Thursday, May 8, 2014

My Misadventure in the Great Smoky Mountains: Lessons for Trail Riders

The story that is about to unfold is one I find at times difficult to think about and when I recall the details, a bit frightening.  However, my adventure, or misadventure as it may be, perhaps can save all you trail riders from dangerous situations.  I will point out my mistakes as we move along in this story.  I am sure you all have had ventures or milestones you wanted to accomplish with your horse.  Well, after trail riding, camping and participating in the Appaloosa Distance Riding program and accomplishing a 100 and 200 hour patch, there was just one challenge left and that was to ride the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains in Bryson City, North Carolina. 

My husband, being the sport that he is, tried riding with me but found it just wasn’t for him, but accompanied me on many weekend outings to set up camp for Goldie, my Appaloosa mare, and me.  Now that’s what I call devotion! 

Our next planned trip out in the summer of 2005 was a trail and camping ride in the Deep Creek trail system in Bryson City, North Carolina.  We camped and put Goldie up in a boarding barn in Bryson City and I had made plans to ride out with what were advertised as two knowledgeable riders that had rode the trails and were on a State Equine Search and Rescue team.  My confidence was high since they were experienced riders and had knowledge of topography maps and the trail system.

We were going out for just a short morning ride with a lengthy day ride planned for the next day.  Since it was just a short 4 hour ride, I took along a bottle of water and snacks for Goldie and me.  At 9:00 a.m. we met at the trail staging area, paid our admission into the park, gathered our topography maps and saddled up ready to ride.  At 9:30 we rode off bidding my husband good-bye and be back for lunch.  What I knew about the trails was what I had read in the Park Service Brochures and assorted promotional pieces.  That was my first error.    

The first hour into the ride went well.  The scenery was absolutely gorgeous with all the mountain laurel and wild flowers in bloom.  We spotted an old home stead chimney and the outline of an old cabin approximately two miles in that was so beautiful we all commented we wish the stones in that chimney could talk!  There was a narrow creek that resulted from an unground spring so we assumed that was this families’ water source. 

As we traveled up and down the next two hours, we saw the trails were no longer marked.  Prior to this time, we had navigated with trail markers, but suddenly there were none.  It seemed as though the Park Service had been in clearing the trails, cutting brush and kudzu and must have either covered the markers and trail or tore them down for repair.  All we could do at this point was follow the topo map and hope that we were making the proper turn when the trail came to a bend.  

The trails were getting narrower and narrower and we were riding on the edge of the mountain roughly at an altitude of 3000 feet.   The two riders, which were on gated horses and me on my Appaloosa, disappeared around the bend.  When I came to the bend, Goldie and I suddenly fell off the ledge and dropped approximately 3-5 feet onto a ledge below.  A horrifying moment I will never forget.   Goldie turned her head to look at me as if to say, “what’s next”?  My first thought was to unsnap the reins from the bridle and give her her head in hopes that we could climb up the ledge.  Goldie was able to gain her footing and we literally crawled up the ledge.  When we reached the trail again, I found she had a large scrape on her inside flank and she was severely trembling.  Thankfully, there was a stream at the top of the trail and I led her to the stream and began to put cold compresses on the injury, fed her apples and let her drink.  My only thought is that she was going into shock and then what to do.  That was my second error. 

Thankfully, Goldie did not go into shock and I was able to mount up and ride on.  As I mentioned, my trail mates were riding gated horses of which was a challenge for us to keep up with in order to keep the two riders in sight.  That was my third error.

As you can now imagine, the people, namely my husband, that were expecting us back by noon were beginning to become concerned about our return.  The Park Rangers told those waiting that if we were lost and had to spend the night in the mountains, it was going to get cold and a storm was moving in.  If we weren’t prepared, it would be a dangerous night.  It was approaching the deadline for the Park Service to send in a search and rescue team. 

As we rode on, we had come upon a group of trout fishermen that gave us directions to get back down the mountain, but it was going to be another two hours at least before we reached the trail head.  Our only means of contact was a cell phone of which had no service and was useless.  That was my fourth error.

By 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon we were getting closer to our starting point and cell service became available.  The connection was poor, but my husband could understand that we were close and would soon be back at the trail head.  As we got closer to the horse trailers, the horses were tired and one of the gated horses turned lame.  So we ended up dismounting and walking the last hour out of the mountains.  Error number five.

To bring this horrifying story to a happy ending, I would like to summarize by pointing out the errors we made in hopes that you might make notes so that it never happens to you. 

Error #1:  Do your due diligence on the trails you wish to ride.  Talk to other trail riders that may have rode the same trails, search the web for information, study topography maps thoroughly and in fact pretend you get lost and can find your way out if necessary.  Also, vet the guides you are going to ride with.  Make absolutely certain they come with strong references. 

Error #2:  Make certain you know first aid for equine care.  Know your own horses’ vitals so that you know when their behavior and vitals are not normal.  Carry all of the necessary first aid equipment for you and your horse.  Leave nothing to chance.  After this experience, I carried a large saddle bag with ample first aid.   Also make sure you take along enough provisions for you and your horse in the event you get caught.  For example, a space age blanket, dried meals, water, etc. 

Error #3:  Know the horses you are going to ride with.  In my case, my stock type horse was not able to keep up with gated horses.   Ask if you have “kickers” in the group and if so that they are riding with identification ideally with a ribbon in their tail.

Error #4:  Communication is vital.  After this adventure, I studied for a Ham Radio license so that I could carry a Ham Radio on every trail ride thereafter.  My husband was a Ham Operator so it made communication possible.  If you ride with a Ham Radio, research the area to be sure there is a Repeater in the vicinity.  If not, a Ham Radio will more than likely not have range.  I never rode again without my radio and the ability to communicate. 

Error #5:  If you are going to ride the mountains or any territory, make absolutely sure you have taken into account your horses feet.  Thankfully, my horse was shod and had protective boots.  I also carried a spare Easy Boot just in case it was needed.  Obviously, my fellow rider did not take the same precautions which became a risk for all of us. 

In conclusion, do your homework when you anticipate a ride of a life time!!!  We all have those dreams and should fulfill them so do your due diligence for the safety of you and your horse and go conquer those dreams.  If you have learning experiences you wish to share, we look forward to hearing about your adventures!  Happy Trails.  

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