Tuesday, October 25, 2011

City of Rocks: New Trails

Tuesday October 25 2011

Goldseekers. Hunters. Trappers. Wanderers. Adventurers. Flee-ers. Seekers. Hundreds of thousands of pioneers emigrated westward along the California Trail in the early and mid-1800's. The northern branch of the California Trail passes through the old lands of the Shoshone and Bannock Indians, through what is now southern Idaho, and the City of Rocks National Reserve.

Between 1843 and 1882, an estimated quarter million emigrants travelled through the City of Rocks on this trail en route to the West. In 1852 alone, some 52,000 people passed through.

City of Rocks was a landmark for the emigrants, one that inspired wonder and romantic awe, and a form of relief in their long journey from the East:

Sallie Hester - August 3, 1849
"Passed some beautiful scenery, high cliffs of rocks resembling old ruins or dilapidated buildings."

Dr. John Hudson Wayman - July 12, 1852: "This City is walled in on every side with towering granite mountains, some peaks shooting athwart the sky like towering domes. While hundreds of piles, peaks, steeples and domes, of all shapes possible in the distance looking like an old dilapidated City"

The Twin Sisters - 2 side-by-side granite spires, one of which is 2.5 billion years old, the other 25 million years old - have been significant throughout recorded human history. The peaks may have had important spiritual significance for the Native Americans. They were a significant landmark for the pioneers travelling the California Trail. Not named "Twin Sisters" by white people until 1848, there were 88 descriptions in 86 pioneer journals comment on them, including Steeple Rocks, Twin Mounds, Twin Buttes, Twin Pyramids at Gate, Two Dome Mountain, and Castle Rocks.

The old California Trail snakes through the Circle Creek valley, surrounded by the unique granite formations that give City of Rocks its name. Emigrant Canyon, through which runs the old Salt Lake Alternate Emigrant Trail and the old Boise-Kelton Stage Route, spills into City of Rocks with a view of the Twin Sisters where it meets the California Trail. Heath Canyon climbs up and over a gentle pass that also drops down to the California Trail and a view of the Twin Sisters (see my stories of our rides over these other trails here).

Perhaps the pioneers also used this new route we rode on Saturday. Maybe they travelled up the valley of Junction Creek, and turned off and camped at Sparks Spring and watered their animals like we did.

Perhaps they picnicked and rested at this giant granite pinnacle like we did.

Maybe they crested this unnamed pass and were amazed at the Twin Sisters that rose into view and guided them like a beacon as they descended to the Salt Lake Alternate trail, as they did for us.

Maybe our awe matched their own.

[slide show here]

Monday, October 24, 2011

City of Rocks: Gold in Them Thar Hills

Monday October 24 2011

There's just something special about riding through Gold.

Gold means the air is crisp and cool. Gold means the light is soft and angled, which only accentuates Nature's artwork.

Golden aspen leaves on the trees quake and shimmer a welcoming path through the forest.

Fallen golden leaves carpet the paths underfoot,

and sprinkle the creeks with golden glitter.

We had more trails to scout in the City of Rocks National Reserve, where Steph is putting on a 4-day endurance ride next year. Conveniently, it was the peak of the turning of the aspens.

15 miles on Friday led us along paths of gold, through City of Rocks, climbing above the Circle Creek valley

and into the lower reaches of the Albion Mountains. Snow patches from the early winter snowstorm that moved through the Northwest on October 5-6 still basked on sun-sheltered crags to the north, and it had only recently melted in the fir forest we climbed to.

Woman and beast alike savored the scenic ride through the Gold of Autumn.

[slide show here]

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Owl Grotto

Wednesday October 19 2011

The Owl Grotto

I hike back to the Wind Caves today to finish marking the Birch Creek trail for the Owyhee Hallowed Weenies endurance ride over Halloween.The big advantage of doing it on foot and not horseback is, I can explore the nooks and crannies of Wind Cave Canyon.

Jose would have loved it, but he wouldn't have fit. I climb over and under and in and around the twisting labyrinthine canyon, squeezing between boulders, ducking under overhangs, skirting caves, scrambling up the smooth sandstone (? In one of my next lives I'm going to come back as a geologist), sliding down walls into deeper chambers - and hoping I can get out the other side, because I can't crawl up and over the walls.

It must be spectacular in here in a heavy rainfall. I can imagine it, watching sheltered in one of the little caves above, as the water, racing the miles downhill from the Owyhee mountains, gathering speed and power and purpose, finds this wash and slams into this canyon, raging and squeezing through the narrowing rock walls in a violent clash, funneling roaring waterfalls, sluicing up sand and heaving it downstream, shoving boulders, swirling up the canyon walls, gouging out more hollows, caving in more of the walls, all of it whirling into the downward-racing maelstrom.

There are myriad caves in the canyon walls of this Wind Cave Canyon, from mouse-size (you can see their tracks and poo), to rat-size (you can see their artistic nests),

to owl-size (I find one probable Great Horned nest),

to hobbit-size,

to human party-size.

It's not nesting season, but naturally I want to get a better look into the raptor nest tucked into this fine hidden grotto barred by big fallen monster boulders. If I scramble out one canyon entrance, I can crawl under another one and get in on the backside of the boulders, crawl up onto them and stand on my tiptoes and look in.

This area is accessible by ATV, and there are numerous campfire rings in the canyon (fortunately, not too much trash!) - one in an overhang at the mouth of this canyon entrance - it's rather surprising a raptor uses that nest.

I stand on my tiptoes and I stare at the nest at eye-level from 30 feet away. I turn back around and look down at the boulder I am standing on, and find part of a pellet, and a little rodent skull - raptor food.

