Our original plan was to camp & ride at Wild River State Park, which neither of us has ever visited before, but along our way we stopped for gas (and Benadryl for poor Berlin who was a bit carsick) and decided to change plans at the last minute and head to Tamarack horse camp in the St. Croix State Forest. I had been there once before as a day trip (it's about a 2 hour haul for us), but never camped there. Pulling in to the horse camp (you have to know where it is to find it - we ended up in the "regular" campground on our first attempt), we drove around the loops to discover that we were the only people there. Hmm.... this might have been our first clue, but instead we took our time choosing just the perfect campsite (a double so we had lots of space) and as we were backing in, another rig pulled in. They picked a site on an entirely different loop, so we did pretty much have the place to ourselves.
We set up camp in a flurry, putting up our fake electric pen for the boys around the base of the permanent high lines and pitching a tent for me & the dogs. Gesa brought her camp cot and was excited to try out sleeping in the trailer (cleaned out, of course, and with a tarp down over the shavings) - luckily the trailer has screens on the windows so she could have ventilation with minimal mosquito invaders. Rhio & Paco are pretty respectful of a non-electrified pen (Rhio was very wary after getting his big shock from Donna's pen back in May at MnDRA1), but we didn't leave them unattended in it and we tied them to the high lines at night.
|Rhio & Paco settle in Friday night|
With my little propane grill, I cooked us up some marinated chicken breasts & zucchini and we ate dinner by headlamp, tired from packing, loading, traveling, unloading, setting up camp, pumping & hauling water (pumped by a poorly-functioning hand pump which stuck at the top of every full stroke, and hauled by wheel-barrow back to our campsite - let me tell you, that water was precious!), dousing ourselves in copious amounts of bug repellant (oh the clouds of mosquitos!), and all the various other tasks that come with setting up camp for 2 people, 2 horses, and 2 dogs. Why is it that we willingly work so hard to have fun?
I slept great (except for 3 or 4 times I came awake with a start, feeling crawly and pulling ticks off out-of-the-way body parts), snug in my sleeping bag with the snoozing dogs snuggled up in their beds next to me. Very early in the morning, just as it was getting light, I heard wild turkeys gobbling off in the woods somewhere, but the horses were still quiet and content on the high line (so different from ride camp, where as soon as the first horse is fed in the wee hours, all the horses in camp are clamoring for their breakfasts), and I happily rolled over and went back to sleep. We all got up around 7, and Gesa & I thoroughly enjoyed a leisurely morning with our respective mugs of coffee and tea. We took the horses for an amble down to the day parking area, to check out the trail map and plan our ride for the day. We were very pleased that the hordes of mosquitos of the evening before were gloriously absent, but still applied bug spray to ourselves & the boys and tacked them up with their riding fly masks.
Around 11, after settling the dogs in the trailer, we mounted up and headed off on our adventure. The first marked horse trail we took directly out of camp was twisty, heavily overgrown, and difficult to follow in spots. Interesting. This one must not get used much, we thought. We popped out on the gravel road that leads to the campground and decided to follow it for a bit, as we couldn't quite make out where the horse trail was supposed to go and I'd noted on the map quite a few ATV/snowmobile trails, which I knew would be wide and easy to follow, if nothing else. We hit a parking area for motorized users, and stopped to consult the map again, determining that with a mixture of ATV & horse trails, we could make a long loop (loops are my favorite!). While we were map reading, a small group of ATV riders, followed shortly by two rangers also on ATVs, passed us & continued along the trail in the direction we were headed. We also met a couple of geocachers with their beautiful collie, who was staring wide-eyed at the "big dogs" we were riding. Off we went, with some idea of where we were going and plenty of get-up-and-go from the horses.
The ATV trails proved to be a sandy dirt base with plenty of mid-sized rocks both embedded in the surface and strewn about, and a healthy population of mud holes to either balk at, drink from, or trot right through (which ones fell into which category was a mystery to me, but the horses clearly knew which type was which!). Just going based on what I'd memorized from the map and my sense of direction, with periodic map-checks when we came across them, we made a few wrong turns and trotted a few sections of gravel road in leu of trails I wasn't quite certain were going in the right direction. It was a nice mix of moderate trotting & technical work on the ATV trails, with some nice long canters and long trotting on the gravel roads. The horseflies & deerflies were definitely making themselves a nuisance at grazing stops, but while we kept moving they were pretty tolerable.
