Owyhee Trail Series -- The Tour de Oreana
The Owyhee Rides are like a stage race, like the Tour de France. When you count the Owyhee High Country three days, the Owyhee Canyonlands five days, and the Oreana 100 one day, you have a total of nine days of riding spread out over a couple of months. Perhaps it is the Tour de Oreana, and like any great tour, the rides take you to some amazing country that varies from the crest of the Owyhee Mountains to the edge of the Snake River in the Snake River Canyon and much of the desert in between. I live in SW Idaho, which affords the opportunity to riding all of the Owyhee days. Other riders came from throughout the Western US and Canada. Steph and John Teeter host the ride at their ranch west of Oreana. The hosts are gracious and the accommodations are excellent including the pretty-good showers, dinners, and open-roof outhouses - including one outhouse with a moonglow toilet seat. Sometime I think hosting the five-day ride might be like hosting a weeklong slumber party for over 100 friends.
Each segment and each day has a different character. The Owyhee High Country was fast and furious for my horse Frank and myself. On the first day I rode with Jennifer Knoetgen from Montana and through an interesting set of circumstances we found ourselves being chased for much of the ride. The chasing riders were just a few minutes behind and just like Butch Cassidy, we kept looking over our shoulders wondering, "Who are those guys?" We rode from the ride camp up to the crest of the Owyhee Mountains on an old stage road, back down through desert canyons on narrow trails, and finished back at camp.
Day Two was similar to the first day but much of the trails were reversed. This time I rode with Leighsa Rosedaul and Dean Hoalst. This time the ride was less intense. Again, we rode to the crest of the Owyhees and back down the stage trails that we rode up the previous day. The views were spectacular. All day long, Dean kept looking for a rock to pound the clips on his horse's shoes. Somehow, with all those rocks on all those trails, Dean was never able to find the perfect rock.
Day Three was a more relaxed trail in the Owyhee foothills and I rode with Sally Tarbet most of the day. We took it easy although as we approached the final water stop about four miles from the finish, Al Paulo and Patty Barfield looked up with surprise and quickly departed for camp ahead of us. Sonny and Marilyn Hornbaker employed brilliant strategy and determinedly pursued the turtle award on the 30-mile ride.
The High Country ride was held on Labor Day, and a family and their friends happened to be camping at the vet check used for the first two days located at the crest of the Owyhee Mountains. They completely opened up their campsite and took in all of the excitement. We reciprocated by letting some of the kids "ride" our ponies during the vet check.
There were about seven weeks between the Owyhee High Country Ride and the Owyhee Canyonlands Ride. I wanted Frank to be fit and ready for the five-day ride so we rested and rode the Old Selam LD at the end of September. I like mixing in some LDs because I get to ride with different people and I have time to saddle up and do a trail ride at the end of day while the 50s are still out on the trail. Plus, Frank and I like the variety.
The five-day ride was at the end of October. The weather forecast was for record heat in the mid 80s on the first two days, dropping to seasonal temperatures with highs in the 60s by the end of the week. The trails were a series of loops out of the Bates Creek ridecamp. The Canadians made quite a showing at the five-day ride, and Canadian Trail House donated many of the awards. All weeklong the Canadians heartedly participated in all of the ride activities. One Canadian was so determined to do the rides that he took a cab from the Boise airport to the Teeter Ranch west of Oreana. I imagine that the cab driver is still talking about that crazy Canadian and the dirt roads leading to a small town of horses and trailers in the desert. On Day One I had the privilege of riding with Canadian Elroy Karius. Elroy and I remarked that we are so lucky to be riding fast fit horses through the desert of the Western US, an experience that characterizes the pony express and endurance riding today.
Day Two was the perfect endurance ride. I rode with Paddi Sprecher and Sue Hedgecock (Sue White). Our three horses worked very well together and we had a perfect day riding from Oreana to the Snake River and back. John Teeter was thoughtful enough to put ribbon "cheaters" on the fence gates so we could get through more easily. There were so many sights and stories. Sights of a real cowboy saddling up outside the tack house while watching the Arabian horses ride through the ranch, sights of ancient petroglyphs along the Snake River, sights of our three horses eating together out of the same food bowl at the vet check. And the memory of climbing out of the canyon and seeing the butte that we rode by earlier in the morning - a butte with tiny dust clouds that were riders just entering the canyon, a butte that looked so far away across the desert yet a butte that we had to pass by on our return.