And suddenly, I feel it - I lift up my eyes and am looking straight into the golden eyes of a Great Horned Owl, staring at me camouflaged from a dark notch back in the canyon wall. Unperturbed by my presence, she sits motionless and relaxed, blinking unconcernedly at her unexpected visitor.

In fact, when I look on the entire sand floor of the grotto below my feet, it is littered with months - years - decades - of tiny bird and rodent bones, and a few feathers, including this Great Horned Owl feather.

And that's the thing about the hidden Owl Grotto in the hidden Wind Caves in the vast Owyhee desert.

Few people know the Wind Caves are hidden in there, fewer people know the Owl Grotto is hidden inside the Wind Caves, and even fewer people who make it into the Owl Grotto know they're being watched. Fine by me and the owls.

I nod my respectful thanks for the unexpected encounter, and say goodbye, and slip out, leaving her to her secret Owl Grotto.

[slide show here]

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

This Ain't No Highway

Tuesday October 18 2011

It used to be, a nice smooth packed sand highway-wash (the Birch Creek drainage) that the horses could cruise several miles up, past the Wind Caves, and on up into the Birch Creek Canyon narrows.

There was actually running water in this drainage this spring, something nobody around here has ever seen. Mother Nature was very busy doing a lot of rearranging and restructuring. Crevasses here. Piles of deep sand there. Miniature canyons here. A solid foundation of rock there. Last week we got dumped on with heavy rain which probably helped sculpt more desert drainage artwork. The smooth Birch Creek wash highway is gone. It will be many, many years, decades... centuries?... before it's back to the way it used to be, if it ever is.

Just think of the power of water that removed up to 3 feet deep of sand, sometimes 10 feet wide, in places. A lot of it washed down here, right to the area we used to have our vet check and the start of the LD ride for one of the days of the Hallowed Weenies 2-day endurance ride over Halloween. We had trouble with rigs getting stuck in here when it was a firm highway of sand. Nobody's going to be parking on here this year.

I hiked and flagged the Birch Creek wash/canyon/trail on foot today. It was a perfectly beautiful cool fall day for a 13 mile hike in the Owyhee desert! It will be a little more technical this year. There's some deep sand, rocks, miniature canyons, and some whoop de do's (apparently motorcycles and ATVs love this kind of challenge), but there's plenty of good footing too.

There's also plenty of water once you get close to the canyon narrows. The trail goes right in the creek at times. Plenty of water means plenty of plant growth. It's a jungle some places in there, but there's always a trail, and only one way to go - up the canyon.

The trail passes the Wind Caves,

squeezes into and through the red Birch Creek Canyon for a few miles.

There are oases of trees hiding raptors birds, and birds that hide from them. There might even be a rattlesnake, like this one who scared the bejeesus out of me when I scared the bejeesus out of him. We agreed to go different ways. (You sure pay a lot more attention after you see your first rattlesnake of the day!)

I'm not finished hiking yet - back tomorrow to mark a couple more miles of the trail coming down from the Wind Caves... and I probably can't resist a little exploring off-trail in this very cool place.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Freak and The Fearless: The Legend of Witezarif and Donna Fitzgerald

Saturday October 15 2011

"On the trail he flowed so smoothly it would make your heart beat faster to watch him... His joy was in movement, pure unbridled joy at going down a trail." - Julie Suhr

He didn't look like much, just a laid back, plain, skinny and rather slight 14.2-hand bay gelding with a big scar on his shoulder. He didn't act like much, especially in the vet checks of endurance rides. "After he had a bucket of water poured on him, he could look like a drowned rat!" recalls endurance competitor and arch-rival Hal Hall.

"In vet checks, he'd stand with his hip cocked, his head down 5 inches off the ground," says Ann Hall, Hal's wife. "You'd think, 'This is the day Donna and Witezarif will get beat!' But as soon as she got on him, his head would go up, his tail would go up, and they roared out of the vet check."

Witezarif most certainly - at least on looks alone - didn't leave an impression that he would become one of the greatest endurance horses ever to look through a bridle. He and his partner Donna Fitzgerald dominated the 100-mile Tevis Cup and the Virginia City 100, and other rides in the 1970's. The pair won Tevis six times, four of them in a row - a record that is unlikely to ever be equaled - and finished second once by one minute. Witezarif won the Virginia City 100 six times, five of those with Donna, and finished it 11 times.

"He must've had a tremendous sized heart, and she was a dynamite horsewoman. She was very balanced; she knew what buttons to push on Witezarif, she got every ounce of energy out of him." - Hal Hall

With all the unparalleled achievements, and the unbridled accolades from defeated rivals, one might expect that Witezarif and Donna suffered from a superiority complex. They didn't.

Donna, rather shy and reticent, is quite matter-of-fact and unpretentious about her success with her extraordinary partner Witezarif ("Witez" she called him). "She was quiet and unassuming, but a MONSTER on a horse," Hal Hall says. "She was not demonstrative, very polite. If you saw her walking down the street, you wouldn't think she was competitive." To this day, Donna doesn't sing her horse's (or her own) praises, and she downplays their impressive accomplishments. Other than wearing a Tevis buckle at a very rare appearance at the Tevis or Virginia City ride, you still wouldn't get a hint that she was a one-half of a Legend.

Witezarif himself was rather aloof. His personality was, Donna says quite simply, 'Let me do my job.' "He wasn't a particularly friendly horse," Donna says. "He did kick me a few times."

Once was when she tried to show him for Best Condition after finishing a ride. "He didn't show well for the vets - he couldn't lead, he'd drag back behind me," Donna remembers. "At the time I didn't know how to teach him to trot beside me, so that's what we went with. Once I tried slapping him in the stomach to trot out beside me, and he kicked me!"

