True Tales: Pack String Down

A wilderness river-crossing gone wrong.

The river rushes madly, its water, churning and muddy due to the sudden spike in temperature of the last two days. A tall, overhanging rock face to the left, a half-million acres of wilderness to the right, and the trail disappearing into the water straight ahead: the crossing makes me uneasy, but having been out here for ten days, I’m eager to get back home. With a soft squeeze of my heels and some gentle words, I urge my horse Remington across, a string of six pack-mules in tow. The animals push hard against the swift current, but as my horse approaches the middle, the water reaches his chest, and he begins to swim.

There is a brief moment of possibility, and then it all falls apart.

The river overwhelms the animals and I turn to see piggin strings snapping, animals tumbling through the current, loads disappearing into the waves, mules fighting to keep their heads above the water. I kick my horse onto a gravel bar midway across the raging torrent; the horse struggles, gains footing, and lurches onto dry land, jolting my glasses off in the process. When I glance back to the river, the mules are blurry, dark shapes crying and kicking and fighting through the water.

I pull the 12-gauge from its scabbard, leave it to mark where the glasses fell, and jump back into the furious water toward the mules.

The next hour is a chaotic blur as I struggle to get my mules to safety. Some find refuge on the gravel bar while others make it across. My horse and I end up with the latter group. There’s a moment of relief and I think, Alright, everyone is okay, all the animals are safe—but then I realize that I still need to find my glasses on the gravel bar and get the mules across.

I tie a high-line for the mules that are with me and mount Remington again. I talk to him, promising him that he can trust me. He steps back into the cold water.

Entering the river upstream, we float down to the gravel bar easily. I dismount and walk the river’s edge anxiously, spotting the gun just as I’m about to step on it, and feel around for my glasses. I put them on and think, “We might just make it.” I collect the mules, their heads up and eyes rolled back in fright. I check their cinches. Mario is the last mule in the pack and his load has been lost to the river. I mount Remington and take a half dally with the lead mule’s rope.

Crossing back tries us; the animals swim determinedly but the river pulls us downstream toward rocky rapids, and I decide that it would be better to be on the wrong side of the river than to get too close to the rougher water. We turn to the closer bank, make it to dry land only a few yards above the whitewater, and walk back up to where the trail enters the river. With darkness settling in, I unsaddle and tie up the animals. My hands shake as the gravity of the situation sinks in. We fought the river all day only to end up where we started. And to top it off, my string is now separated. It’s time to try a new approach.

I grab the satellite phone and call Grady, a friend and co-worker who says he’ll ride in with an inflatable kayak the following morning. Having lost my sleeping bag and water purifier to the river (these items were conveniently in the loads that were pulled off Mario in the earlier chaos), I lay down to sleep under horse blankets. The next morning I can’t help but laugh at the irony of waking up with a dry throat next to the raging river I now have to cross again.

Grady shows up as promised and shuttles the mules’ loads, bringing me much-needed water, blankets, and foodstuffs. For two days he waits downstream as I try to get the now unburdened animals to the right side of the river, and for two days we feel scared and frustrated as I fail to make it any further than the gravel bar. Tired, wet, and cold, I decide to take a break from crossing and begin to cut a trail upstream to where the water looks more manageable.

As the sun rises on the third day, I lead the animals to my cut and slowly ease them into the water. Remington steps hard against the current, his body tense with anticipation. I turn to the mules, now all in the water, and see exhaustion. If we don’t get it this time, I worry that they’ll give up on me. But Mario, in the rear as always, urges the rest of the string forward, and as we near the bank on the other side, the animals sense that they’re almost done, almost able to trailer up and go back to pasture. They push up onto the bank, bumping into each other in the eagerness of being on dry land.

I dismount shakily and sit on a stump as Grady hands me a bottle of whiskey. Caught up in the shocking happiness that only follows true fear, I sit there; pouring water from my boots, drinking and laughing.