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"Lady is Not Going to Make It"

"Lady is Not Going to Make It"

One skittish steed can make Midnight Sun Outfitting guides’ harrowing yearly journey through northern Yukon bush much more dangerous.
By Genesee Keevil
Mar 01

Lady doesn’t like to get her feet wet. The delicate black quarter horse gallops the first 24 dusty kilometres, keeping pace with the pack, until the dirt road ends at the river.

It’s the first day of the trail in to camp, a four to five day journey that doesn’t often follow a trail at all, through some of the Yukon’s toughest terrain. Only a handful of big-game outfitters still use horses to hunt, in part because getting that many mounts into remote fly-in camps is treacherous, time consuming and often traumatic.

Most of Alan Young’s 32 horses have done this trek before. They’ve sunk in belly-deep mud, swam river crossings and jumped steep rocky chasms. But this is Lady’s first year. And Lady doesn’t like to get her feet wet.

“Where the hell is Niall?” Jessie Young, 25, has four fresh horses strung out behind her, their bridles tied to the packsaddles of the horses in front. If she has to stop, those horses start yanking backwards, nipping each other’s hind ends and twisting around the thick black spruce, tying a tangled knot of rolling-eyed panic. Jessie can see all the other wranglers and their strings of horses, but she can’t see Niall, a young, inexperienced wrangler—or Lady.

Jessie stops. Her horses start to pull back, tugging the wrong way. She screams for Niall. “We can’t stop now, we’re going to lose all those fucking horses,” says Logan. Jessie’s younger brother is up front leading the pack and chasing about 16 loose horses through scrub brush and muskeg. He pulls his horse up so short, the horses strung out behind him domino to a stop. Logan—22, lanky, no-nonsense and always on the move—is not good at waiting. He lets out another streak of expletives. Jessie starts to coil her snake of horses around. She’s going to have to go find Niall.

Just as Logan starts cursing again, Niall appears, sopping, apologetic and a little lopsided. Lady is behind him, running loose, her bridle rope muddy, wet and dragging. There’s no time for explanations. Logan is gone, his string of horses jolting forward behind him like a shunting train. Everyone is quiet.

Logan ducks under a windfall, cowboy hat intact. Then he turns off the trail into brush that feels like a human-sized spider web, avoiding a mud pit where horses got bogged down last year. Branches slap cheeks, stab eyes, and another low-lying deadfall rips at a backpack, threatening to pull rider from horse.

“You’re 17.” Jessie is yelling from the back of the pack, counting forward. The idea is to tally all the loose and tied horses between her and the next wrangler, who then counts the horses in front of him and yells the new number forward. “You’re 23.” Logan is too far ahead to hear his number. “Ooooooooowheee.” Jessie sings out the familiar high whoop she and Logan use to communicate when they’re separated by 32 head of horses. “Ooooooooowheee,” she trills again, hoping to slow her brother down. Some of the horses are dragging, yanking back on ropes.

When she finally catches Logan, he hasn’t got a full count. The loose horses are still ahead somewhere. He has been following hoof prints all day, his black felt cowboy hat pushed back on his head. “Keep’em going, or we’ll lose them.”

It’s Logan’s 16th trail in—he’s been doing it since he was six—and losing horses is not new. A couple years back, on this stretch, he lost 12 of them—and a wrangler.

The cabin at Louie Brown camp is a rest stop along the trail through the Peel—a warm shelter on a week-long journey.

By the time Logan hauls into Louie Brown camp at the end of the first day, it’s dinnertime—and he’s already lost a horse. Waiting by the cabin, munching fireweed and twitch grass are the 16 loose horses Logan has been tracking all day. But not Lady. She disappeared a couple hours back, in that tangle of buck brush, windfalls and muskeg.

“Lady is not going to make it.” Jessie is matter of fact. She is wearing a pink T-shirt, a pair of ripped jeans held up by a big silver rodeo buckle and earrings made out of 30-calibre Winchester bullets.