Eventually, we found our goal - the Gandy Dancer State Trail, a former railroad grade that is now a gravel-surfaced ATV and snowmobile superhighway. The horses really enjoyed moving out & we handily covered a few miles at a good clip before reaching the St. Croix River bridge (hello, Wisconsin!). This is one impressive bridge! It's a wooden former railroad trestle, resurfaced with tightly abutting wooden planks and a central rubber matting and with tall, secure railings. But this thing was high, and quite long - I've never ridden across such an imposing bridge. It was prominently signed "Bridge Closed to Vehicles over 1000 lbs," and we debated whether we counted as "vehicles," since horse+rider+tack was a bit over 1000 lbs each. Deciding to play it safe, and not wanting to get caught on the bridge with an ATV crossing at the same time (it was too narrow for any passing), we only ventured about a quarter of the way out onto the bridge, to take in the view of the St. Croix River way down there below us. I was perfectly happy out there snapping pictures while leading Rhio, but decided to mount up for a photo and immediately felt the insecurity of realizing I was taller than the railings. It was a little unnerving sitting up there on top of my not-very-tall horse on this bridge, and I decided right then that I was going to make myself ride off the bridge (back the way we came, not across it) and that I probably don't ever want to cross No-Hands Bridge at Tevis (as if I thought I'd ever be riding Tevis anyway!). I'm not exactly afraid of heights, but I was definitely not feeling super comfortable up there, and breathed a sigh of relief when Rhio stepped hoof back on solid land.
We were both very happy to have our hoof boots for this ride, as the rocks & gravel would have been tough to cover at speed if the horses had been barefoot. I was using Red's Epics on Rhio's fronts, and his own Gloves on his hinds. Paco sported a pair of Epics on his fronts, and was bare behind. I was very pleased with the traction provided by both styles of boot, as some of the muddy spots were slippery and we crossed some wooden bridges and a hill made of cross-wise cement "timbers" later in our ride, with both horses being completely surefooted all day.
The few ATVers we met along the way were all very considerate, slowing down to pass us and even a few giving us a jaunty wave. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the beautiful Saturday afternoon.
Gesa spotted the horse trail branching off the Gandy Dancer trail, and we set off into the woods to complete our loop. We'd done about 12 miles at this point, in 2 hours. Little did we know we had 6 miles and 2 more hours of riding ahead of us before we'd finally make it back to camp.
The horse trails are in very poor shape currently. I don't know if it's budget cuts, or just the long and brutal winter & wet spring we've had, but the trail was horribly overgrown so much that it was hard to follow at times. There were numerous trees down that we had to skirt around, and the insect population was pretty spectacular, combined with our forced walking speed, and I would say it was a fairly unpleasant situation. At first the horses thought the single-track trail was fun, but they quickly lost their enthusiasm when it became apparent we weren't going to be able to do much more than walk, and walk, and walk. We crossed rickety bridges, or in places had to clamber down & up small ravines where the bridges had been completely washed out. Some of the hills had originally had horse-friendly stairs for erosion control, consisting of 5' or 6' square timber "boxes" filled with earth, such that the horses could have all 4 hooves on each "step." Many of these were washed out completely or had the dirt eroded out of them such that they were obstacles and hindrances rather than helping the horses negotiate the slopes. Our boys were wonderfully brave and willing the entire time, with the exception of Rhio refusing to cross a flat plank bridge with no sides which was elevated about 8" off the trail surface. Gesa & Paco had to ride out of sight before he would follow me across it, and even then he crossed it in two big leaps, knocking me into a patch of stinging nettles (in case you were wondering, summer riding tights are NOT thick enough to protect from stinging nettles! Yowzie!). Rhio did perform an interesting feat of acrobatics, in which he managed to chew on his right hind pastern on a single-track trail with me still mounted (can you say Gumby?), and we only had one tree-encounters-riders-leg incident despite the narrow single track trail winding through plenty of knee-knocker trees, so all in all it was a successful though mentally and physically taxing last third of our ride.
We returned to camp, released the hounds from their confinement, pulled our camp chairs up to the pen to watch our sweaty, filthy ponies happily munch hay (er, well, actually I guess they were frantically swishing, stamping & biting at the hordes of flies), and reveled in our ice-cold beverages. Once recovered, we grabbed our sponges and headed down to the Tamarack River to cool the horses and clean them up a bit. Both boys willingly walked into the river, and as I was sponging the dirt and sweat off Rhio, I realized that many of the "dirt" spots on his legs were really ticks! Ai - yi - yi! The horses danced out of the river and up the trail, antsy as all get out as they were being mobbed by horseflies. I quickly washed up our hoof boots in the river (can't waste any of that precious camp water we sweated & huffed to pump by hand!) and we high-tailed it back to camp to apply tick-killing fly spray and then pick the nasty buggers off our horses' legs. For once I was grateful to have a gray horse, as the ticks were very easy to spot. We each got about 30 ticks off our horses, with most of them being the regular dog ticks and just a few being deer ticks.