Another time during Tevis, riding along a cliff above a canyon, Donna and Witez were riding by themselves in front, and he spooked. "His hind end went over the edge! I bailed off him - I rode him in a halter in those days - and I pulled him by his halter back onto the trail. Then he bolted past me and kicked me, and ran on down the trail.

"I wasn't hurt," Donna continues, "and was afraid he'd go run off a cliff, or I'd never see him again... but there he was at the bottom of the next hill, waiting for me, and he nickered at me when I came up to him. I got back on him, and off we rode."

They won Tevis that year.

He kicked Pat Fitzgerald, Donna's husband, for good measure once, too. He was moving horses around a corral in the mud one day. "His legs got stuck in the heavy mud, and Witez ran past him and kicked him just to do it. It broke Pat's knee."

Foaled in 1963, Witezarif came from Hyannis Cattle Company in Nebraska. HCC horses were mainly Crabbet/Kellogg Egyptians Arabians crossed with Polish breeding. They were known for being rugged, and for possessing good legs and good bone, strength, and stamina. "Endurance riders got the culls from the cowboys," Hal Hall says. HCC was a 'mom and pop operation' back then, and if you could get one of their top picks, "they were the cream of the crop." Hal would know - one of the HCC horses he obtained, El Karbaj (a younger 3/4 brother to Witezarif), won the Tevis Cup twice - defeating Donna and Witez in 1974 by 1 minute - and the Haggin Cup (Tevis Best Condition) twice.

Around 1967, Pat Fitzgerald had gone to get a horse from HCC's neighbor, Rushcreek Ranch - also known for their rugged, well-bred Arabian endurance horses. Ted Jerry with HCC, a friend of the Rushcreek Ranch, told Pat he had a horse for him to look at. Pat could take him home and use him, or sell him. Pat took him home and tried him and kept him - it was Witezarif.

By Witezar, a son of Witez II, and out of Razifa (by Zarife), Witezarif has the classical Desert Bred, Egyptian, Polish, and CMK (Crabbet-Maynesboro-Kellogg) lines in his pedigree. In addition to dual Tevis Cup winner El Karbaj, Witezarif's dam Razifa also produced AERC National Champion Law Thunder.

Donna recalls Witezarif was 4 1/2 or 5 years old when Pat bought him. The AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) didn't start keeping computerized mileage records until the 1980's, but Donna remembers that Witezarif did his first endurance ride in 1968, at 5. He also rode in and completed his first 100-mile rides that year, including his first Virginia City 100, with Louie Henderson riding.

"When he was young," Donna recalls, "he was spooky, but after he did a few rides, he was quiet, and his energy level would come down. He almost fell asleep on the trail!"

Maybe that was Witzarif's strategy for his winning ways. Or, perhaps it was the work he did when he wasn't on an endurance ride. Witezarif wasn't treated like a big star - he worked, along with his stablemates, including Pat's Tevis horses, in a trail riding stable that Pat and Donna ran in the mountains in South Lake Tahoe. Only Donna rode Witez, though. All the horses worked every day in the string and were typical of plodding horses you find at some dude ranches. "They were like all the other horses in the dude string after a while - people couldn't make them do anything!"

The trail riding was all walking, up and down the steep hills around South Lake Tahoe - a practice many modern day top trainers employ for their endurance horses now. In the afternoons, Donna would take Witez out for more training, and they'd trot. "I'd go up every hill I saw, and we had some big and steep hills." One of her favorite training rides was a loop up to the top of Hidden Valley and back, about 20 miles.

There was no special feeding program, there were no special supplements, electrolytes, or balanced feed rations for Witezarif or the other horses. "In the winter we fed the string alfalfa and half grass, no grain. In the summer they got straight alfalfa, good hay, and grain - and that's because they worked. if they didn't work, they didn't get the good stuff."

"He was an unpreposessing individual in a corral full of Arabian geldings until I followed him on the trail and 'ate his dust' for a goodly number of miles! Watching his hocks work like effortless pistons, one learned to appreciate this gelding & his rider who paced him so well on long rides. Following Donna on the trail was just that, following, not catching up!" - R.B. Barsaleau

All that work - walking all day every day, then training on those steep hills was surely one of the reasons for Donna's and Witezarif's momentous success at Tevis. Tevis is known as one of the toughest 100-mile rides in the world. It is the ultimate challenge for a horse and rider team: riding in the dark, and daylight, and likely dark again, intense heat, hazardous trails, 19,000 feet of climbing and 22,000 feet of descending. And you’re crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains: temperatures can range from below 40* F in the morning to 120* F in those steep canyons in the afternoon. Much of the trail passes through inaccessible and rugged wilderness, reached nowadays only by foot or horseback or helicopter; so for much of the ride, if anything unexpected happens, you are on your own. Many miles of the Tevis trail are along cliffs with a thousand-foot drop below you. You and your horse need to be fit, and you'd better know each other. Even so, your chance of completing the ride is just over 50%.

The starting line is near Truckee, California and ends in Auburn, California. You have 24 hours to complete the ride; winning time varies when parts of the trail have to be re-routed, but averages around 12 to 14 hours. A statistic once concluded that half of the finishers cross the finish line with less than an hour to spare.

It's a difficult ride for the typical Tevis horse and rider, but Donna and Witezarif made it look so easy. "They were virtually untouchable over the years at Tevis," says Hal Hall. "They were Fearless. No Fear. That's how I'd describe both of them. To keep up with them was a bit of a chore, to put it mildly - but I finally figured it out.

"The Tevis trail's very technical, lots of descents and climbs." Hal laughs as he recounts his vision of Donna and Witezarif. "She and the horse - I distinctly remember - would pass me at a gallop, on single track switchbacks - and these are old mining mule trails - down into the canyons, where one misstep - one step off, and off the mule train would go. Donna'd gallop past me, without hesitation. I could hear them coming - and i finally learned to get out of the way, ride my own race and not try to keep up with them."

