Many ports where cruise ships stop offer horseback riding as one of the shore excursion choices. These day rides sometimes last as little as 45 minutes. Guests sometimes dismount wishing they had a way to ride longer.
Adventurous travelers have found a way to take that longer ride. Whether as a pre-or post-cruise expedition or as a stand-alone vacation, a pack trip is the way to go. Experienced pack outfitters provide everything but your own personal gear. Besides horse care, they also cook and clean up after meals so guests can just relax and enjoy their time with nature.
When cruising from Seattle, Icicle Outfitters is relatively close by with pack trips leaving from Entiat, near the charming town of Leavenworth. Trip options include group trips scheduled for specific times and places, or private deluxe trips with your own personal schedule and itinerary.
I just had the opportunity to try Icicle Outfitters deluxe pack trip. We went into the Glacier Peak Wilderness area, which limits groups to a total of 12 heartbeats, so this particular itinerary is just for the private trips. We had a base camp where mules pack in gear the first day and then pack it out at the end. The camp stayed in one place and we took day rides from there. Traveling camps offer another alternative where the camp travels to a new location each night.
We pulled in to the ranch in Entiat, where a trailer of horses and mules awaited our arrival. They gave each of us a packed lunch and a set of saddle bags in which to stow anything we might want along the trail. Then they “mannied” up the rest of our things into packs for the mules.
After a ride in the truck to the trailhead we were each assigned a horse while the guides loaded the pack mules. They had a very large mule named Bud Light. An ordinary sized mule named Randy looked dwarfed standing next to Bud. Because another group had just left and the main camp was already set up it just took the two mules to bring in our gear and some groceries. Later when they returned to pack up the entire camp, they had about 8 or 10 mules.
I rode a Morgan horse named Tango, my niece Mel a Morgan horse named Morgan, and my sister Barb a very tall mare called Georgie Girl. The guides, Charlie and Bailey, had horses named Valley Girl and Montana.
We rode for awhile through green forests until we came to a sign noting the boundry to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. Shortly after venturing into the wilderness, green forests gave way to acres of burned trees, ghostly sentinels of their former selves. The burned forest did not make much shade on the trail, but it did have an erie beauty of its own. Glimpses of nearby mountain peaks through the stands of burnt trees added to the ethereal wonder of the passing view. Wildflowers and other greenery grew between the trees, soaking up the sunlight. In some places, groups of new little trees grew. Strangest of all were the occasional tall living trees. A few trees managed to somehow remain unscathed while everything around them had burned. Often we passed half fallen trees or twisted branches curled into interesting shapes.
The US has a “Let it Burn” policy in wilderness areas. This came about due to diseased forests resulting from decades of fighting every fire. Perhaps though, common sense would best prevail somewhere in between fighting every fire and fighting nothing at all. This particular fire started from a lightning strike, which smoldered in a stump for a couple weeks. First our tax dollars paid for 4 people to watch a stump smolder. Then when weather conditions changed untold amounts were spent to keep the fire from spreading beyond the wilderness border. In a non-wilderness area, helicopter loggers would harvest the dead trees, but here they stand until they rot and fall.
We crossed many streams, the horses sometimes stopping for a drink. All these rivers of freshly melted snow must make quite a cold crossing to hikers, who have to cross them on foot.
Several hours into the journey I rather wished I’d had the foresight to purchase a soft woolly fleece saddle cover. I usually ride in a synthetic English saddle, which is not only a bit narrower than the western one, but a whole lot softer. Especially since none of these saddles had padded seats. I’d recommend buying the fleece saddle cover to anyone booking a long horseback trip in unfamiliar saddles.
We stopped for lunch along the trail, and eventually made our way to our camp, set up in the first of a series of meadows. Each meadow has a camp name, ours was called coon camp. We did not see any raccoons, but it did have lots of mule deer. A doe and her two fawns stayed right around our campsite most of the time. At night the guides had to tightly wrap the saddles in the canvas used for the mule packs to keep deer from eating the saddle ties to get at the salt where they rub on sweaty horses.
