Perhaps this year, the ride should have been called Whiskeytown Underwater Scavenger Hunt. The instructions on the driving directions reminded participants to be certain to stop at park headquarters to secure a parking/camping certificate. The Forest Service Ranger advised that there was a storm warning out and at least 2" of rain was expected with snow forecast as low as 2000 feet. (Kanaka Peak, part of the trail, is at 4000 feet)
At 11 am on Friday the sun was shinning brightly and the skies were blue. I had ridden this ride for the first time last year and enjoyed it so much that a return engagement was definitely on the calendar. In fact, I anticipated a big attendance and so made special effort to get there early to secure a good parking spot. Imagine my surprise when we approached the campground and saw only a very few trailers where we anticipated bunches. After securing a great spot and getting the horses settled, we wandered over to the ride manager's area. On the tables were an array of truly nice awards including some exceptional ceramic horse sculptures donated by a local rider. Obviously much effort had been put into securing top notch participation awards. We were informed that there had been at least 15 cancellations just that day because of the dire weather forecast and anticipated bad driving conditions. But everyone was upbeat and slowly, trailers began arriving and things began to look up. When we rode out to stretch out the horses and check out the first few miles of trail, the weather was delightful, perfect riding weather and we commented that it was hard to believe that heavy rains would dampen the ride.
My riding buddy, Leighsa and I would both be riding "babies" for whom this would be their first endurance ride. Our plan was to ride at a slow but steady pace and concentrate on having a calm start. The goal of rides with them this year will be to develop an expectation of quiet and disciplined rides. Imagine my surprise and utter embarrassment when I presented Scrimshaw to vet in and she would not let the vet approach her. She whirled and danced and threw her head up and would have no part of him placing a stethoscope on her. This is a horse who six years ago lay in my barn in deep straw while I imprinted her. This is the little mare who was so easy to work with and who has always been a pleasure to be around and ride. Of my four horses, she is the one to follow anyone for a pet or stroke on the nose. She had epileptic episodes during the first three months of her life but luckily outgrew them (after about 15 episodes) just as the vet had predicted. I half expected the vet to throw up his hands and refuse to attempt to vet her in but instead he was patient and kind and continued to work with her to allay her fear of him. After what seemed like a very long time, Scrimshaw allowed the vet to examine her and she trotted out like a champ and we were on for Saturday's ride.
At the ride meeting, we were warned again of expected rain and cold weather and advised to care for our horses accordingly. The final count at that point was 22 starters on the 50 miler and 10 on the 25 miler. Just as the ride meeting concluded, it began to sprinkle. In ten minutes it was a downpour and it rained most of the night. I was thankful that I had found a Rambo waterproof blanket with zip on neck cover at a spring sale just a few weeks ago. I downed a Excedrin PM and settled in for a comfy night. It was raining as we tacked up and headed out on the trail but we were dressed for wet weather and looked forward to a fun, if wet ride.
The start of the ride was a sane one and both "babies" took it all in stride and when we turned onto the single track trail from the dirt road, we were happy to find that the footing was wonderful with no slippery mud. Decomposed granite in this area makes for great trail. It was raining lightly by now and the foliage on the hillsides and along the ravines made for a beautiful ride. This is such a pretty area. About a half hour into the ride, we saw riders returning along the trail. They were certain that they had missed a turn somewhere and were retracing their steps. We had questioned the lack of flagging earlier so were not surprised at this turn of events. At one point there were at least ten riders (half of the ride participants) milling around riding back to check turn-offs and possible routes. A few riders had ridden these trails often and opted to go on saying that at some point, the trails would converge and we would be able to pick up the actual flagged trail. Wanting to ride the trail as it had been routed for us, others decided to turn around and go back to the last known flag and search for the correct trail. This area is criss crossed with trails that are used by mountain bikers and horsemen and the choice of turnoffs is abundant. After some searching, we saw a glimmer of a flag about 50 yards down another trail but no flag to indicate a turn. But it was the correct color so we headed down that trail.
By now it was raining for real again but the horses were doing great and it was turning into a real adventure. A little muttering about how hard is it to hang a "reassurance flag" every now and then, but all in all, just something else to deal with that makes endurance the challenge it is. At another point, we arrived at a very large parking lot that we knew in advance we would come to but there was a choice of trails taking off from various parts of the area. Luckily, there was a group of riders ahead of us who called to us not to take the trail we had selected. That saved us from who knows how many miles of back tracking. The winds had come up and it made me wish I had worn that extra poly pro sweater I had left in the trailer. I usually overdress at the start of a ride and I usually find myself stopping to readjust for being overheated. No chance of that happening today, however.
There were parts of the trail that would serve the 25 milers as well as portions that would be ridden again on the second 50 mile loop. Where it was apparently questionable, management had written on signs with arrows pointing the correct direction depending on which loop and mileage one was doing. Problem was that the winds had blown down the signs and the rains had so disintegrated them that it was necessary to dismount, unfold the cardboard and try to imagine which directions were which. There would be one out vet check and because of the weather, the vet had said that he would make it a stop and go so that the horses would not get chilled. How happy we were to arrive at this point. We knew we were there because there was a lone white truck out of which the vet and his assistant climbed as we approached. Thinking that we had to be the last riders of the 50's we apologized for having made him wait out there for so long but he assured us that there were some riders behind us and he was so encouraging and upbeat that it was heartening. In fact, he told us how proud he was of us for hanging in there and riding under these adverse conditions. It was a quick check and we mounted for our trot out and we were on our way again.
