Horse Sense

An Unofficial Journal of the Back Country Horsemen of the Flathead

The Puzzle Hills Conundrum


by Jennifer Abelle

Midsummer heat and drought decree it is time for Back Country Horsemen to devote attention, sweat, blood, and horseflesh to High Country horseflies, snags, rocks, and brambles in the Skyland Road/Challenge Cabin territory skirting the Continental Divide.  On the afternoon of Friday, July 29th, Horsemen Jim Thramer, Dan Oursland, Jennifer Abelle, and Mule Skinner Dr. Steve Milheim, rallied to the cause.  Although the cabin itself was known to be occupied by several Fish & Game types engaged in trapping and tagging grizzly bears in the area, the corral was available for our stock, and a comfortable camp was established in the open consisting of stock trailers, trucks, and just plain bivouac bags on the ground, the cynosure of which being the all-important Coleman stove.  Afternoon temperatures had reached upper-eighties F, but past sundown the air cooled rapidly to a more tolerable level for all.  In the corral, mares and mollies flirted with johns and geldings providing an entertaining background soundtrack of squeals and whinnying to our supper of linguiça sausage, canned chilli, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.  Sounds proletarian, but to us, up there, it is haute cuisine not even Escoffier could pass up.

Saturday morning, soundly slept, breakfasted, coffeed, stock saddled and packed, our redoubtable crew made its way up FS Road 5282 to the east Puzzle Hills Trailhead.  The road was in passable shape up to the trailhead, which, although since clearly marked with a new sign, is pretty much the same as when we saw it in past years—initial part oblique and sloughy, then trail narrowed by new-grown weeds and brambles.  The morning, cool, clear, calm, made for a pleasant ride with no obstructions up to the badlands portion of the trail.  This strange area, steep, open, dry, friable soil and talus—not even knapweed can grow there—has changed little over the years and likely never will.  Visible trail tread does not survive the winters, so the optimum route has necessarily been marked with cairns.  Even these had been partially obliterated, but since last year persons unknown, possibly Trail Elves, have rebuilt these so that they now stand-out.  Job well done, whoever you are.  The sun grew hotter as we finally made the wooded ridge above, and the effects began to tell on humans and stock.  Still no reason to unlimber the saws even as we passed through the stretch of spillikins cleared last year by this same basic crew.  Onto the fire-break and the sun now high and hot, our beasts hot and tired, we opted to dismount and lead them up the more difficult part.  Fortunately, no new downfalls intervened to impede our progress.  Arriving at last at the point where the trail re-enters the woods, we remounted and proceeded toward our destination, the former fire-lookout and its mesa and commanding views.   We hadn't progressed a hundred yards when, lo and behold—a snag!—fat, implacable, blocking the trail, defying us to come ahead and just try to pass!  Now we are faced with a conundrum:
To saw, or not to saw, that is the question;
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The snags and leaners of outrageous fortune,
Or to take trimmers against a sea of brambles
And by opposing end them?  Ay there's the rub:
Unfortunately this reporter, owing to an earlier misunderstanding with her stock, the details with which we shall not bore you, became separated in time by about two hours from the rest of the crew and believing to have lost the way, returned to camp and did not witness the ensuing decision.  Having debriefed the crew upon its return, it was revealed that they had opted to circumvent the subject snag and others, bushwhacking where necessary, in order to reach the lookout sooner.  Having regaled themselves with the gorgeous scenery, they returned by the same route, clearing as they went.  In all, about ten snags were cleared on the way down.

2022 BCHF Meadow Creek Memorial Day Weekend Season Opening Project an Accomplished Fact


by Brünhilde

On the afternoon of Thursday 27 May, 2022 the annual pilgrimage of the Back Country Horsemen of the Flathead began, with several stock rigs ascending to the Meadow Creek trail-head especially favoured by Horsemen on this particular weekend of the year.   By the morning of Monday, 30 May, the following had been accomplished:  an (possibly optimistically) estimated 372 snags across 9.5 miles of trail cleared; three escaped head of stock apprehended; two wrecks; several pounds of BBQed country ribs, BBQed beef sandwiches, flapjacks, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs consumed; several gallons of coffee and fifths of wet goods imbibed; the District Ranger and Game Warden and his trainee toadied and fed; and the tribute of a grateful, non-equestrian Public received.