On the morning of Day Three, I checked out my horse and something didn't seem right. I had my wife Leslie look at Frank while I trotted him and then Frank and I went over to see Dr Barney Fleming. Frank was off and I didn't want to ride him that day. Frank probably stepped too hard in a powder-dirt puddle and rolled his ankle along the Snake River trails on Day Two (At this time Frank has recovered and appears to be fine. Even so, he will get a well-deserved rest for the next several weeks). While I was dealing with the disappointment of the whole turn of events, a fellow Outlaw, Regina Rose noticed my condition. Regina asked if I wanted to ride Stormy, an extra horse that she brought along to the ride. Wahoo! I was going back out on the trail. We quickly got Stormy vetted and saddled and we left camp dead last. Stormy can be a bit nervous and the 30-mile riders were soon to leave camp on the same trail. We didn't want Stormy to lock in with a passing fast 30-mile rider and run himself silly so we split up and I headed off to the vet check ahead of Regina Rose and Linda Black. The trails on Day Three took us out to the Snake River again and the winds were howling. The white-capped waves on the river were large enough to kayak surf and the vet check was very dusty from the blowing wind.
Day Four is one of the best ride days. Each day has a separate attraction and Day Four's attraction is Sinker Canyon. Sinker Canyon has a year-round stream and numerous water crossings. You must walk through Sinker Canyon because of the footing, but it is so pretty that no one would want to trot anyway. At the vet check, Steph's kids cooked hot dogs over a campfire for the riders, vets, and helpers. We fed some hot dogs to one of the local canines proving once again that endurance can be a dog-eat-dog world. I rode with Carol Fitzgerald all day and it was another perfect endurance day. Carol's horse Boomer and my borrowed horse Stormy had a great time all day long. Boomer cannot trot as fast as Stormy, so Boomer would canter while Stormy trotted. Stormy would hear the canter footfall and eventually yield to his inner feelings and start to canter too. Except, Stormy would gradually pick up the pace until he'd want to drop his head and run off in a rocket canter. He'd then run for 100 yards or so, just far enough to show Boomer who was the fastest horse, and then drop back into a slow walk to let Boomer catch up. Over and over again the pattern was repeated. It was as if Stormy was saying, "Boomer my good friend, how many times do I have to show you, you coffee-colored bag of fleas, that I am the faster horse." Carol and I found the whole behavior hilarious and we laughed with our two equine friends and their equine games throughout the ride.
Day Five was the famous costume ride and the characters were out in force. There were outlaws, cowboys, Indians, cowgirls, rodeo queens, princesses, the man with no name from the Clint Eastwood films, Zorro, clowns, parrots, cartoon personalities, and characters of all colors and stripes. Even though the Canadians were well represented at the ride, I was disappointed not to see any Royal Canadian Mounties on that day. Partway through the ride, Linda Karius and Bianca Loseth asked me to join them for the last 30 miles. At the time, we had no idea how far those 30 miles would be. It was the last of the five days and the ending of the ride. During the last few trail miles I was looking around at the rocks and hills, at my trail companions, and our horses, thinking of the past five days, the trails, the river, the canyons, the desert, the coyote, the eagle, the cougar tracks, and feeling rather sad that the whole thing was soon to be over. If only it could go on for a few more miles I thought to myself. Linda, Bianca, and I rode into camp side-by-side for our final completion and pulsed down. Sometime later we became aware that there was some controversy over the trails. Eventually it was determined that we needed to go out for a few more miles and some more trail. This was one of those times when an Outlaw has to saddle up quickly and leave camp. Linda and I left down the road to complete the trail segment that we missed. After all those miles, if we were to be true Tough Suckers, then we were certainly tough enough to go out again and ride a few more miles. About a mile down the road Bianca caught up to us saying "Wait for me!" and the three of us rode the last miles of the trail together. The afternoon was beautiful and I was lucky to be riding a good horse along one of my favorite trails above Bates Creek.