A couple years older than Logan, Jessie remains a little calmer than her brother and doesn’t push quite as hard. She is nursing a smashed finger, its nail ripped off by a saddle during her stint in red and white chaps and a tight red blouse, galloping around the ring as a Calgary Stampede Girl carrying a flag twice her height. The finger is taped up inside a metal brace. When she isn’t driving 32 horses through the Yukon wilds, Jessie dresses wounds and doles out meds in nursing scrubs, a voice of quiet compassion at a busy Calgary hospital. She turns back. “I’m going to look for Lady.”

It started way back at that first river crossing. Lady stopped dead, almost yanking Niall off his horse. The jolt pulled his saddle sideways just as his mount started to cross the river—in the wrong spot. Niall, a short, awkward, aspiring writer who joined this crew of cowboys to experience first-hand the last vestiges of Canada’s settler roots, isn’t sure exactly what happened next, but suddenly he was swimming. So was the horse he was riding, and so was Lady.

She refused to follow and Niall let go of the rope he was was using to lead her. By the time he caught up, Logan was gone in a cloud of curses and Niall didn’t have time to catch Lady, or even tighten his saddle.

It is hard to find experienced cowboys crazy enough to make this trek. Alan, who won’t be on this trip in, used to troll the jail, getting convicts like Chicken Charlie out for the summer to trail horses and guide trophy hunters. Nowadays, he picks up hitchhikers or finds wayward travellers instead, promising them quick cash and an adventure they wont forget. Some have never ridden a horse before and, after this trek, never want to again. Others, like Niall, keep coming back for more.

Wieners and beans are steaming on the Coleman stove when Jessie finally returns. She rode back for miles, calling and calling and was just about to give up when her horse let out a whinny. Silence. Her horse whinnied again. A faint whinny replied. “Lady was way up on a rock on the mountain,” says Jessie. “She was standing there, out of the bugs, not moving, the wind blowing through her mane.” Logan shakes his head. “That horse isn’t going to make it.”

A high-pitched screaming whinny pierces the night. A crash. Another whinny. Inside the blue nylon tent, Jessie and Logan wait, eyes wide open. Minutes pass in silence. Nothing. They settle back into their sleeping bags, pull toques over ears and drift back to sleep.

Crash. The ground is shuddering. Something hits Jessie so hard she is thrown across the tent. Fabric rips. In the pitch darkness they see the silhouette of a tree land in the tattered vestibule. Logan crawls out through the gaping hole in the tent and starts cursing, as Jessie joins her brother, shivering in long johns in the wet grass. The horses must have been picking on Lady until she panicked, ripping the tree she was tied to right out of the ground. With the tree crashing behind her, Lady started to run. She was on top of them by the time Logan heard the hooves. In that split second, he threw himself on his sister, shoving her out of the way as horse and tree descended on the tent, slamming down where Jessie had been sleeping.

Logan is used to hooves crashing around him. But he isn’t usually in a tent when it happens. A champion team roper, who won Wyoming last year, he has been running the rodeo circuit for close to a decade and is so fast in the ring, the University of Wyoming gave him a rodeo scholarship to come study business. After analyzing corporate strategy all week, Logan spends weekends in chaps roping calves. It’s a natural fit, having grown up on a Saskatchewan cattle ranch, spending summers at his parents’ outfitting camps. He rode in pack boxes as a toddler, sitting in the wooden crates, diamond-hitched onto the side of horses swaying through the mountains during sheep and grizzly hunts, and shot his first mountain goat at six. Spooked horses, misfiring guns, he has seen it all. But this is the first trampled tent.

By the time Logan hauls into Louie Brown camp at the end of the first day, it’s dinnertime—and he’s already lost a horse. Waiting by the cabin, munching fireweed and twitch grass are the 16 loose horses Logan has been tracking all day. But not Lady. She disappeared a couple hours back, in that tangle of buck brush, windfalls and muskeg.

Logan is yelling over the horse at Niall, who is helping diamond-hitch pack boxes full of wieners, beans and instant noodles onto Splash, a spooky paint with one brown eye and one blue. Niall pulls madly on the ropes, his feet lifting off the ground. Splash spins. Logan curses.

