Crossing Rivers by Horseback - Part 2
Horseback river crossings are not always that way (see part 1). The old time cowboys crossed a lot of dangerous rivers, swimming their horses, and not always making it to the other side. Most of the crossings I’ve made have been the easy, non-threatening kind but there have been a few that had a fairly high pucker factor, especially one hit almost a factor ten.
Two friends, John and Bob, and myself had to cross the Bechler River twice when it was too high for comfort. It’s double dicey when you’ve got packhorses. Sometimes you’re not quite sure your horse’s hooves are touching bottom, and you’re just kind of holding your breath. On that particular trip it was spooky enough crossing on the first day-but four days later we knew we had to cross it again at the same place, and the early runoff was likely higher the second time. I tried not to think about it for those four days but couldn’t get it all the way out of my mind, but we made it ok, it’s times like that you are very proud of the horses especially if they are your own personal horses.
There’s a place on the South Fork of the Snake River at a place called the “Elbow” where we used to cross with horses in the fall, that’s the only time the river is low enough to cross, to hunt elk and deer up on the grey back. The footing for the horses is not good, because the entire bottom is smooth slick “river rock”, sort of egg shaped rocks to almost perfectly round, covered with slick moss and slime. It’s a wide crossing about 200 yards and you’ve got to trust your horses 100% to stay up. You always breathe a sigh of relief when you get to the far side. You love your horses more every time you cross and they get you safe to the far shore.
One autumn, my friend Ed and I crossed there, again successfully, and spent the day up the Bailey Lake drainage. We were late getting out, and by the time we reached the Elbow it was black night. I had never crossed this place in the dark, and wasn’t looking forward to it, but both Ed and I were too proud to admit it I think, at least we didn’t say anything much.
We approached what looked to be the crossing, but it was so dark I couldn’t tell for sure exactly where it was. We stopped there for a bit trying to see, but it was just too dark, so we had to make our best guess and go for it.
Downstream from the crossing the river got swifter and deeper, well over the horses backs. We started in, there was no turning back from that point. Everything seemed ok for about the first 50 yards or so. I didn’t like the sound of the river though. It didn’t sound right, it was too loud, too noisy. The horses were doing their job but the water was rising higher on them than it should have. Soon the water was hitting our stirrups and boots, then up our calves. We knew then we were in trouble, but it was too late. You can’t turn horses around when it’s that deep and swift, you’ve just got to suck it up and go for it.
Suddenly, the bottom disappeared and we were swimming. The horses stroked and kicked hard in the swift current, they were doing fantastic, we just hoped they could stay upright, sometimes they get off balance and tip over, or get tipped over by force of the current especially if they have someone or something on their backs. Then it’s difficult for them to get upright and they can drown. I think I definitely hit a ten at this point. The horses kept on chuggin’, workin’ hard, they couldn’t have done better, I was so darn proud of them. Finally you could feel they touched bottom again, and soon we were charging hard up the incline into shallower water. It didn’t matter how slick those rocks were, those horses were lunging forward, spraying water everywhere, they were not to be denied.
Without really realizing it, both Ed and I let out a whoop and holler and started laughing loudly uncontrollably. There was a campfire on the shore, I’m sure the people were astonished and almost alarmed to have the peaceful quiet of their camp broken by the clatter of three charging horses on the cobblestones (two saddle horses and one packhorse) splashing up out of the river toward them suddenly, with two crazy men in the saddle, soaking wet laughing and hollering like the headless horseman on a Halloween night. We passed their camp on a very noisy trot, the horses snorting, still throwing water at every clop of their hooves, and us still laughing and whooping. It felt so good to be on dry ground, with all the horses and riders intact and together. Thank you, Lord! We were happy!
It didn’t take us long to get to the truck and trailer, unsaddle, load the horses and fire up the old GMC and get the heater roaring, and covering the miles south to home and our precious wives and children. There’s nothing like that kind of a river crossing to put things into accurate perspective.