Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cowboy Wisdom -- Beware of shape-shiftin' trails

Because creeks have deposited alluvial sands for centuries, most of our canyon trails have sandy bottoms.  Over many years I've watched creek channels gradually move from one edge of a canyon to the other.  In fact during some of the El Niño winters I've seen creek channels move, and become four feet deeper and up to twenty feet wider in one winter.  I remember a trail crossing that changed from a gentle downslope to an abrupt four-foot drop almost overnight.

One of the canyon areas I ride a lot is at the confluence of Browns wash and Devil creek.  There's normally a lot of water flowing in both of those drainages immediate after a rain, so I've learned to avoid them.  After the water has had a chance to subside--usually about a week after the last hard rain--I'll venture into the area to see what changes have occurred.

Our canyons have a lot of willows growing in them.  Frequently branches fall and block trails.  Many times I've had to back track to find a new route.  Several years back I used to walk the canyons with an axe--but without my horse--just to clear obstructions.  I'm getting too old for that kind of hard work, so I just wait for the youngsters to blaze new linkages.

In 2008, a major brushfire burned through both Browns and Devil canyons, leaving plenty of dead and dying trees in its path.  In the fall and winter, our area also has Santa Ana winds, which are really strong and gusty.   Sometimes wind gusts reach 75 miles an hour.  I make it a practice to stay out of the canyons when it's windy because of potentially falling trees and flying objects that tend to spook even good horses.  Over the past three years--since the fire--dozens of trees have fallen, clogging trails.  So far nobody has been hit by a tree, but I figure it's just a matter of time.  

About two weeks ago Joyce and I rode through the lower end of Browns canyon skirting the eastern edge.  The trail was just find.  Yesterday we decided to ride the same trail, but from the opposite direction.  There hasn't been any rain for about a month and the creek bed was pretty dry.  I didn't think anything of it at first, but when we got a little deeper in the canyon I discovered our trail had become a gentle water course.  I figured that a fallen tree or landslide a bit further upstream had moved the channel, and that eventually the trail would be dry.  The creek should have been about thirty yards to the west, so I guessed the water would find its way back to the lower area and the existing channel.

The farther we got into the canyon we found water was still on our trail which by virtue of heavy horse travel was also a low spot.  I kept a close watch and figured we'd be fine, as long as the trail remained sandy.  We were almost at a point where we had to swing hard to the west to access an exit that leads up and out of the canyon.  Naturally just at this point, thick trees were on both sides of the trail, and we'd have to step over a fallen log.   I didn't like the looks of things because there was no sand under the fallen log, just wet black dirt.  I looked over the log and could see hoof prints that didn't appear to sink more than a few inches into the mud.  I asked my mare to step over the log, and as soon as she was over and had taken another step,  she sank in above her knees.  We were in trouble.  I immediately let her have her head.  She did as pretty a pirouette as the best Russian ballet dancer could do, and then literally leaped out of the bog and back over the log.  Although she is a big, strong girl, she was still lucky to get us out of that mess.

So this is one of those lessons learned from bad judgment.  Next time I find a shape-shiftin' trail that turns into a creek, I think I'll just turn around and go home the way I came.  The hole in my arm and the bruises (from trees) will heal in a week or two, but I'm afraid Kasidy (my mare) will be saying I told you so a lot longer than that :-)

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