In the 1972 Tevis Cup, Hal had the lead at 90 miles. "At the American River crossing (the same one used today), I looked back and saw a cloud of dust. I was hoping it was just the evening angle of the light and haze... but no, it wasn't haze. It was Donna and Witezarif, galloping all out. She beat me that year by 1 minute.

"I learned to take advantage on the uphills. Witezarif was a rather long, lean, narrow-faced horse - did not look like much of a mountain horse. He and Donna took every advantage of the downhills - and I'd catch her near the top of the canyons and hang on to the end. Witezarif wasn't an uphill horse, he was a downhill horse."

Ann Hall agrees. "Witezarif would canter down hills. Donna had to have nerves of steel to do that! She must have had tremendous faith in the ability of that horse. And I think she was a good rider."

"Donna started with a good horse and made him a legend through time, work, and patience. She rides a smart ride and conquers pain and exhaustion for some of her wins." - Marion Robie

Donna herself sums up their Tevis success quite laconically as, "Sometimes I'd gallop down the canyons in Tevis." Witezarif was also great at going over Cougar Rock (which riders can now choose to go around). She didn't realize how good he was until she rode other horses over Cougar Rock. "Some of them scared me and I was afraid they'd fall off it. Witez - He'd go over it like it was nothing." Other horses and his placement in the ride made no difference to Witezarif. "He could be behind other horses, he didn't care about other horses, sometimes he followed for miles then passed. It didn't matter."

When it came to the Virginia City 100 around Virginia City, Nevada, Hal Hall concedes total defeat. "Witezarif and Donna dominated Virginia City. I could never out-do her on that ride - it was her home turf."

Virginia City is another arduous 100-mile ride, thousands of feet of climbing and descents in the surrounding desert and mountains, with extremely technical and rocky footing in much of the ride. The winning time is usually around 11 to 13 hours. (Witezarif still co-holds the second fastest finish time of 10:59, in 1969.)

Witezarif won the Virginia City 100 six times, five of them with Donna riding. He completed the ride 11 times, the first time in 1968 at age 5 with Louie Henderson riding. Australian Sue Scantlebury rode him to a tie for the win in 1969 (he also received the Best Condition award); Donna finished on him in 1970, 1971, and 1973. Then the winning streak began. The pair won the ride the next four years in a row. They finished again in 1978, and Witezarif earned his 1000-mile Virginia City blanket, one of only four horses to ever do so. Witezarif returned to Virginia City one more time, in 1980, at age 17, finishing the ride once again with Debbi Early riding.

The only 'blight' on his record - if one has the cheek to call it that - is that for all his wins, Witezarif didn't win many Best Condition awards. But there's a likely explanation for that. Back then, BC judging didn't take into account the modern-day factors such as weight carried, CRI (cardiac recovery index), and finish times; it just depended on the judges' opinions of how alert and animated the horse was when he trotted out. Had the modern scoring system been used, Witezarif might have racked up a few more of those awards. While Witezarif was known for acting half asleep during his trot outs in vet checks and Best Condition judging, his recoveries and pulse were known to be "phenomenal in any kind of weather and over all types of terrain."

"He was a freak. He accomplished what he did out of finesse; and she had no fear." - Hal Hall

Witezarif retired from endurance riding around 1983, age 20. Donna rode six 50's on him that year. "I'd decided he'd done enough; it was time to retire." His career mileage record on AERC is listed as 5044 miles. Asked if he missed the endurance trails, Donna said she didn't know. "He had other horses to hang out with."

AHA records indicate Witezarif died on May 31, 1998, although Donna remembers that he lived to be 37. "He hurt himself when he was about 35 - he was turned out with other horses, and one night I kept hearing clanging outside, but I didn't get up. Finally I did - went out at 3 AM in the ice, and dark; the ground was frozen, and Witez had fallen with his feet under the cattle manger, and he couldn't figure out how to get himself out. I pulled on his tail, and because it was icy, I was able to slide him out from underneath the manger. But he'd been down so long it hurt his hip, and from then on, he had problems with it. He did figure out how to roll and get back up; he'd sit like a dog, push up with his good leg."

Just as she almost understates her fabulous success with her phenomenal partner, Donna doesn't make a big deal now of Witezarif's passing, nor of her and Pat leaving their riding stables in 1978, nor of their retirement from endurance riding; she's just pragmatic. "Other things came up."

Witezarif was the AERC's first equine Hall of Fame honoree, in 1975. Donna Fitzgerald won the Hall of Fame award in 1978. Did Witezarif know he was special? "I dont know about that," Donna says, "but he did seem to like the attention."

I asked Hal Hall if he thought we'd ever see his like again. "I don't think it will happen again. He was truly remarkable.

"Today, people ask What If... Would Donna and Witezarif hold their own against (former multiple World Champion endurance rider) Valerie Kanavy, in international competition? And I think that they would. I saw Donna on less mountainous country, on 50 mile rides, and she shined."

Their hoofprints have faded away, but their memory and records and Legend shines on: the Fearless rider and her Freak of a horse, one of the greatest teams to ever ride down the endurance trails.

