July 11 2015
There are rumors of gold buried in the Ochoco Mountains in central Oregon. As the stories go, in 1863, 6 bandits stole gold from sluice boxes, and robbed a bank, and fled with the loot on horseback into the Ochocos with the posse hot on their tails. They stopped near Burglar Flat, which is coincidentally, or not, very near Ridecamp for the Bandit Springs Endurance ride. Supposedly the bandits abandoned their horses and disappeared. Except, according to one story, four days after the bank robbery, a bullet-and-arrow-ridden man crawled into a stage station and mentioned "tossing some gold into a deep mountain spring flowing from the base of a large pine to hide it from the Indians." Another story says the bandits buried the gold at the base of a large pine tree while being attacked by Indians. The bandits, and the gold, were apparently never seen again. Keep this "large pine" theme in mind.
So there are old stories and old ghosts, and possibly old buried gold at the base of a large pine tree, probably a ponderosa considering the fauna, in the Ochoco National Forest, site of the long-running Bandit Springs Endurance Ride. This year was the Silver Anniversary, and put on for the 9th year by Jannelle Wilde and family and friends, who pack up and haul everything 5 1/2 hours away from home to put it on. This year's 2-day endurance ride plus other events was sponsored by (and a benefit for) Mustangs to the Rescue, in partnership with the Ochoco National Forest.
Steph hauled Owyhee Pickett Cricksters Smokey, and me and Dudley, and neighbors Carol and August, to Bandit Springs. It was a repeat appearance for Carol and Steph - from 21 years earlier - and my debut at a ride and a forest I've wanted to ride in since 2009, when I tagged along with Pacific Northwest rider Nance Worman, to watch and report and crew, which is fun but not quite the same as riding.
Over the 25 years of Bandit trails, you could consistently count on wearing your warm-and-humid weather riding gear and bandanas for the dust. Not so this year. In a delightfully cooler turn of weather events, we got rain, thunderstorms and mud. Not just mud, but I'm talking slick-snot mud for part of the ride.
Let me extoll the virtues of arriving an extra day early at Ridecamp. It's good for relaxing, when your proposed 6-hour drive becomes an 8-hour drive after your navigators aren't paying attention for doing other important things, and you miss one highway turn-off and end up on another highway, doing extra miles and a lot of extra road curves and scenic hill climbs, although you do get a delicious huckleberry shake out of it, although it was way too big and filling.
It's nice because you get your pick of parking spots in a lovely meadow (Burglar Flat???) bountiful with knee-high grass and beneath gorgeous Ponderosa pine trees, one of which I hugged but I didn't find any sign of buried treasure. It's nice because you can relax, instead of having to quickly unpack, saddle up to get a quick leg-loosening ride in, vet in, attend the ride meeting, scramble for dinner, and get ready to ride early the next morning.
It's nice because your horses can relax, falling asleep with their noses resting in their hay nets. It's nice because you can visit with some friends you haven't seen in a while. Had I known I'd see Janis Pegg there and she'd bring her banjo, I would have brought mine! It's nice because you can get a relaxing night's sleep without having to worry about getting up early to start your ride, unless a naughty horse bangs and stretches and tweaks his high tie long and hard enough that you have to get up and remove him before he removes himself, and just tie him right to the trailer. (DUDLEY!)
It's nice because you can have a leisurely Friday morning with plenty of coffee, before casually saddling up to take a nice warm-up ride on the 10-mile loop, to stretch your desert steeds' legs and get them used to some mighty tall trees and the closeness of the forest, and all that it houses.
Like Elk. Sure, our horses are familiar with deer. But deer don't often travel 50 or 60 strong in a pack in our desert, and they for sure don't make alarming screeching, shrieking, bugling noises like a flock of seagulls (or monsters) that get your horses wound up enough that you all need to jump off so you're not bucked off. Yes, 2 miles out of camp we were lucky to hear, then see, a mighty herd of boisterous, bugling adult and baby elk in a meadow, and we were not so lucky to have them spot us, and head straight for us.
Already dismounted off my increasingly excited big beast of a Dude, I threw my reins at Steph, and ran out to
The rest of our pleasant 10-mile loop familiarized our horses with scary horse-eating stumps (which they would not look at twice on ride day), one of which was a fallen 374-year-old Ponderosa pine - Gary Pegg actually counted the rings - which proves there are some trees in this forest old enough to be hiding some bandit gold from the 1800's. We got to experience a little mountain thunderstorm on trail too… a little rain, a little lightning and thunder which I chose to ignore by just keeping my head down and not looking or listening to how close it was, because, what else are you going to do?
A couple more storms passed through Ridecamp throughout the day, with one near bolt of lightning and crack of thunder loud enough to scare one horse loose from his trailer tie.
On Saturday, five 75-mile riders and 3 100-mile riders started at 5 AM. 30 riders started the 50 at 6 AM, and 29 started the 25 miler an hour later. Carol and August led our trio out on the first 20-mile loop, and we wove through alpine meadows and pine and fir forest, over mostly single-track dirt trails, a little bit of hill climbs and descents, a decent amount of level trotting.