By general consensus, the east side road was found to be in excellent shape, facilitating effortless transportation to and from.  Somewhat surprisingly, the only snow seen going in was over about a one tenth mile stretch, with snow banked alongside the road, and patches in the surrounding forest.  By Monday, on the way out, that snow was gone.  On the evening of the 27th, fully seven Horsemen, and and nine horses/mules were ensconced in their respective bivouac sites at the trail-head.  Once camp was established, the first priority was to cut, carried-out by the Project Leader, and stack firewood in order that we might propitiate the Fire God who provides us with our only remaining raison d'être.  Although it had been a pleasant partly-sunny and upper sixties Fahrenheit during the day, the fire was appreciatively worshipped by all, and toasted in wet goods generously provided by the Project Leader.

The best and most rehabilitating sleep can only be had while sleeping on the ground in a tent, or under a manty, deep in the back-country.  On Friday, Horseman rigs began progressively arriving.  Meanwhile, an advanced party, led by the Project Leader, headed out to reconnoitre, and pave the way for the chainsaw aficionados to come.  This is when the first loose stock incident occurred.  A molly mule, loaded with chainsaw and gasoline, led by one of our novice riders, while descending the steep trail to the Gorge Bridge, took it into her head to mount the embankment on the left side in order to corkscrew the rider out of the saddle, and proceed on her own way up the service road to the main road.  Our rider, in declining to be unhorsed, was nonetheless obliged to release the lead rope, and subsequently pursue and apprehend the errant mule.  This done, the string proceeded across the bridge and up the trail rejoining the rest of the party at the first impassable blockage, which had occurred at the Lost Jack Creek ford.  Two trees had fallen parallel to each other and the ford and perpendicular to the tree trunk serving as a footbridge, effectively blocking both.   The snags were chainsawed clear.  Continuing on, the team cleared about fifteen more snags before returning to camp.

Saturday morning the second loose stock incident involving the same mule and rider, later drawing in a third, occurred.  The recalcitrant mule pulled the same trick, simultaneously wiping-off a hard hat on some overhanging branches.  While the first rider dismounted to retrieve the gear, another Horseman of the party dismounted, ground tied his horse in order to apprehend the mule, re-stabilize the load, and hand off same to a third Horseman while the first remounted.  Meanwhile the second horse, discovering he was not hard tied, decided to head up to the outfitter corral to visit his compatriots, leading his rider on a wild goose chase, while the third rider handed back the mule to the first.  It sounds complicated, but all was eventually straightened out satisfactorily with each rider and mount in his requisite place.  This day was destined to be a veritable Chainsaw Bacchanalia, with five sawyers and three swampers working the same trail (past the airstrip) simultaneously; the sawyers sawing like madmen, each trying to out-saw the others in order to saw the most and progress up the trial as fast as possible.  Chainsaws screaming, men cursing, chips, sawdust, branches, and logs flying everywhere, horses whinnying; the joyful cacophony rising to the heavens, certain to bring a smile to Loki's face.  By mid-afternoon, the party reached the Harrison Creek trail, and a confabulation was held to determine whether to call it a day, or continue on.  The puniest sawyer, whose butt was dragging pretty low, voted the former, but the rest were all gung-ho to continue on, come Hell or high water.  The majority headed on across Harrison Creek, but the Project Leader and two others gallantly opted to accompany the puniest sawyer back to camp.

Concomitantly with the foregoing, a second party, led by our own Packing Professor, headed up the Lost Jack trail intending to clear up to the wilderness boundary. This is when the first wreck occurred.  While leading his pack string, loaded with chainsaw, inadequate gasoline, and other cutting implements, the Professor actually fell off his horse!  We know this sounds rather incredible, but witnesses have corroborated the story.  Of course, it wasn't his fault, and the pack animals survived the disaster just fine.  When the amount of gasoline packed was found to be less than enough to run the chainsaw for a significant length of time, the party fell back on (or perhaps preferred) hand tools, clearing over one hundred trees on that trail in two working days by hand, which is not shabby.

