The teenagers piled out of the van as we tied the last rope for the shade tarp. Sweat already threatened to drip off my nose. Haze from a far-away fire clouded the mountain view.
But the palette of green grass, along with cottonwood and birch trees, complimented rugged rocks hugging the meadow we enjoyed. The horses stood at the trailers, resting with their legs cocked, ready to be stars of the show.
Seven of us Backcountry Horsemen volunteers would attempt to teach 14 campers from Alberta, Montana and Mexico what it is like to pack everything a person needs on a horse and ride down a wilderness trail.
The kids were spending a week at Boone and Crockett’s ranch on the Rocky Mountain Front. They had already learned how to fly-fish, shoot rifles and find their way in the woods.
Some of the campers owned horses, some had ridden a friend’s horse and some had never even touched a horse. Our job was to show them how to be safe, leave no trace in their camping area, and carry just what they need on a pack trip.
But first we imparted a bit of philosophy. Greg Schatz, a builder in Whitefish who spends six to eight weeks each year in the backcountry with his wife, Deb, and their horses, offered a choice to the young men and women who have been indoctrinated in consumerism.
Buy adventures instead of a big house, Greg advised, budget so your bills cost a fraction of your earning power so you can take the time to live.
Then Greg talked about protecting forest trees when he ties up his horses by using a highline and picking up manure at the trailhead because the biggest complaint hikers have about horses is finding poop in the parking lot.
Then Bob Hermance demonstrated how to saddle a horse and each adult partnered with two kids to configure a pack saddle to a horse. At first, all of those loops and straps looked like a ball of yarn after a cat found it, but soon the kids had the cinches tight, the breast collar in front and the breeching under the tail.
Mantying the packs confused some of the kids. Knots are intimidating when a teacher whips through them with hands of muscle memory.
One of my kids wiped the sweat from his forehead and said “I can’t do this.”
And then he did. One loop at a time.
A couple of times, the loop of the half-hitch ended up backward. We tested the knot. It disappeared, leaving the manty hanging by a straight rope. Immediate direct consequences make an effective teacher.
When the group gathered under the shade again, I mentioned that I had not learned to pack until I was 40. In fact, I didn’t know how to ride a horse until I learned in my 20s.
Fourteen pairs of eyes widened. I wasn’t sure whether it was because they couldn’t believe I am over 40 or because they can’t imagine riding a horse in the mountains at such an ancient age.
Several of the kids played with grass or braided their hair as we spoke about horses and mountains and quiet trails, but a teacher never knows who she might touch.
A young math geek might find courage because he tried again to twist a rope into a half-hitch.
Or years from now, an urban arena rider might remember that old woman who rode her horse in the mountains and give it a try herself.
Maybe, just maybe, someday one of them will take time off from her ranch to listen to the mountain birds sing as her horse clip-clops down the trail. Then she’ll come home and tell a bunch of teenagers all about it.