One of the most remarkable performances all week was Elroy Karius' horse Apache Eclypse. Apache received BC three of the five days including Day Five. It is always impressive when a five-day horse receives BC competing against fresh horses. Steph and John recognize high vet score too. I believe that Apache Eclypse received the high vet score as well as BC for those three finishes including high-vet score on Day Five. There were 12 riders who completed all five days on five-day horses and four riders completed all eight days on eight-day horses. One of those eight-day horses, a big black Arabian-Percheron cross was jokingly described as a plow-horse by one of the veterinarians early in the ride. That horse may look Percheron, but Gypsy has the heart and stamina of an Arabian. Four riders received Tough Sucker recognition for riding all eight days - all three days of the High Country Ride, and all five days of the Canyonlands ride. The race for overall best time was hotly contested between Elroy Karius and Sue Hedgecock all week. Both were riding five-day horses - Sue on Montego and Elroy on Apache. Sue missed a trail junction on Day One and lost twenty to thirty minutes. At the end of five days, after 24 hours of riding, the top two riders, Elroy and Sue, were separated by three minutes and four seconds. Carrie Johnson and her horse Bagheera finished first on each of the 30-mile rides and received BC and high vet score on all three days. The top riders often receive the attention but there was high drama in the rest of the pack too, including Linda Black's heartbreaking pull with only a few miles left on the fifth day. Also, Bianca Loseth's horse Sadeek reportedly did his first ever 50 on Tuesday, and completed his fifth 50 on Saturday. Tom Dean received the cussingest character award and I can imagine that he has some stories to tell about dogs, horses, and a trailer awning. I am sure there are many other tales to tell as well.
You can see some of the sights and get a feel for the event at the Oreana websites:
The final ride in the Tour de Oreana series is the Owyhee 100. All week long the emails flew as the Outlaws tried to get enough horses and riders to field a credible team. We wanted to get some riders out for the 100. As I' ve written before, to me 100 miles is the signature distance of endurance riding, the Owyhee 100 was our last ride of the season, and we wanted to do the last ride with finesse. Once again, Regina Rose offered to let me ride Stormy. Stormy is a first-string horse that we can always count on, even as a back up. Linda Black rode him on one of the three-day Owyhee rides, I rode him on three of the Owyhee five-day rides, and now Stormy was going for his first-ever 100 at the Owyhee 100 one week after completing 150 miles in the five-day ride. Riding someone else's horse is an honor and a great responsibility.
At about 6:45 we were off (well, actually about 7:00 for the three of us). Linda, Regina and I were off on another journey on the Owyhee trails. The 100 consisted of a variety of loops out of the Oreana base camp and we visited the Snake River Canyon, as well as numerous other trails in the area.
We rode at the tail end all day long and well into the night. Regina's Percheron-Arabian horse Gypsy was the only horse in the 100 that completed all of the previous eight Owyhee Ride days. It was Stormy and Noodle's first 100 and our last ride of the season so we wanted to take it easy for the horses and savor the moments on the trail.
We rode the final two loops in the dark. Riding at night and trusting your horse is one of the great experiences of riding a 100. We had good moonlight for the first loop but by the last loop it was totally dark. The night was cold with temperatures in the teens and our reins froze to the bits. We rode in the darkness on trails just off of Idaho Highway 78 during part of the loops. There was little traffic except for the sugar beet trucks. To the truck drivers, we may have been barely visible as three faint ghost riders in the shadows and the sagebrush. We felt a kinship to the riders in the past who traveled from one ranch house to another on cold clear nights covering the long miles in the darkness.
The final miles on the Bates Creek Road were cold. The stars were clear and bright and we saw quite a few meteors. The air that was chilled on the Owyhee Mountains flowed off the peaks and funneled down through the canyons. We rode up the canyon and into that cold breeze on a crystal-clear night. Linda, Regina, and I rode silently on our last few miles of the season. As we headed up the road I saw another shooting star and shed a few tears in the darkness as I thought about the good horses, the good trails, the good friends, and the distances that we had all traveled this past season.
There was a small field in both the 100 and the 80. We all got together in Steph and John's ranch house the next morning for breakfast and awards. Regina's horse Gypsy was the only horse to complete all nine days of the Owyhee series. Regina Rose and one other Totally Tough Sucker completed all nine days of the Owyhee Trail Series. There would have been three Totally Tough Suckers except for Linda Black's heartbreak pull during the last 10 miles of the fifth day on the five-day ride. Linda may be the toughest of the bunch because she still saddled up and rode the 100. Mary Forrester, another Tough Sucker, came to help out with the 100 even though she weren't riding. After breakfast we all lingered and talked about the season as well as a possible big-loop 100 next spring in the Owyhees. During the awards, we recognized Steph's fine ride at the 100, some other great performances in the 80 and the 100, and we all said our goodbyes as we packed up and headed home from Oreana.
During the Owyhee Rides, I had the privilege of riding two great horses. Frank is a special horse and he has had an exceptional season. I rode Stormy for the final four days of the nine-day series and Stormy passed his 1000th AERC endurance mile at the completion of the Owyhee 100. He passed that milestone like he goes down the trail, with no complaining and a can-do attitude. They are both good horses and I've been fortunate to become their friend.