Joe Graham horse camp

by Gillian Larson | posted: August 16, 2016
Looking  back north at Mt. Hood

After dropping my mom at the airport, I continued on north from Redmond to Joe Graham horse camp near Timothy Lake south of Mt. Hood. I actually spent several nights there, giving Shyla two full zero days off on the 14th and 15th, and then beginning to ride today.

During the time off I spent one day driving up north to eat at the famous Timberline Lodge at the base of Mt. Hood (known to have the best food on the PCT) and to make a food cache in Lolo Pass for a future date when Shyla and I would ride through there. One of the things I really learned in 2014 was the importance of making caches so that I didn't have to carry every ounce of food we ate on every mile of trail. And now that I know the trail so much better, and where every road crossing is, I can really plan on the places where it is possible to leave food. I spent much of last year figuring and re-figuring the best approach to riding the trail, thinking about where to camp and how many days to ride from point to point, taking into account the places where I could cache food and where there were convenient trailheads that I could get to with a truck and horse trailer. I also planned some days to do what I am doing today; after camping at Joe Graham for the past several days, I drove the Tuna Can to Barlow Pass and rode Shyla back to Joe Graham again, where I had left my tent and other camping supplies all set up, so we could "slack pack" with minimal gear today.

There is no way I could have devised such a schedule in 2014, as I just didn't know the terrain and hadn't considered all the potential options to best take advantage of horse camps and trailheads. Back then I was under the illusion that I was going to just start riding at the border with Mexico and would go straight through to Canada, carrying enough supplies on a pack horse to get me through a week or ten days between resupplies. I quickly learned the folly of that plan--and the impossibility of it, for the most part. Although I know there have been some thru-riders in the past who managed to go straight through without skips, most famously a couple in the late 50's who were the first to complete it on horseback, I think the situation has changed drastically since then. The rural nature of much of the country around the trail is gone (so fewer feed stores or ranchers to help out with supplies) and even the trail itself is not in the same place in many areas. That couple even bought new horses along the way, with only one of their original four or five horse making it the whole way. (That has been true of some other riders also; some people put the emphasis on whether or not the rider completes the journey; I can't imagine finishing it if I could get Shyla there safely and in good health as well.)

There is also the practical issue of not being able to get through the Sierra before mid or late June at the earliest, and often later depending on snowfall, which makes it really tough to complete the rest of the trail to Canada in time before snow again might obstruct the way. And even before the Sierra, the trail crosses three high peaks in Southern California--San Jacinto, Big Bear, and Baden-Powell--that also aren't really passable before June in many cases. And then you really don't want to do the Mojave that late if you can avoid it, as water is a real problem and springs can dry up if you are too late (or even if you aren't). Recent years of drought and a dropping water table have combined to make what must have always been a dangerous and difficult section even more so. Between snow and water issues, timing is critical to success, and I know that everything I learned in 2014 has made this year's journey so much less stressful and difficult, because I am able to plan more wisely.


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