The highlights of each day for Horsemen on these pilgrimages are when the chuck-wagon triangle sounds, summoning all to breakfast and dinner.  Our Boss Chef slings some pretty mean hash, and she and her assistant cook saw to it there were piping-hot victuals and coffee 6 am and 6 pm each day to rejuvenate bodies and spirits.  Flapjacks, sausage, bacon, and coffee consumed while sitting around a roaring camp fire are hard to beat.  At the end of a strenuous workday, after the horses have been unsaddled, watered, picketed, and tack stowed, the aroma of barbecued country ribs and baked beans emanating from the chuck wagon is an irresistible draw.   A bottle of five-star cognac, provided by one of our One-Day-Wonders, was the the ultimate touch of perfection.  Representatives of state and federal officialdom were entertained too; the District Ranger appearing in time for breakfast on Saturday, and the local Game Warden and his trainee stopping-by to say hello Sunday afternoon.  When, in the ensuing conversation, these two let slip the fact that they were reduced to but one hot dog each to sustain them until the morrow, they were promptly invited to return at dinnertime and partake of our feast along with us.  This they did, and having been surfeited with barbecued beef sandwiches and potato salad, declared our Boss Chef's grub to be "better than" that of a certain Famous restaurateur bearing the moniker Dave.

Working in hot sun, cold drizzle, and providing sustenance for sundry horse flies, mosquitoes, and wood ticks, our altruistic slogans, "We keep Trails open for you," and "Trails are common ground," keep us spiritually motivated to endure and continue on.  How heart-warming it is then, to see on this Memorial Day weekend a grateful non-equestrian Public exercising its God-given right, for which our soldiers throughout history have fought and died, to roar around in the primordial forest, mounted upon various motorized four-wheelers and side-by-sides, on the very trails we have cleared for them.  On Sunday afternoon the sylvan serenity was assailed by a distant rumbling like unto the din of over-powered "off-road vehicles."  Sure enough, a gaggle of four-wheelers travelling south on the main road turned onto the service road on the north side of the trail-head area leading to the gorge bridge, disdaining the boulders placed there to indicate its closure to wheeled traffic.  A maverick of the group entered the trail-head area proper, and parked among the vehicles of the hikers and gambolers.  Three entities dismounted the contraption:  a tall adult male wearing an incandescent orange pullover with color-coordinated shoelaces in his floppy shoes, a pre-pubescent girl similarly attired, and a Saint Bernard dog.  The orange apparition favoured us with the following oration, roughly translated from the original Moron, our knowledge of that language being admittedly faulty:  "Hi-my-name-is-Nevada-and-this-is-my-daughter-Vegas-and-my-dog-Reno-don't-worry-he-won't-attack-you-in-fact-he-could-save-your-life-only-he-hasn't-got-his-whiskey-barrel-if-he-bothers-you-just-kick-him-in-the-teeth-no-just-kidding-I-don't-want-you-to-kick-my-dog-in-the-teeth."  ("Likes" omitted for clarity.)  Having uttered several bon mots along similar lines, the threesome turned and headed down the trail toward the gorge for a pleasant afternoon's gambol.  Given this man's infatuation with names originating in a notorious gaming state, he only lacks a tin horn in order to represent a perfect example of a tin-horn gamboler.  These people disappeared quickly from our view, but not from our lives, as they will figure prominently in the future of this narrative.  Meanwhile, the four-wheeled invaders having crossed the Gorge Bridge and accelerated up the trail toward the airstrip, revelling in the low-gear torque and small diameter tires of their vehicles' power to dislodge rocks, dirt, and raise a plume of dust, while modifying the trail tread to something less than its original ideal, were nonetheless interdicted by a knight-in-shining-armour—one of our own mounted sawyers.  Our Horseman demanded of these pariahs what they thought they were doing?  They replied they were only trying to get to the airstrip.  Our man informed them diplomatically that the only way to properly do that was via wings, hooves, or feet.  Beneath our man's disapproving gaze, the mechanized monsters turned and meekly retreated, metaphorical tails between legs, but not before one of their ilk ignominiously rolled his vehicle down an embankment, requiring to be winched-out by his comrades.  God bless America.