If I were to pick one horse that defined our sport at the highest level it would be Witezarif. He outshone anything else our sport has seen so far. - Julie Suhr


Top Photo - Donna and Witezarif on Cougar Rock in Tevis - Charles Barieau photo
(Thank you Kate for this one!)
Second Photo - Witezarif, probably at a vet check or vetting in
Third Photo - L to R: Donna, Marion Robie, Bob Suhr, listening closely for ride instructions during the pre-ride briefing at the 1968 Challenge Ride - Jim Whitcomb photo)
Fourth Photo - Sue Scantlebury on Witezarif

(Thank you Julie for these 3!)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

2011 Tevis Cup: Just Marvelous

Wednesday October 12 2011

"When he was at home, he'd undo the latches on the gates and let the other horses out. My girlfriend called him 'Marvel,'" Scott Sansom said of his 7-year-old Arabian gelding Riverwatch, that he'd sold part ownership to Heather and Jeremy Reynolds and Skip Lightfoot. "I said, 'Good! Then if he did something good, we could call him "Marvelous.''"

If winning the 2011 Tevis Cup with Jeremy Reynolds aboard, and then clinching the Haggin Cup (Best Condition award) qualifies as good enough - then "Marvelous" he is.

Scott got Riverwatch from his previous owners because of his - to put it lightly - feistiness. "That horse could buck!" Scott said.

By Baywatch V (a grandson of Desperado V, by Huckleberry Bey) out of Dana Cheyenne (a great granddaughter of Huckleberry Bey), the 15.2-hand bay gelding started his endurance career at age 6 with Scott, completing 5 of 6 50-mile rides.

This year, Riverwatch and Scott finished the 50-mile Shine and Shine Only in April in 2nd place, followed by a pull for lameness in May at the 75-mile Shine and Shine Only Ride. Around this time Reynolds Racing - Heather and Jeremy, and Skip Lightfoot - got involved. "I liked his build, and his attitude," Jeremy said. Scott sold part ownership to the Reynolds and Skip, and the Reynolds took over his training.

Marvel's next ride was a first place finish and Best Condition award in the 75-mile Mendocino Magic ride with Heather aboard. And the rest is - Marvelous.

Jeremy and Marvel crossed the finish line of the 2011 Tevis Cup - Marvel's first 100-mile ride - in Auburn in 10 hours, 31 minutes, "with a lot of horse left," Jeremy said. 27 minutes later, Rachel Shackelford and BR Cody de Soi finished second, after riding at or near the front the entire ride. It was their second completion together on the Tevis trail, after finishing 50th in 2009. It was a marvelous and emotional ride for Rachel, as it was her 17-year-old gelding's final ride. Cody will be retired after this Tevis.

One could, in fact, call a lot of things having to do with the 2011 Tevis Cup 'Marvelous,' not the least of which was pulling the ride off in the first place. "It took us 16 months to prepare for this year's Tevis," said ride director Chuck Stalley, "and 24 hours to change it."

The original date for the 2011 Tevis was July 16, but lingering record winter snow in the Sierra Nevadas prompted a postponement of the date. October 8th was eventually settled on, and a massive amount of work and volunteer hours went into maintaining and improving the trail, including widening the paths along some of the infamous cliffs that the horses and riders traverse.

Come 60 hours before the start of the October 8 Tevis, however, an early and rather heavy winter snowstorm was still battering participants who had already arrived in the area. It became apparent that the Tevis could not go on as scheduled out of Robie Park. Some rigs were already stuck up at Robie, and at least 22" of snow had fallen in the high country over which the trail goes.

Frantic conference calls amongst ride management were taking place. Their choices were: cancel the ride, have a controlled start for many miles out of Robie, make it a 50 mile ride, make it a 75 mile ride, or move the start to Auburn. The easy option was to cancel, but despite the most incredible work that would be required, the last was the most feasible choice. It is true that the ride would have taken a huge hit financially if it had been cancelled, but the real reason the ride went on was because nearly 200 riders had shown up and were scattered waiting up and down the I-80 corridor from Winnemucca, Nevada to Sacramento, California, hoping to ride the Tevis, after months (or years) planning for it.

Thursday night at 6:15 PM, with 36 hours left till start time, ride management decided to move the start of the ride to Auburn. So began the massive reorganization and re-coordination of 700 volunteers, trail marking, water stops, sweep riders, communications people, and myriad other details required to get some 60 new (or in a new direction) miles of trail marked and made safe for nearly 200 horses and riders.

Any decision sat well with 30-time Tevis finisher and legend Barbara White, who was in Auburn just to have fun one way or the other. "It's such beautiful weather - if they did cancel, I was just going to stay and ride around here anyway." Barbara will admit that she is obsessed with the Tevis Cup ride, but she was just taking events as they came. As another rider put it, "If you call yourself an endurance rider and you can't go with the flow by now, you shouldn't be here."

The "Non-Tevis Tevis," the "Mini Maxi Tevis," "The Tevis That Almost Was," the "Big Little Tevis": you could hear some dissing going on over the weekend about this year's 'easy' Tevis trail. Some went so far as to say this ride's finishers didn't deserve the real Tevis buckle - "maybe a smaller buckle." Wendell Robie, founder of the Tevis Cup, first held in 1955, would be turning in his grave in shame to hear that statement.

But despite the change of location, and a possible 'easy' Tevis trail, 177 riders (198 had pre-entered) showed up to ride, really ride. It was still the Tevis Cup, with the same family atmosphere, the same anticipation, the same nerves, the same excitement; and the participants vetting in at the Auburn Fairgrounds on Friday were pretty excited to be there.

"It was Dayna's turn to ride this year," said Bruce Weary of his wife and her 9-year-old Arabian gelding, Maximum Heat. "This horse is durable, strong, has a great mind. "Dayna's dream is to finish in the Top 10 and show for BC before she dies." Michelle Rousch had been helping Dayna train and condition for this, and she was there to help crew during the ride. In his 3-season, 34-start record, "Max' has only one pull, and that was the Tevis last year. Dayna Rider Option-pulled him, while Bruce went on that year to earn his first buckle in 6 tries on John Henry. Max has 23 Top Ten finishes and 8 Best Condition awards to his credit - so finishing Top Ten in Tevis and showing for Best Condition was not a far fetched dream.

