During a lifetime of ranching, riding and roping, I thought I’d done everything with a horse that could be done. Until big-game guide and old friend Les Cobb asked me to help his wranglers move a remuda of twelve horses through some of the most primitive country in Alaska to a moose-hunting camp north of the Yukon River—150 miles.

Half the horses were veterans of moose, caribou and bear hunts. The other six were 3-year-olds barely green broke. Wranglers Bryan Parker and Chad Bembanek, both young hands in their 20’s, and I split the colts among us to complete their training along the way.

Doc, my main pony, was a brown 10-year-old gelding with the personality of a wet blanket. My colts were War Paint and Blue Steel. Ride one, lead the spares daisy-chained behind.

The trail ended at an old gold-mining camp. From there on, we climbed through conifer timber as thick as dog fur, into the uplands, then across high-country tundra toward the Yukon River, which we planned to cross with rafts we built. A cold, wretched drizzle fell daily, soaking leather, clothing, skin and morale. In between rain showers, fog settled so densely that we appeared and disappeared in and out of the mist like ghost riders in the sky.

Moose and bear barely gave us a second look; chances were they’d never seen horses before.

While we were leading horses one at a time down a steep drop-off scabbed with dense timber, old landslides, and washouts, War Paint lost his footing. The two of us plunged to the bottom of a ravine. Paint’s iron-shod hoof came down on my foot in the melee to untangle ourselves. Only soft mulch prevented its being snapped.

At the Yukon, chaos erupted when Chad’s pale horse Dakota, Les’ Jasper and another colt broke loose in a plot to go back home. The trio stampeded along the rocky bank, leaped into the Tozitna River where it mouthed into the Yukon, and began swimming hard for the other side. We would be days combing them out of the bush—if the grizzlies didn’t get them first.

Wranglers vaulted astride mounts and rode beans for leather in an attempt to turn back the deserters. Bryan and his mount made a beautiful dive into the river. As the wrangler slid off into the current to let his horse pull him across, he lost his grip on the saddle and floundered in the icy water. A lot of Alaskans never learn to swim, Bryan among them.

Chad urged his palomino into the stream after Bryan. I hit the ground running and threw off my boots before I dived in. The water was so cold I thought I was having a heart attack. Les cast a long loop toward Bryan as, struggling and on the verge of being sucked under with the weight of his boots and clothing, he was being swept into the Yukon.

Chad reached the drowning man first. His palomino towed them both to safety on the far side of the Tozitna.

Camp that evening was wet. Steam hissed from saddles, pads, clothing and other gear arranged around a bonfire to dry. Although my old bones had taken a beating, I felt warm and at peace with the world.

Picketed horses rested at the edge of the firelight. Somewhere, a pack of timber wolves created original theme music for this wild and beautiful land. There are so few places left in the world where riders can take off through unspoiled country as our frontier forefathers had done in that other Old West a century ago.

 

Enter the drawing for a free signed copy of Charles W. Sasser’s A Thousand Years of Darkness, called by critics “the most important American novel since Atlas Shrugged.” E-mail entries to charlessasser@msn.com. Drawing will be held May 30.