San Rafael Swell
My cell phone rang. It was Kirk a friend of mine who I occasional ride with in the summer. It was early November and I hadnít talked with him since hunting season had started several months early. He asked, ďYou done huntingĒ. Yep, I replied. Kirk continued, we are heading down to the Swell for a ride tomorrow. We've got room in the trailer for one more if you want to come. When are you leaving I asked. Kirk replied ďIn about two hoursĒ. When you coming home, I asked? Tomorrow night Kirk replied. So itís just a day trip, I summarized. Where are you sleeping tonight? We will get room at a motel in Ferron, he said. I quickly ran through what things I had planned to do this afternoon and tomorrow and weighed in my mind whether they could wait. Kirk was famous for short notice trips and I had joined him many times before.
I decided winter wasnít too far off and this may be one of the last rides Iíd get before winter set in. So I said sure, Iím in. Want me to drive? Kirk replied, No, we canít get the bigger gooseneck trailers into the trail head that we are going to use. There are a lot of washes that we just canít get the longer trailers through. We have borrowed some smaller bumper pull trailers to haul the horses out into the desert. Just be at my place at 6:00 pm he said.
I hustled home, quickly fed my horses and headed in to pack a duffel bag with a change of clothes. I had never ridden the swell, I had no idea of what to expect. Do I need a coat, Should I bring chaps or chinks? I hooked up my trailer to haul my horse over to Kirks place. As I pulled up along my horse paddock, my four horses all ran to the gate. I looked them over trying to decide which one to take. I chose Ramblin Spirit, a tall 3 year old Missouri Foxtrotter colt I had started during the summer. I had not ridden him for 5-6 weeks because I had been hunting. I thought we are leaving late this evening and coming home tomorrow evening. It canít be too long of a ride. This colt still needed some work; one more trail ride this fall should do him some good. I loaded him the trailer and headed for Kirks.
As I arrived Kirk was catching his horses and starting to load them. I unloaded my colt and loaded him in Kirkís trailer and we were off. I asked who else was going. He said Eric has a load of horses and so does Mark, They left a couple of hours ago, and weíll meet them at the motel.
It was a three hour drive to the small town of Ferron. We arrived well after dark. Found the motel and got a room. There is a city fairground nearby and we stalled the horses for the night and came back to our rooms and hit the sack.
At first light we were up and going. Grabbed some donuts and chocolate milk from the C-store out front and headed out to the San Rafael Swell. It was a rough dirt road going in the way we went. Eric our leader for this trip kept calling somebody on his cell phone and getting direction on how to reach the trail head. Finally we stopped and he said ďSaddle UpĒ I looked around and asked, ďWhere are we riddingĒ We were in a pretty bare spot with what I thought looked like very little of any interest to ride through.
We tacked up and the twelve of us headed out. We immediately dropped down off the plateau top we were on. We followed a whisper of a trail down a knife edge. We crossed a little flat and come to a small stream in a large wash. You could see that during thunderstorm season, this wash really flooded. But right now the water was only an inch deep and 5-6 feet wide. We picked a spot that had a lot of small gravel showing and crossed. I was the 4th horse across the water; I felt my colt working a little hard, like he didnít have solid footing. Then I heard the next rider behind me cry out. As I turned to look, I saw his horseís front end buried in the stream and the rider flipping over his horses head. He landed flat on his back in the water still holding his reins. His horse thrashed a couple of time and came out. The sandy gravel bottom of the wash had jellied up from the weight and motion of the first horses to cross. When his horse stepped in, his front legs dropped, sinking in the stream bottom till his chest hit and burying its head and neck. With his hind legs still on solid footing the horseís front end had dropped into the mud, and launched its rider over the horsesí head. Itís pretty strange to see a horse with his front end and head all muddy and his back end dry and clean.
While the rider checked out his horse and cleaned the mud out of its eyes, nose and ears, the rest of us watered our horses. After all we were in the desert and most of us didnít know when we would see any water again. Eric was the only rider who had been here before and had any idea of where we going.
We followed the wash downstream crossing it several times as it meandered. We had one more horse go down in a bog. It lunged free. I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten into. We were only a half mile from the truck & trailers and already had two horses go down in bogs.
We started to climb back up onto a higher shelf. Leaving the wash behind, We had high bluffs all around us as we rode along. We were following cow & deer trails. There would be a strong identifiable trail that would soon vanish. We just picked our way along finding the best routes down and across the many draws and dry washes.
We soon entered into McCarty canyon. It had a wide flat sandy bottom. Lots of grass had grown there during the past summer and the horses grabbed at bunches of the sun dried grass. The sides of the canyon were all rock, only a few cedars were growing out of cracks in the rock. The canyon walls were very steep. McCarty was a hide out for the Wild Bunch in the late 1800ís. I could see why. It was remote, had feed and water for the livestock and lots of places to hide. We urged our horses into a canter and enjoyed the soft footing.
About half way up the canyon we turned up a small side canyon. Eric announced this was the only way to climb up and out of the canyon and the canyon walls just kept getting steeper and higher the farther up the canyon you went. This side canyon had a solid rock floor. Occasionally there were depressions in the rock floor that held water from past rainstorms and flash floods...
We stopped and let the horses drink in these bathtubs of water. It was bright day. There was hardly a cloud in the sky. Temperatures were in the low 70ís. It was just a wonderful day for a ride.
The side canyon continued to climb up, it got narrower and the walls got higher. We started to see ledges in the floor of the canyon. These were often 3 feet high. The first one we came to, I was wondering how my young colt would handle it. Two horses in front of me scrambled up and over it, my colt approached it and calmly stepped up and over. I guess there is some good to riding a 16h horse with long legs.
We came to a portion of the canyon where the cliff type side walls of the canyon opened up a bit. They were still steep, but not the cliffs we had been riding along. We scrambled up the side hills and came out on shelf. We continued along this rocky shelf.
The shelf brought us up on top of the mesa. We followed the game trails across the mesa top. We were looking into the head of McCarty canyon. It was a box canyon at this point and if we had stayed in the main part of McCarty canyon, we would have been trapped in the box end of the canyon.
We eventually reached a view spot looking out over Saddle Horse Canyon. The canyon walls dropped off very steeply here for several hundreds of feet. The view was stunning. It was lunch time, so we tied the horses to cedar trees and ate our lunches as we enjoyed the view.