The flags were sparse but we managed to follow the trail. After riding for some time at a pretty steady trot, Leighsa said "hmmmm, does this look familiar to you? We were trotting down a road that looked like any other road to me and I had not noticed that it was familiar so we continued. A few miles later, we encountered large remains of ashes where workers had apparently burned piles of debris. They spotted the road every twenty or so yards. I remembered encountering such spots earlier but thought that perhaps they had burned on many of the roads in this area. Then we saw a can on the side of the road that Leighsa remembered having seen before. Oh no! Don't tell me. I pulled out the map but it was one soggy mess and disintegrated as I tried to unfold it. By now, however, it was apparent that we were at the turn-off that leads to the out vet check and if we continued, we would be there in less than a mile or so. Ayeeee! This was turning into a frustrating adventure. We had done the first loop twice. As we rode back up the road, we encountered several groups of riders who were looking for the out vet check area. Some of them had managed to take the second loop trail which climbed Kanaka Peak, the highest point of the entire ride and had to back track. They were not happy. We also met some 25 milers who had gotten lost and ridden much of the 50 mile first loop. They were not happy. We met a couple of riders, one of whom was off and walking. Her four year old horse was on his first long distance ride and with the weather and the mileage, he was pretty tuckered out. He definitely was not happy.
Poor ride management. This ride was turning out to be a disaster. And they had obviously worked so hard to make everything right. The printed maps and instructions, the wonderful awards, the planned dinner that evening with Tri-tips cooked on the open spit. But according to someone's law, "If there is something that can go wrong, it will" was definitely applying to this ride. At one point, when I hopped from my horse to adjust my saddle, I realized that my boots had filled with water and each step was super squishy. We both found that our waterproof riding pants and jackets weren't really waterproof. But at least my neoprene gloves, though soaked were keeping my hands from freezing. The horses weren't drinking, even at the stream crossings when we had them stand in the middle of the streams. Even after electrolyting, they weren't drinking. But they were ravenous and we stopped often for them to munch on the abundant clumps of grass on the sides of the trails and roads. We realized that at the rate we were advancing, with the many twists and turns, we would likely finish with just barley time to spare. As miserable as we were, comfort wise, we could not help at commenting on the beauty of the area and it was a pleasure to ride the single track trails, which by now had turned to little streams. We were still having fun. If one had a horse who had issues with water, after this ride, the horse would be a guppy puppy.
Arriving back at camp, we were greeted with cheerful encouragement by a drenched group of smiling volunteers who were braving the elements and keeping a happy presence. Aren't endurance people great? Oh darned! Scrimshaw was not so tired that she would let the P & R person take her pulse without a fight. But, again, patience and kindness won out and after a few minutes of chasing her in a circle and stroking her and cooing to her, the kind man in the scary wet black slicker and the fisherman's rain hat was able to get her pulse which, thankfully was not elevated and we were vetted through and cleared for our hour hold.
Once I had gotten Scrimshaw's blanket on and she was scarfing down the beet pulp mash with a vengeance, I went into the trailer and turned on the heat and sat right in front of it. It felt sooooo good. Leighsa would not come in and opted to eat in the horse section of the trailer because she feared that if she once got warm, she would not want to go back out for the second loop. And she would have gone out, too, but I was having second thoughts. Our babies had already gone what we figured to be about 40 (or more) miles. If we went out for the second half, assuming that we did not get lost, they would end up doing at least 65 miles. Was it fair to ask this of them? The longest training ride we had gone on was 20 miles, some of it hard climbing, albeit. They both were eating well and looked bright and spunky. They had trotted out well and could probably have finished the ride easily. But how would we feel if somewhere out there, one or both of them should run out of gas or get overly tired. We opted to pull and have them remember a good experience. Even with the weather, it was hard to pull when you know that you have a sound, healthy horse, definitely fit to continue. I really appreciated the vet wanting to see the horses before we left. He offered to come to our trailer to check the horses or for us to bring them to the vetting area. He just wanted to know that they were ok. And of course, they looked great. In fact, both vets, after the trot out told me that they thought I had a fine little horse and it was well worth the time and effort to get her desensitized to the vetting procedure. (I was still embarrassed by her performance). We gave the horses time to rest and eat, and eat, and eat and then headed for home. We also learned at that point that at least the first part of the ride had been "sabotaged" and ribbons had been taken down by persons unknown.
As a footnote, it was a good thing that we left when we did. Heading toward Mt. Shasta, the rain turned to snow and it was accumulating fast and we still had a high pass to go over. I was happy that I had put those new tires on last week. Had we continued the ride, it is doubtful that we would have been able to make it home without some white knuckle driving and luck. My niece lives in Mt. Shasta and she said that she awoke Sunday morning to two feet of snow in her yard.
Bottom line is that Whiskeytown is a beautiful ride and ride management is terrific and the vets are awesome and I will definitely be there next year. Hopefully the sun will be in attendance also. The one suggestion that I would make is that when there are portions of trail that will serve more than one loop that each loop be ribboned with a different color tape. I would also like to see more flags more often if only to reassure me that I am on the correct trail. Y'all missed an awesome ride. Miserable as it was, it was FUN!!!!!