Poker Ride at Swift Dam

Every year on the first Sunday of August, the East Slope Backcountry Horsemen host a poker ride around Swift Dam Reservoir. This year was no different.

The seven mile trail is challenging enough for people who ride often without being too hard for those who usually only catch their horses on the first day of hunting season.

Riders draw cards before they leave the campground, at three stations along the trail and when they return to camp. The top three hands win cash while others win door prizes.

The water always sparkles, whether teal glass mirrors the sky or deep blue highlights choppy waves.

Four years ago, we watched a black bear swim across the half-mile wide reservoir, then climb out on the other side and meander through the rocks and shrubs looking for grubs.

The ride goes on no matter the weather and I’ve been pelted by thunderstorm ice as my horse hurries back to the safety of the campground, but last Sunday was a bluebird day.

The East Slope Backcountry Horsemen have been hosting this ride for a long time – since well before I joined the club 15 years ago.

This year, we added a little twist.

Riders could pick up a wild card by exploring an old, abandoned trail that we think was engineered by Bob Marshall, the famous Montana forester who advocated for wilderness in the early 1900s.

Bob Marshall’s trail adds about a half mile to the route, but bypasses a steep, rocky creek crossing and muddy side hill where the trail tends to slough off. The creek is still high and the rocks are big so horses and riders tend to enjoy quickened heart beats as they cross. At least the sane horses and riders do.

This bypass trail was documented on old maps, but it had been hidden in dense timber for years. When a fire blew through the area two years ago, clues emerged.

Last summer, our club spent a day searching for the trail.

We could see bits of bare ground in a line and a trail-wide path of cleared trees. When we sat back to look at the terrain and pick out where a path made sense, sure enough there it was. 

Two weeks ago, several members blazed the trail and widened a few spots. We used neon pink and orange flagging and rode back and forth a few times so poker riders could spot the route even if they were chatting.

We knew we were on the trail when one club member found a metal sign lying face down in the dirt. Arrows pointed to Hungry Man Creek, Heart Butte and Swift Dam. That sign probably refers to the earthen version of Swift Dam that blew out in 1964, not the modern concrete version.

A battery-operated drill and a couple of screws mounted the sign back on to a tree.

We bill the Poker Ride as a relaxing day of companionable fun, but it is not without adventure.

One horse caught a stirrup as he came out of the trailer. The saddle slid back to the horse’s flank and the show was on. No bell rang after eight seconds, but eventually the horse quit bucking. The saddle was intact when the horse and rider drew a card at my station.

Another horse stood quietly with his rider chatting until suddenly he reared over backward. The rider showed me her bruises when she drew a three of diamonds. It just wasn’t her day.

When I got back to camp, she was smiling as she ate her hamburger. In fact, everyone was smiling.

A good horseback ride will do that for a person.

Lisa Schmidt