. I looked forward to being able to experience both trails, this time with the mule doing most of the work getting there and hauling my cargo.


As days go, this seemingly was pretty much routine. The early morning hot drinks, served outside the dining tent, followed by our hearty breakfasts. Everyone was ready to head off on this day of nearly steady ascents, in fact we were all chopping at the bit (ha, ha, horse humor) as we had been informed the night before that we should be ready to ride just after breakfast. But where were the mules? Did they sleep in also? 

Well, we never did know exactly why the mules were not ready, other than K-Bar and Kendall had some issues with them. I did come to understand, in being up early and watching at the corral that attiring the mules and horses each morning required a whole lot of work. All that leather, harness, straps, buckles, saddles - on each animal - it all took time. And then, the mules were not supposed to lie down with all their gear upon them, as, I also learned, they could injure themselves, damage their gear, or not be able to get up. Being at the corrals after the mules were "dressed", some would lie down. When that happened and it was noticed, Kendall or K-Bar would start shouting at them to "GET UP" and may have to resort to prodding them to rise back up on their feet. 

(Being devils advocate here, who could blame the poor mules? Knowing I'd have to be carrying a lot of weight on my back, I'd want to lie down too). 


I did that the week before. I carried a heavy pack on my back and relished any opportunity to lie down too! 

Poor defenseless mules…

There was some grumbling amongst ourselves, but, no use fretting about things not in our control. Sooner or later we'd get underway and the day would still hold adventure for us. Finally, Kendall and K-Bar had tied down and snugged up the pack straps on the last pack mules, we all got mounted, just about to head on up the trail, and out runs Mike the camp manager, halting us from leaving. WHAT NOW?

Remember that fire I wrote about? Remember that a hotshot crew was to come to assure it was out and of no danger? Yeah? Well they were coming. 


By Helicopter! 

Loud machines and loud noises are not a good mix with mules or horses. So, we had to postpone departure for even longer. Under the circumstances, everyone understood and sat upon the mules, milling about. Nearly as quickly as we heard the alert from Mike, the sound of an approaching helicopter was heard. It was to land upon the massive boulder just above us, and by which we would directly pass. Keeping our mules down below, away and under control, the helicopter hovering above and gently landing, was dog gone awesome to watch. Not being able to actually see the action up above us, the loudness of the helicopter breaking the quietness and calm in camp, it was a very quick landing and departure. It seemed so rapid, that copter landing and then the big yellow bird lifting up again and swiftly darting off over the mountains.


Wow! What a start to the day!

As quickly as the copter flew off, we were headed out of camp and up the trail. No more delays. Let's ride!

The unexpected excitement and resulting rush were soon settling as we plodded along, climbing the first  steep incline. And we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. Recent memory of my feet tramping upon this trail brought some delight in knowing how much exertion it required, and that I only had to sit in the saddle, hang on, lean forward and let Steve-O do the work. 

Not all of the day was spent leaning forward in the saddle as the mules clip clopped on the trails. There several descents as well and numerous level areas as well. Even upon the mule, the flat trail was typically less straining on me as well as Steve-O. 

By mid day we stopped in a shady area, near a stream and savored our lunches, mules tied to trees, looking as beat as I had felt the week before. And, of course, Steve-O got his portion of my apple, contentedly munching, and, I'm sure, very appreciative.

As the day wore on I reflected on the ride, the mules, the High Sierra Nevada Mountains and comparisons to the hiking.

As I looked at Steve-O and the other mules, it struck me on their grooming. Notice in the photo, the sharp looking crew cut (or would it be a Mohawk) on all the animals' manes.

IMG_6176 - Version 2

Additionally our mules did have their own personalities. Some seemed to sense the riders "softer" personalities and took advantage of that, by testing the limits, slowing down, going at their own pace, being stubborn (like - "as a MULE"). Imagine that! 

As we rode along, I'd give him a good pat on his neck, saying "good job Steve-O" or "good boy" and otherwise try to say encouraging things to help him know my appreciation and good intentions. Steve-O and I really seemed to be well paired. He being pretty much well behaved, not easily excited, steady, trusty. Near the end of this days trail, as we entered camp, another, unexpected swarm of bees were disturbed just as he had to jump over a muddy spot. Handling him on two accounts, the little jump and accosted by bee stings, Steve-O began shaking his head to ward off the bees and I, seeing his plight, prodded him to keep him moving, then getting him to move hastily away from the bees. Patting his neck and speaking softly, I offered what I could, in words, to help soothe him. At the corral, as i dismounted and tied up his reins, Steve-O, turned to me, and rubbed his head upon my shoulder. Ohhh, how affectionate was that?! I think he liked me.

Comparing the hiking to riding, first thing of note was that my line of sight was raised much higher upon the mule. The vantage point from there provided a whole new perspective. It also could be a bit unnerving. Particularly thrilling could be when the mules began a steep descent. I'd liken it to being on a roller coaster. Remember the feeling you get as the coaster slowly nears the pinnacle? Then remember that moment, it crests and you are looking, momentarily off into nothingness before you? And then, remember the feeling in the pit of your stomach as the coaster goes headfirst over the crest? Finally, remember looking down and seeing the tracks once again as the thrilling descent is upon you? THAT is what I often thought as Steve-O crested a hill, I was suddenly thrust forward and he took his first quick steps/jump downward for a bumpy, heart stopping ride. Watching the ground from that vantage point just made me hang on for dear life. Yeeee, yaaaa!

Lastly, about the mules, I never felt in any danger that he would mis-step or fall off a cliff. My confidence in Steve-O was complete. He did stumble one time on a descent, but, mostly on his own, he recovered and just kept on going, taking it all in stride. He (and I) also handled ourselves very well later up the trail at Vogelsang Pass.

And that will soon be revealed... © Donald E. Kline 2012                                         Disqus Comments