We discovered our steaks were still frozen, so we had vegetable medley (carrots, potatoes, asparagus), hard boiled eggs, and bread for dinner, with s'mores roasted over the campstove for dessert! Completely bushed from the day, we rolled into the sack and one again slept well, though it was pretty chilly this night, possibly getting down to the high 30's. Berlin woke me up in the middle of the night, so I had a chance to enjoy the brilliant stars on display and listen to the coyotes' song before discovering that he couldn't sleep because he was cold. Instead of getting out of my warm sleeping bag yet again to fetch a horse blanket, I simply emptied all my clothes on top of him in a heap as extra insulation (he was already wearing a polarfleece doggie jacket) and fell straight back to sleep. In the morning, he looked amusing, adorable, and slightly ridiculous buried in his mound of clothes, but at least he was warm - and of course I didn't have my camera in the tent!
|One of many maps we encountered throughout the day|
|Gesa & Paco approaching the massive bridge|
|Gesa enjoying the magnificent view of the St. Croix River|
|Ok, so it doesn't look very scary in the photo - but I wasn't thrilled.|
|Berlin, a happy 16 year old, still has the camping mojo!|
|St. Croix River, Minnesota on the right and Wisconsin on the left|
|Our little camp|
|The ATVers obviously love their mud - we saw a group dressed head-to-toe in rain gear, which seems like a good wardrobe choice if you're blasting through mud puddles, I guess.|
|I made myself ride my horse off this bridge. Next time I'm there, I just might force myself to ride across the whole thing...... or maybe not!|
|That's Wisconsin way back there across the bridge!|
|Probably the best piece of single-track trail we saw all day.|
|Hand-walking down the steep hill which is stabilized with cement "timbers" like a boat ramp at a public water access.|
|A close-up of the cement we were traversing - the boys' hoof boots were excellent on these, and I absolutely would not have taken a horse in steel shoes on this hill - it would have been horribly treacherous.|
|The Tamarack River|
|Rhio looking for more goodies, like the wasabi peas both he & Paco developed a taste for. Yes, you read that right, our horses LOVE wasabi peas!|
We had a quick breakfast on Sunday, tacked up, and headed off to try the ATV trails heading in the opposite direction. We had about 2 hours to ride, and set off happily enough, only to discover that the trails in this direction were in rough shape with many more rocks & mud holes than Saturday's trails, and an even greater army of horse- and deer-flies on a mission to suck every last drop of blood they could from us and our horses. We made it about 4 miles, then hit a gravel road which we thought might be better - though it was better footing and allowed us to outrun the bugs at a pretty handy canter, the flies were actually worse out in the sunlight than they had been in the shady woods. We detoured to a small lake and let the boys have a little grass (the least buggy spot of the day, actually), then turned back for camp. We started to run into ATVs at this point, and this trail was not a good place to encounter them, as it was so twisty-turny that we could never get to a spot with a good long sightline for them to see us before bursting upon us. As a result, we surprised nearly all of them, which can be a bad situation for all involved. We, of course, knew they were coming because we could hear their engines, but they had no idea we were there. The horses didn't care one whit about the ATVs, but *hated* having to walk or, heaven forbid, stop, as the clouds of buzzing flies descended upon us, driving the horses absolutely nuts. All the fly spray in the world couldn't have helped this situation, because although they would land & fly off again immediately (I was using Endure fly spray - little product endorsement here - and it really did keep them off Rhio, but of course it doesn't stop them from buzzing around), they were still causing immense mental distress for both horses. I didn't even try to hold Rhio back, but let him run everywhere I possibly could, as it was the only way to deal with the flies. I can't think of a time I've been so grateful to get off a trail as I was when we finally burst out of the woods and hit the gravel road leading back to camp. I let Rhio run home, a bad habit but an utter relief to us both. In the end, we'd done about 10 miles in an hour and half of mostly desperate trotting & cantering to escape the bugs. I have to say, big kudos to Rhio & Paco for keeping their cool, mostly, and not simply dumping us & high tailing it out of there.
|Amazingly, there was hardly an insect here at the boat landing, and plentiful grass, so we took a welcome break on our Sunday ride.|
We packed up in record time, loaded the horses into a horse-fly infested trailer (Rhio was extremely reluctant to load - perhaps because of the flies?), and climbed into the truck only to hear click-click-click instead of the expect va-room! of the engine. Oh, no! Dead battery! Luckily for us, Gesa was prepared with a jump pack thingee, and we were able to jump start ourselves and be on our way in under 5 minutes. Since we had the drained truck battery at MnDRA 1 and required a jump, we've known there's a short or something in the trailer or the truck which kills the battery when the truck & trailer sit hooked up. We'd unhooked the lights for the weekend, and only plugged them in just as we were loading horses. Somehow in the 10 minutes it sat with the trailer lights attached to the truck, it drained the truck battery - and we'd even started the truck prior to plugging in the trailer to make sure it started! There is definitely something not right in the electrical systems or connections of either the truck or the trailer or both, but at least we were well prepared for the situation (many thanks to Lynne for showing us such a thing as a jump pack thingee even existed!).
Thankfully the trip home was utterly uneventful, and I loved every second of my hot shower, complete with a full-body tick check (no ticks!), when I finally got everything unpacked, cleaned up, and put away. The next day I found one deer tick on Rhio, and he had a couple of minor rubs from the Epics gaiters in the front (I'd forgotten to put vet wrap on his pasterns), but mostly he was just pissed that he hadn't been able to go to the cow pasture to graze when we got home but had to eat boring old hay all night instead.
It was really a great weekend, and overcoming adversity makes it all the more memorable. But I do think I'll avoid Tamarack horse camp during bug season in the future!