Gary Pegg did a lot of the trail marking, and he occasionally tacked up entertaining pie plates. If you ever get lost on a Bandit trail, you will certainly earn a pie plate proclaiming your section of trail next year! The trails were excellently marked, although we did lose one briefly in a meadow where the elk had dined on the ribbons. There was plenty of water on the trail, both natural puddles or springs, and water troughs at regular intervals. Abundant grass would have kept any horse's gut sounds at A levels (Dudley loves to work diligently to get A's on his gut sounds!). The melodic trilling of hermit thrushes are what conjure up memories of time spent in forests, and we were serenaded by them all day. Dudley found two turkey feathers on trail and had me stick them in his bridle, which rendered him rakishly breathtaking.
After a vet check and hold in camp, we set out on the 30-mile second loop, headed for the vet check about halfway out on that loop.
Some mighty intimidating thunderheads built up above us, and eventually smothered the sky with heavy gray or dark threatening blue clouds. Our horses trotted along enjoying the cooler weather in the 70's. Amazingly, the lightning never threatened, and the rain held off until just before we reached the out vet check, and it quit before we left back out on trail. With the sun out, some of the trails became almost steamy, in the humid way a forest can be.
But the clouds bulked back up, and just after crossing a lovely alpine aspen meadow the drops began to fall. Rainstorms come quickly in the mountains, and you better have your raincoat on before the drama starts. The downpour began, and the trails got slick fast.
I love the rain. I love the forest. I love riding in the rain in the forest. Only two cracks of thunder made a half-hearted intervention, so it was just a delightful rain storm (note: I am probably the only one who rode Bandit Springs who would use this adjective), dropping on us 6 wet chickens plodding through the dark, dripping forest.
It went beyond mud: the trails became slick-snot muddy. Dudley and Smokey handled the mud fine in their shoes, much better than August in his boots, whose legs were slipping in 4 different directions. I did get off once to lead Dudley down a hill, but my two legs slipped in four directions, and with an extra 2 inches of clay glued to the bottom of my shoes, I had to haul an extra 20 pounds-per-foot plus wet-clothed body back up onto an extra-tall horse (they get taller as the 50-mile day goes on, you know). So I stayed in the saddle after that, and let Dudley do his thing. We often got off the slick trail and walked alongside it through the grass for safety.
We saw no elk on the endurance ride, but we did see a wild horse (one horse, after following stallion piles for 20 miles or so along the "Stud Pile Parkway" section of trail). This bay horse (a lone stallion?) stood on a ridge and watched us go by. Dudley noticed him. Around 100 horses comprise the Big Summit Herd of mustangs in the Ochocos. They were probably originally turned loose (or escaped) by ranchers in the early 1900's when horses went out of style and their prices dropped, although recent genetic testing has linked the Ochoco Mustangs to Iberian and Andalusian stock.
Later we all noticed a huuuuuuuuuge white Charolais bull in a meadow, and we gave that big daddy a very wide berth!
We walked the rest of the way into camp, about 12 miles, because it was too slick to trot. We met a couple of the 75's and 100's going out on their last loop, buoyant despite the muddy trails. Jessica Wynne waited literally all day in a meadow not 5 miles from camp, to take pictures of all the riders.
We cut the finish time close - 20 minutes to spare - but we knew we'd make it. We finished somewhere in the middle of the pack - the others behind us, also walking in, also squeaked in under the wire.
"We are Mudders!" proclaimed our Ridecamp neighbor Ann Aganon and DWA Nadra, who, with Helen Bonner aboard DWA Emigree, finished the 50 just a few minutes behind behind us. Helen was thrilled to complete her first 50-mile ride in 3 years after some health issues.
21 of 29 riders completed the 30-mile ride. All 30 starters completed the 50 miler. The Blakeley family won 1st through 4th place, with Barrak and MCM Last Dance (last year's Haggin Cup winners) getting Best Condition. Starting well after the front runners, and finishing near cut-off time, we never saw the Blakeleys! There was a near 4-hour gap between 5th place and the rest of the field. That's when the rainstorm hit and turned the trails to muck!
4 of 5 riders finished the 75 miler, with Dick Root and OFW Alivia winning first place and Best Condition. 3 of 3 finished the 100 miler, with Hannah Summers and Salome winning in a ride time of 18:34.
Ride completion awards were Bandit Springs 25th Anniversary shot glasses, and a handmade keychain or necklace with a special rock of jasper or quartz collected from Doyle Spring - which we passed and drank from several times - tumbled, and wired. A big Bandit Springs Anniversary cake was devoured on Friday night (none left for Saturday!), and Paul Latiolais cooked a delicious jambalaya to go with the potluck.
While riders went out on Day 2's 25 and 50 mile rides under sunshine and almost clear skies and drying trails, we leisurely enjoyed (lots of) coffee and a Sunday morning breakfast of blueberry pancakes and eggs cooked by Mustangs to the Rescue. We packed and loaded up, sans any buried gold, for the 6 hour drive home... which took 32 hours.
But that's another story!
Bandit Photos and results and another story or two (including tweets of the epic "6 hour drive home which took 32 hours") can be seen here: