NOLS Horsepacking Adventure - Midland School

NOLS Horsepacking Adventure

Maddy ’21 reflects on her Class of 1968 Wilderness Fund Experience

Fall 2020

I’m a rising Midland Senior and am so grateful! Like everyone, most of my summer was cancelled in some way due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I however was lucky enough this past July, to experience a twenty-one day horsepacking NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course in Wyoming. This trip for me was made possible in part to the Midland Class of 1968 Outdoor Wilderness Scholarship Fund – thank you! As a consequence of COVID-19, many, if not most, of the NOLS courses internationally were cancelled and postponed. I was able to be a part of the first course to return from the field in the COVID era.

Horses walk in line through a meadow lined with tall trees, mountains and blue sky in the distance.

The adventure began with my Dad and I departing California’s Central Coast by car for a 1,000 mile road trip. We fished along the way and gathered the last minute essentials. Before I knew it, Dad was fishing alone and I was at Three Peaks Ranch, in Boulder, Wyoming. I met my instructors and my fellow classmates and we stayed at the ranch for three days prior to heading into the field to learn all of the basic skills of horsepacking, camping, and containing eighteen horses in the backcountry. I felt unprepared in that I was the only student to not have previously taken a NOLS course, but I was the only student with any prior horse experience.

Day one in the field was long and we needed to muster up patience immediately. On our way to the Western Absaroka Mountains, we got two flat tires on two separate horse trailers and the traffic through Jackson Hole, Wyoming slowed us down to say the least. It was hot, and we were wearing masks and because of COVID were not allowed out of the vehicles.

We traveled over 86 miles during the ensuing 19 days. Many days were long; camps were difficult to find during the first half of the backcountry portion as we always were looking for grass to feed the horses. After we got back on track our days were filled with a routine of packing/setting up camp, packing panniers, throwing loads, finding good feed for the horses, tending to the horses, cooking meals, leadership classes, horseback riding lessons, and a ten to fifteen mile ride to the next site. We camped and rode through almost every type of weather: rain, thunder, lightning, snow, heat, wind, and perfect days. We were never tested by the elements all day, everyday, but merely tested by their relentless repetition.

We slept in low meadows full of wildflowers, green grasses, and moose or above the tree line at ten thousand feet surrounded by crystal clear lakes, snow patches, outfitter camps, rocky burned areas, steep cliffs and elk. On layover days, I foraged for wild strawberries, tended to my ride and pack horses, took naps in massive wildflower filled meadows, washed my clothes in mountain streams, attended leadership classes, and cantered my horse bareback in the most beautiful snow covered, rocky peaked, wildflower filled alpine meadows.

Our eighteen horses were happy and healthy, and only attempted to run away once! A quick jaunt two miles down the trail to get your horse back is what everyone should do when you are barely awake and the ground is muddy and frozen! My horse Butch was the best; he is a tall, beautiful, flea bitten, grey, foxtrotter gelding. In addition to Butch, I packed horses Leo and later Mad Dog.

A young woman stands with her white horse, wearing a patagonia jacket in the middle of a meadow in the twilight. During the trip, one of our instructors had a bad fall off of her horse and needed to be evacuated. Another student, instructor and I rode her ten miles out to the nearest trailhead to be picked up by another NOLS ranch staff and taken to the nearest hospital. She is now recovered but did not return to the course. Two days after we made a sixteen mile trip to pick up a new instructor. She fit right into our group and soon we adjusted to our new group’s dynamics. I had 9 classmates from California, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New York, and Kentucky. Through uncertainty and minimal luxuries, we worked together and got to know each other quickly!

Then the day we had been waiting for has arrived; day fourteen and the end of our quarantine! We were now allowed to move into tents together, we did not have to wear face coverings when closer than six feet, and now, when cooking, other members could help the cook of the day. Things were normal now, for the time being anyway. We created a large family unit and we were free of the Coronavirus (at least for a week until we had to re-enter the front country, a world of social distancing and bad news). Lots of “what if’s” ideas went through our heads while we were together and out of touch with the rest of the world. “What if the virus spikes in our hometowns while we’re gone? Were we going to be allowed back into our state after the course?” Spending twenty-one days off the grid with no news or updates about the current chaos in the world was GREAT!

Maddy on horseback at Midland

Before I knew about NOLS, I took Midland’s Outdoor Leadership course. Although the class was cut short because of COVID, I was able to grasp the basic camping and leadership skills from my teachers Dan Susman, Ellie Moore, and the student stewards. I also learned how to put up a drift fence, asked lots of questions and took full advantage of my experience. I learned to lead by example and dealt with all the unexpected with my Midland grit and determination. As an Outdoor Leadership and Midland student I was challenged but prepared for my NOLS course. I am thankful to be so lucky to attend a NOLS course and will never forget my experience. I am intrigued to work toward attending an alumni course in the future.

by Maddy ’21

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