12-year-old Barrak Blakely was excited to be riding in his first Tevis with his mom Gabriela. He was one of seven Juniors riding.

The trail change didn't diminish the excitement for any of the juniors, nor any of the 11 foreign riders from the UAE, Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, Canada, the UK, and Japan, who came to try their luck. Seiichi Hasumi from Japan would be attempting his 8th Tevis completion in a row.

There were some 'foreign' horses, too - i.e. breeds other than the ubiquitous Arabian - a mule, a Friesian cross, a Paso Fino, a Missouri Foxtrotter, a Rocky Mountain horse, a Kentucky Mountain horse, a couple of National Show horses, Bashkir Curlies, and mustangs.

A Norwegian Fjord showed up, gunning to purportedly be the first one to finish the Tevis. Brandy Ferganchick and "Dodger", from Colorado, mainly compete in North American Trail Ride Conference rides (long distance competitive trail rides), and this was their first 100-mile endurance ride. "He's good and competitive in NATRC," Brandy said, so they were here to attempt their first 100-mile ride at the Tevis.

The Paso Fino came with another rider thrilled not to just be there, but to be riding Tomarius Juan Luis again, and to be able to walk without crutches. A relative newcomer to endurance, after starting on the trails in 2006, Melissa Margetts shattered her leg in an accident in the autumn of 2009. She was told she might not ever walk again, but by God she could climb in the saddle (with help), and a year later, she completed the Tevis in 2010 wearing a full-length leg brace and carrying a collapsible cane that she carried on the saddle with her.

This year, Melissa still wore a leg brace but was walking without a crutch. "$130,000 in 3 surgeries, no health insurance, but I got the leg, and I'm riding!" she said cheerfully, because how else can you look at it? 18-year-old 'Cabo,' the first Paso Fino to finish Tevis, was going for his 4th straight buckle with Melissa. But she wasn't expecting an "easy" Tevis. Melissa said Cabo didn't have the downhills in the canyons to recover on - from Auburn to the first hour hold at Foresthill was just one long 38-mile haul uphill. She was a bit wary of that.

It was a marvelous coincidence that Texan David Kaden was riding the Tevis for the first time. David's been riding endurance for 12 years, and has been involved in international competition - riding and leasing horses - but he'd never tried the Tevis. He happened to be in Auburn on Thursday meeting with his Specialized Saddle sales reps Bill and Lynn McKean in Auburn - David owns the company - when they offered him a horse to ride on the spur of the moment. David tried him out on Friday and decided to ride him.


The usual start of Tevis at Robie Park is usually a somewhat exciting event. Horses are grouped into two 'pens' - the first pen being generally the riders that plan to go faster, and the second pen generally the slower riders. Once the trail is open and the pens of horses start moving, they all funnel from a wide forest service road to a 2-lane dirt road, to a 1-lane single track trail, 150-200 fresh horses raring to get moving down the trail at dawn.

The start at Auburn was a bit different. There were no pens; only a big field to circulate around before the start was called. The faster riders hung right around the starting line and others positioned themselves where they could. There was, however, a controlled walking start. It was over pavement in the near-dark, and Roger Yohe and Red Sans Legend led the way at a walk for 3/4 of a mile before he pulled off to let the field go by.

It was a bit difficult for some wound up fresh horses to keep at a walk for that distance. "I was one of those riders I hate!" said Charisse Glenn, a 3-time Tevis finisher, riding Bogart VF in his seventh hundred-mile ride and his first Tevis. "He was crazy, going nuts at the controlled start, skittering sideways across the trail!"

Horses had a trot-by check at the Lower Quarry at 10 miles, a Gate and Go ("Gate" is when pulse criteria is reached, then you can present your horse. Criteria must be met within 30 minutes of arrival. pulse criteria here was 60) at Francisco's at 20 miles, and the first hour hold at Foresthill at 38 miles. One horse was pulled at the Lower Quarry, and 6 pulled at Francisco's.

The stretch of trail from Auburn to Foresthill - normally ridden the other direction, and ridden by most people in the dark - was a revelation to most riders. You see a lot more of the cliffs and steep drop-offs in the daytime! Some riders were... horrified... might be the proper word, even with all the work that went into widening the trail from 18" wide to 3 feet wide in place. Others were bowled over. "It was beautiful going the other way," said Kevin Myers, riding Auli Farwa (Far) on their second Tevis together. "Stunning."

It was predicted that the front-runners would be at Francisco's in 4 hours, but Dennis Summers and OMR Tsunami (Lola) arrived sooner than that - at 10:12 AM. He was three minutes ahead of Jeremy Reynolds and Riverwatch, who was 5 minutes ahead of Rachel Shackelford and Cody de Soi. Those three would remain in the top ten all day, followed closely by the others who would finish in the top ten. Ten horses were eliminated at Foresthill.

From Foresthill, the trail lead to Chickenhawk at 42 miles (no stop this first time through), then over the newly marked trail - an out-and-back road with a little loop at the end, with over a thousand feet of climb and descent. At Mosquito Ridge Road at 50 miles, Dennis and Lola held a 4-minute lead over Jeremy and Riverwatch, and Rachel and Cody; back at the Chickenhawk Gate and Go vet check (pulse criteria of 64) at 57 miles, it was still a very close race.

Jeremy arrived with Dennis, both of them a minute ahead of Rachel. With Riverwatch recovering the fastest, he and Jeremy left a minute before Rachel and Cody, and 3 minutes before Dennis and Lola. The veterinarians were kept on their toes, as the next big group of riders was in a closely packed competitive bunch. 17 riders arrived in the next 18 minutes.