Our main guide for the trip, Aaron, waited for us at camp. He’d stayed behind when the previous group left. That night he introduced us to dutch oven cooking. I’d heard of dutch ovens before, but never actually seen one in use. He had several of varying sizes stacked on one another, from which he produced an entire meal including salmon, green beans, and fruit cobbler. One morning he even baked cinnamon rolls in it. He said he could make just about anything in the dutch ovens, and had even at times made birthday cakes.
Charlie left with the mules, now unburdened by packs, hoping to get to the trailhead before dark. He was with them when they returned, so dark or light, he did get to the trailhead that night.
After an excellent dutch oven breakfast the next morning, Aaron set out a large selection of things for packing our own lunches. He said that way everyone gets what they want.
Aaron rode a gaited paso fino mule named Little Foot. After Barb sadly mentioned having asked for a mule, and that information not getting relayed to the ranch, he traded with her the next day and let her ride his own personal mule for the rest of the trip. He said it is all about keeping the guests happy. I said all I wanted was not to have to cook, wash dishes, or saddle my horse. They do have their limits however. He said one time a woman expected him to wash her underwear, and that wasn’t happening.
We learned that bacon grease works as a wound salve. Aaron swears it works better than any product on the market for scar-free wound healing in equines, though I am not likely brave enough to try it on mine. They will have to live with commercial products.
After choosing from the many available lunch options and loading our saddle bags with water bottles, sweatshirts, sunscreen and bug spray we headed out toward Entiat Glacier. Eventually the burned forest gave way to grassy meadows full of wildflowers. Further down the trail we came to green forest with patches of late melting snow. Quite a contradiction riding through snow on a warm sunny day in August. Snow still covered part of the trail to the glacier. Some we could get by, but we did get to a point where we had to stop and just enjoy lunch with a great close-up glacial view. It seemed as if we stood on the glacier’s edge while on deep snow with a creek running under it, but eventually that too will melt and the actual glacier’s edge lay a short distance beyond.
Unlike the trails near home, which have things like nettles, thistles, and blackberry bushes, the trails there did not seem to have any unfriendly vegetation. Other than trees we mainly saw grass and wildflowers. All sorts of beautiful flowers in a variety of sizes and colors.
After another excellent dutch oven dinner, we sat around the fire toasting marshmallows for s’mores, in spite of the fact that we had already had another tasty dutch oven fruit cobbler for dessert. Campfires are an excellent place to tell stories and Aaron had some good ones from many years spent on those trails.
Over the years he met some interesting characters, including a naked jogger he crossed paths with several times. Like an old-fashioned streaker, the man did wear shoes. When asked what he carried in his small backpack, he replied “socks.”
Although we never came across any, some years they have underground hornet’s nests in the area. One time they came across a sign hanging on a tree. The small size of the writing meant anyone wishing to read it would have to stand quite close. Once close enough to see, the sign said “If you can read this you will get stung.” And so they did. And removed the sign to prevent anyone else from getting lured to the hornet’s nest. For the most part it’s pretty isolated there, we only saw a few people on our way in and out, but none in the official wilderness area other than one guy from the Forest Service riding with a couple pack horses.
Sitting around the campfire in the morning while we ate breakfast, we enjoyed watching brightly colored little birds called evening grossbeaks flit around through the nearby trees. One brave little bird didn’t wait for us to leave, but hopped right into the cooler area of the firepit to munch on the ash. Apparently they prefer fresh ash over the entire forest of older ash all around them.
The next day we rode to an old historic trapper’s cabin. It was built by a man named Gordon Stewart, who had several cabins in the area built in the 1920’s and 1930’s, most of which no longer remain. He stayed there every winter under many feet of snow except during the war years when the army used his mountain man skills to have him sneak across enemy lines right into their camps.
We tried some fly fishing in a stream near the cabin before riding back to camp. On the last day we stopped at Myrtle Lake for some more fishing on our way out.
We had a great time on our pack trip. We had planned it as a once in a lifetime vacation, but enjoyed it so much we’d love to go again.
Icicle Outfitters has pack trips to suit everyone. Ride from lake to lake with fishing stops at each, participate in a round-up, or visit the remote village of Stehekin at the tip of Lake Chelan, horse packing either in or out, and cruising on the Lady of the Lake the other direction.