Comes now one of our mule-borne Doctors, innocently wending his way back to camp after a strenuous day of swamping.  Fate is the hunter.  Rounding a bend, he is confronted by none-other than the Orange Threesome, ensconced on the high side of the trail.  Attempting to nonchalantly pass by, the doc and mule are nonetheless attacked by the whiskey-less dog, launching himself toward the mule's head.  Executing a simultaneous four-legged jump and pirouette, which only mules can do, he removes in the opposite direction, leaving our doctor momentarily airborne, ultimately alighting firmly upon a pile of flint.  Later, the Orange Threesome insist on accompanying our doctor as if advertising a trophy-of-the-hunt.  Arriving at the bridgehead, they encounter, as fate would have it, our own Packing Professor who, viewing the untethered dog though narrowed eyes, remonstrates with the Orange One for his negligence.  The latter, having none of it, sends back in kind, and WORDS are exchanged; 'nuff said.  We were not quite through with him yet, however.  Back at the trailhead, he endeavoured to purchase of our Horsemen some butter, "for our pizza sandwiches;" we kid you not.  The Project Leader gave him a quarter pound to be rid of him, and the orange problem disappeared in a cloud of dust.  Seated at last at the comforting camp-fire, our sore doctor, in lieu of tea and sympathy, had to make do with beer, backslapping, and barbecued beef.  But he is a good sport.

The saddest part of a horse-camping outing is when the time comes to strike camp.  After consuming a banquet of surplus food, we remaining gung-ho Horsemen pitched-in to strike the canopy, fold chairs and tables, wash dishes & etc. in order to button-up the chuck wagon; then striking, folding, and mantying our personal gear and loading it into trucks and stock into horse trailers for the all too short trip back to the madness that is American civilization.  The road out was still in good shape, but the little snow we saw on the way in just a memory.  All that remains of the outing is the quandary lodged in the minds of some of us:  what was the point of it all?

Back County Horsemen Redeem Worthy Trail


by Jennifer Abelle

Extending between Skyland Road and Zip's cabin lies the Mule Ridge Trail, passing through a variety of vegetation and land forms which provide interesting potentialities for riding or hiking.  This trail has been a subject of BCHF attention as recently as August, 2019, when Horsemen Rick Madje and Stu Sorensen cleared the ascending portion prior to the Challenge at Challenge event of that year.  On Saturday, August 7, a reconnaissance party, consisting of Horsemen Dan Oursland, Rick Madje, and Jennifer Abelle, hiked the trail on foot to ascertain what might be  necessary to make the trail usable by equestrians. We found much brush encroaching the tread; groundwater oozing to the surface in places making the substrate soft and treacherous; old log sleepers having been placed in years past to provide a means of traversing such areas, but now rotted, soft and treacherous in themselves; and many fallen trees, small and large across the trail.

At 7:00 am on Friday morning, August 13, Horsemen Jim Thramer, Dan Oursland, and Jennifer Abelle met at President Thramer's house, and from there proceeded northward toward Skyland Road and Challenge cabin.  Horseman Rick Madje had preceded us Thursday evening as an advance party of one to unlock the gate and establish our bivouac site for the weekend.  We three arrived at about 10:00 am, pitched camp, prepared coffee and lunches, and loaded gear for the day's work.  Arriving at slightly before noon, the four of us had barely an hour to accomplish anything due to the prevailing level 2 fire restriction which forbids the use of internal combustion engine powered equipment past one o'clock.  (To be continued.)

A Message From Bonnie The Mule


as told to:

Jennifer Abelle, VP, BCHF

“Hello, my name is Bonnie; I’m a mule. I was formerly associated with an equi-humanoid named Ed, with whom you may be acquainted. (N.B.: equi-humanoid is apparently Bonnie’s word for horseman, hereinafter abbreviated E-H. —J.A.) Ed is a pretty clever guy, and well versed in the ways of horses and mules—well, he should be, I taught him everything I know. My new assignment is a jenny-humanoid—at least that is what she calls herself, although she doesn’t even remotely resemble a donkey. Still, donkeys are a proud and noble race—I am half donkey myself—so if she wants to think of herself as a donkey, I guess it is OK by me! This jenny-humanoid is not as bright as Ed and has a lot to learn, but has a facility with languages such that I have been able to inculcate in her a smattering of Mule, which is how, through her, I am able to communicate with you now.