Dayna Weary and Max arrived at Chickenhawk in 8th place and departed in 5th place. Garett and Lisa Ford departed Chickenhawk in 11th and 12th place. Garrett and Lisa finished 8th and 9th in last year's Tevis, with The Fury winning the Haggin Cup. They were riding the same horses again.

14 horses were eliminated at Chicken Hawk, including Charisee Glenn's Bogart VF. "I didn't like how he recovered at the last vet check, and he just wasn't right here, so I took a Rider Option."

It was 4 miles back to Foresthill, at 61 miles, for the second hour hold. Jeremy and Dennis arrived together at 1:55 PM, a minute ahead of Rachel. It was Jeremy's horse Riverwatch who recovered first; they would leave Foresthill for the final 38 miles with a 1-minute lead over Rachel and Cody, and a 4-minute lead over Dennis and Lola.

Shannon Constanti and Tally arrived in the next bunched group, and they might have arrived even sooner if Shannon hadn't stopped to help a distressed rider. "A man was riding in front of me who was sort of leaning over his horse. I asked him if he was alright, and he said 'I think I'm gonna....' and he fell off his horse!" She jumped off to help, grabbing her hot horse and his stallion, while another rider stopped to help the rider. She didn't know who he was, but he said he wasn't feeling well. He was apparently able to remount and continue on to Foresthill.

Four horses pulled at the second Foresthill vet check, including Melissa Margetts' Paso Fino Cabo. "He didn't have those downhills after the steep climbs in the canyons to recover on - from Auburn to Foresthill this morning was just one long uphill. He got into Foresthill and just quit, like he was saying, ''I got you here and I'm not going any further.' I didn't feel it coming at all." Melissa said later that she'd probably retire Cabo. "He's 18. He's done a lot for me. He was my Once in a Lifetime horse - I can't post because of my leg and he's so smooth, I'll never have another like him."

The last to arrive, and the last to leave Foresthill, some 5 hours behind the leaders, was Brandy Ferganchick and the Norwegian Fjord Fawn Creek Thor. They were in no hurry; they were 1 1/2 hours before the cut-off time. 'Dodger' was doing well and Brandy was in no rush to hurry him along.

At Franciso's the second time through, a Gate and Go (pulse of 64) at 80 miles, Jeremy and Rachel arrived together, now 25 minutes ahead of Dennis and Lola, who had backed off the smoking pace. Carol Giles, helping to crew for both the Summers, (Sue Summers and 17-year-old AM Humvee - 'Hummer', one of the Bashkir Curlies - were crusing steadily along in 38th place on his first Tevis), said when Lola started feeling the downhills, he backed off. "He loves that mare!"

6 horses were pulled here, including South African Charles Currie, riding SMR Filouette, owned by Potato Richardson. Potato finished Tevis on the mare in 2009 and 2010 - for his 20th and 21st buckle - but it was not to be this year for Charles.

Next was the ten miles to the Lower Quarry, at 90 miles, for the last Gate and Go (pulse of 64) before the final push to the finish line in Auburn. It's tough to make it this far and get pulled here. It happened to 8 horses, including Michel Bloch riding the oldest horse in the ride, AJ Rip Snorter. Michel and 24-year-old 'Monsieur Joseph' had finished 2nd in Tevis in 2003, were pulled in 2003 and 2004, and finished 4th in 2006 (he was pulled again in 2009 with Ann Bloch).

Jeremy and Riverwatch were first in and out of the Lower Quarry, leaving with Rachel and Cody in hot pursuit just a minute behind. Dennis and Lola left 24 minutes later, followed 22 minutes later by a close group of Dayna Weary and Max, Leigh Bacco and EZ Silver Dollar, and Clydea Hastie and Frozen Assets (Pepe). Garrett and Lisa Ford left in 9th and 10th place.

Some 5 hours behind the leaders, David Kaden and Samskrit lingered almost 30 minutes at the Lower Quarry - it wasn't yet midnight - and David was prolonging his Tevis adventure. "I was having a great time!" he said later, although early in the ride the pair had a little misadventure.

"My horse wouldn't drink on the trail in the morning, so at one water trough, I stopped and got off him, and tried to make him drink. Other horses were coming and going on, and he just refused to drink, and he was getting mad, so I gave up and started to get on him. But I forgot what he could be like (he could bolt), and I didn't have the reins gathered, and he bolted with me half on his back. In 3 strides I fell off and the horse galloped off down the trail!"

David ran after Samskrit on foot for a mile and a half, when he came upon Garrett Ford holding his horse. Lisa Ford had blocked the trail with her horse and Garrett caught Samskrit as he galloped up. "He'd passed 5 horses before we got him!" Garret said to David, "You run fast for an old guy!"

"Garrett is The Man!" David said later - otherwise David might've had a looooon walk somewhere and not having the wonderful time he was having riding. Crossing No Hands Bridge around midnight, the bright near-full moon was like a spotlight reflecting off the American River. "I loved it - it was so incredible. I didn't want it to end!"

The finish line in Auburn was set up a bit differently this year. The finish and final vet check used to be out on trail a half mile from the stadium. A small crowd of crew members gathered there waiting, and only after passing the vet check, the riders proceeded to the stadium where, rather anti-climactically, they re-mounted and took a final victory lap in the stadium, where a handful of fans and crew people waited. There were 3 people in the stands cheering me on when I finished in 2009.

This year, there was an 'order-of-finish' finish line out on trail, where no crews were allowed (and where any sprints for the finish might take place over a safe stretch), but the official time and mileage did not stop till the riders continued to the Auburn stadium and passed under the finish line there. The final crewing and vetting would take place there - a much more viewable spot for everybody.

Jeremy Reynolds and Riverwatch won the 2011 Tevis Cup decisively, 27 minutes ahead of Rachel and Cody. Dennis and Lola came in third, 25 minutes later. A group of 4 arrived together next - Dayna Weary and Max, Garrett Ford and The Fury, Lisa Ford and Cyclone, and Clydea Hastie and Pepe, followed shortly by Shellie Hatfield on Splashes Maskrade (Elmo), and Bob Spoor on Logistic.

It's heart wrenching to get pulled at the finish line. It happened to Lisa and Bob. Three more horses were pulled at the finish later in the night, either for metabolics or lameness. All of that work by the horse to get 100 miles to the finish line - and not finish. It's tough, but it's part of endurance riding, the thrills and the dashed dreams.

There were great cheers for every single finisher that night, from first place Jeremy and Riverwatch, to the last place and 123rd place finishers, Brandy Ferganchick and the Norwegian Fjord Dodger.

It was a marvelous ride, in many different ways, for everybody who finished, and for many who didn't even ride. Julie Suhr was there at 12:27 AM to watch see her daughter Barbara White win her 31st Tevis buckle on Canadian Brook. Most people don't ride 3100 miles in their endurance career. Barbara has ridden and completed 3100 over just this Tevis trail! (I did mention the word 'obsession' earlier.)

Roger Yohe's wife was there when Roger completed his 10th Tevis ride on Red Sans Legend (Roger swears he's done after this one; he and his horse fell off a cliff in 2007; his horse was fine, but he was rescued the next morning by helicopter with a number of broken bones); Debbie Lyon's husband was there when she completed her 10th Tevis ride on TCF Perfect Knight. Seiichi Hasumi's wife and entourage cheered for him as he completed his 8th Tevis in a row on TRT Cinnamon Rose, owned by Tinker Hart.

Connie Creech earned her 1000-mile buckle on LS Steel Breeze. Hal Hall earned his 28th buckle on Dreamm On. Pat Chappell finished on her Friesian cross Zoie Knightstar Nor for her 19th buckle. Kathie Perry, the President of the Tevis Cup, Board of Governors member, and Executive, and Ride Planning and Management Committee, had time after all that 24 hours of mad scrambling trail changing to squeeze in this year's Tevis ride in the saddle, finishing in 40th place aboard Echo Valley Hawk, for her 21st buckle.

Junior Barrak Blakely was all smiles as he earned his first Tevis buckle on Twin Fir Victor in 21st place at 10:12 PM. (Mom Gabriela finished in 73rd place 3 1/2 hours later; she'd backed off to give her horse more time, and Hannah Pruss picked up his sponsorship and rode and finished with Barrak).

Father-son duo of Paul and Anthony Rink, riding RR Traveler and PR Buddy, finished their first Tevis ride together in 50th and 51st place at 11:51 PM.

Nick Warhol and Forever Dawn finished in 57th place at 12:27 AM, for Don's 4th straight Tevis buckle. "This horse is so much fun to ride!" Nick gushed over his horse, as he always does. It was Diana Hiiesalu-Bain's dream for 30 years to ride in the Tevis, and this year she rode and finished her first one, on her homebred Arabian gelding Khemali'i (Ali'i).


"I think we're all crazy!" Australian Jennifer Gilbert said on Sunday, after having completed her first Tevis ride on Home Run Derby PGA. "Riding along these cliffs that have a 1500 foot drop..." Maybe her experience was 'enhanced' when she saw a rider go off a cliff early in the day. "He was stopped by a tree 500 feet down!" she said, her eyes wide as dinner plates, her hands holding her cheeks. "It was an amazing ride!" (A rider did go over the edge of a cliff, and got a concussion, but was able to walk back to Franciscos, where he pulled.)

Yes, we are crazy, this one big Tevis family, all of us focused on, centered around, obsessed with, and challenged by this 100-mile Sierra Nevada mountain 100-Miles-One-Day endurance ride started in 1955 by long distance riding visionary Wendell Robie.

There was a lot of emotion in the atmosphere at the awards. There couldn't have been any dry eyes in the crowd as Barbara Bellamack's husband, who adopted a mile of trail in Barbara's name, spoke to the crowd. Barbara, a 10-time finisher of the Tevis Cup, passed away after a long aduous battle with cancer. Poppy Davis accepted the Dru Barner award (which is "presented with honor and gratitude to those who have contributed to and upheld the goals of the Western States Trail Foundation, and have helped maintain the integrity and dignity of the world-class event known around the globe as The Tevis") for her late mother Heather Davis. Even the veterinarian who announced the Haggin Cup winner was moved, as was the rider who accepted the award.

Head veterinarian Greg Fellers was proud of the 70% completion percentage accomplished this year, and his voice was near breaking when he announced the unanimous decision of the veterinarians in naming Riverwatch, ridden by Jeremy Reynolds as winner of this year's Haggin Cup.

And even though he'd won the Tevis two times and the Haggin Cup once before, Jeremy had a hard time keeping his voice steady as he thanked everybody, including his horse and team, for their accomplishments this year.

Nobody the day or the night before during the ride, or that day during the awards on Sunday, felt diminished in any way that they'd completed an 'easy' Tevis. It was a momentous undertaking that the participants - riders, crews, ride and vet staff, and volunteers - were proud to be a part of with their Tevis family.

Because it is one big family, with this one marvelous big thing in common - this fabled 100-miles-in-one-day Tevis ride, which people from all around the world come to ride in, for the privilege to have the chance to say they completed the ride and earned a silver buckle.

And they all deserved the Big silver Tevis buckle this year, for getting to the start, sticking around in despite weather, for rolling with the changes, for riding in the 56th Tevis Cup, and finishing this year in the ride that almost didn't happen.