“I have a new friend here, an elegant old lady named Sylvia: she of long mane, insouciant demeanour, and good leadership on the trail; we have developed an intimate rapport and become fast friends. During these short winter days and long winter nights there is not much to do other than eat and void, so we pass the time at the water trough and the fence in conversation. The most common topic, besides stallions, is E-Hs and their doings. You are a curious lot, and your antics at times bewildering, but all usually comes right in the end so we don’t try to question the why or the wherefore. However, we cannot help to have noticed what seems a baffling new trend among you: many E-Hs wearing what appear to be miniature nose bags on the lower part of your poor, flat, faces. Now we equines understand the need for nose bags out on the trail when forage is scarce and energy-giving oats too precious to waste, but regard them as rather a necessary evil. You E-Hs on the other hand have those snaky palpi in place of hooves with which you extract your feed from saddlebags or whatnot and transfer it to your mouths, so why the mini nose bags? We don’t understand the reasoning behind this novel behaviour; indeed, it appears to us as, at best, an affectation, or worse, a tinge of degeneracy. Our jenny has tried to explain that this behaviour is a manifestation of something called a “belief system” which supposedly takes the place of conscious perception and ratiocination. This makes us roll on our backs in perplexity; there is no concept, “belief,” in the equine lexicon. The world is out there, plain as the derrière of the horse in front of you, for all to see. Reality exists, and it doesn’t take much of a mind to extract its principles from accrued experience in order to make correct decisions in any given situation. There may be noumena unseen and unknown affecting reality, but we have no means to verify such by our own senses and minds. Therefore, we equines hold that it is wise to act only upon that which we know to be unalloyed fact, and shun everything else.

“The sun rises earlier each day, and sets later in the evening; soon it will be time for all of us as a team—equine and E-H—to get into shape for the coming trail season. Back Country E-Hs! Doff those preposterous nose bags! Stop staring at those glassy tiles! Let us raise our eyes to yonder horizon and the glorious future, promised by the rising sun, of Back Country Equi-humanoidship!”

There you have it, straight from the horse’s—er—mule’s mouth. —J.A.

The Right to Ignore the Forest Service*


by Herbert Spencer

§ 1. As a corollary to the proposition that all institutions must be subordinated to the law of equal freedom, we cannot choose but admit the right of the citizen to adopt a condition of voluntary outlawry. If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the State,—to relinquish its protection and to refuse paying towards its support. It is self-evident that in so behaving he in no way trenches upon the liberty of others; for his position is a passive one, and, whilst passive, he cannot become an aggressor. It is equally self-evident that he cannot be compelled to continue one of a political corporation without a breach of the moral law, seeing that citizenship involves payment of taxes; and the taking away of a man's property against his will is an infringement of his rights. Government being simply an agent employed in common by a number of individuals to secure to them certain advantages, the very nature of the connection implies that it is for each to say whether he will employ such an agent or not. If any one of them determines to ignore this mutual-safety confederation, nothing can be said, except that he loses all claim to its good offices, and exposes himself to the danger of maltreatment,—a thing he is quite at liberty to do if he likes. He cannot be coerced into political combination without a breach of the law of equal freedom; he can withdraw from it without committing any such breach; and he has therefore a right so to withdraw.

§ 2. "No human laws are of any validity if contrary to the law of nature: and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority mediately or immediately from this original." Thus writes Blackstone, to whom let all honour be given for having so far outseen the ideas of his time,—and, indeed, we may say of our time. A good antidote, this, for those political superstitions which so widely prevail. A good check upon that sentiment of power-worship which still misleads us by magnifying the prerogatives of constitutional governments as it once did those of monarchs. Let men learn that a legislature is not "our God upon earth," though, by the authority they ascribe to it and the things they expect from it, they would seem to think it is. Let them learn rather that it is an institution serving a purely temporary purpose, whose power, when not stolen, is, at the best, borrowed.

Nay, indeed, have we not seen that government is essentially immoral? Is it not the offspring of evil, bearing about it all the marks of its parentage? Does it not exist because crime exists? Is it not strong, or, as we say, despotic, when crime is great? Is there not more liberty—that is, less government—as crime diminishes? And must not government cease when crime ceases, for very lack of objects on which to perform its function? Not only does magisterial power exist because of evil, but it exists by evil. Violence is employed to maintain it; and all violence involves criminality. Soldiers, policemen, and gaolers; swords, batons, and fetters,—are instruments for inflicting pain; and all infliction of pain is, in the abstract, wrong. The State employs evil weapons to subjugate evil, and is alike contaminated by the objects with which it deals and the means by which it works. Morality cannot recognise it; for morality, being simply a statement of the perfect law, can give no countenance to anything growing out of, and living by, breaches of that law. Wherefore legislative authority can never be ethical—must always be conventional merely.

* (Ed. Note:  Spencer's original title is, The Right to Ignore the State; however, as the Forest Service, which did not exist in his time, is the arm of the State with which we are most likely to come into contact, we have opted for this slight modification to make it more relevant to our experience.)