It had been a relaxing morning. The crew of cowboys did yoga in the grass, Logan reaching down to grab hold of his duct-taped muck boots, while Jessie leaned into downward dog. As they ate bacon and eggs, Lady stood nearby quietly munching grass. She is an affectionate, delicate horse, who loves getting the white star on her forehead scratched.

“Let’s go, let’s go.” As soon as the last horse is saddled, Logan jumps on and flies out of camp with four horses tailing behind. Jessie and her string are the last to leave. “Ooooooooowheee.” Logan keeps riding. “Ooooooooowheee.” Jessie yells up the line, “Tell Logan Lady won’t follow.” More cursing. “Pull her,” he yells. Jessie turns her train around and catches Lady in the meadow.

Logan and the wranglers behind him have already crossed the river, horses splashing and slipping on the rocks, when Jessie catches up. Lady won’t be pulled. More cursing. Logan whips his horse around as if on the tail of a calf in the rodeo ring and gallops back across the river. The horses stomp and snort in the trees, tugging lines. Splash, tied to a pine sapling, raises a back foot, threatening the horse behind him. Blackflies swarm. No sign of Logan. Or Lady.

“She is too soft,” says Jessie. “We’re going to have to leave her. But Logan has to figure this out for himself. I know my brother.” Ten minutes later Logan gallops back across the river. He is alone. “We’re leaving her,” he says untying his string of horses from the sapling. “She won’t follow.” He tosses Lady’s halter into a saddlebag and is gone.

“Did you take off her bell?” Jessie yells. The horses wear bells all summer to help outfitters and guides find the free-roaming mounts when hunters need them. Sometimes it can take a wrangler three hours of walking before tracking down a string of horses to saddle for the day’s hunt. Many claim that after a season out there in the Yukon wilds, they continue to hear bells, on downtown street corners, in the middle of office meetings, in dreams. Logan left Lady’s bell on. “It will help scare the bears away,” he says. “But it won’t help with the wolves.”

Logan leads the horses along the water.

There are big white bones on the trail, bleached and brittle. It is day three of the trail in and the horses are near “the Crevasse,” a 40-foot drop into thick muskeg several horses deep. Last year, a couple mounts got bogged down here, their one-ton bodies immobilized by mud, legs sinking deeper with every ounce of struggle.

This year, the pack of loose horses disappears just before the crevasse. Casey is leading. A stout white horse with a distinguished mustache and droopy eyes, Casey has done more trail-ins than Logan or Jessie. He was trailing in with their grandfather.

But Logan doesn’t follow Casey and his pack of free ponies. Instead he starts climbing up high to the right of the cliffs and mud, looking for a better way across.

On the far side of the muskeg, a rusty come-along hangs in a tree. Jessie was up to her neck in the mud a few years back tying ropes around the horses so her brother could winch them out, like trucks in a mud bog.

Where Logan finally crosses, the drop into the crevasse is only a couple of meters. The horses sink to their knees in the thick black muck, falter, then lurch out, sliding and clomping up the slippery rocks on the far side. “That was Ginger,” says Logan, his horse sidestepping the big bleached bones on the trail. “She was one hell of a horse.” A few years back during the trail in, Logan pulled out his gun and shot her. Ginger had broken her leg trying to cross the crevasse. “It’s hard to shoot a horse you’ve ridden for hundreds of miles,” he says.

It is pouring rain. Horses brush up against trees sending showers down necks, wet buck brush slaps ripped rain pants, and leather saddles are soggy. Logan is hunched on his horse scrolling through pictures on his iPhone, beads of water dripping off the brim of his cowboy hat. He doesn’t stop for lunch.

By late evening Logan still isn’t stopping. The midnight sun lures him on toward base camp where hot showers, satellite Internet and heated bunk houses mark the start of hunting season. Even when Goose, one of the horses tied behind him, gets his head on the wrong side of a deadfall, Logan doesn’t stop.

Goose yanks back, eyes rolling, nostrils full of fear. Logan curses and pulls harder, kicking his mount ahead. The terrified packhorse skids, and falls to its knees. Logan yanks harder. Goose’s canvas-covered load tilts precariously to one side, her neck at an awful angle against the tree.

Snap. The tree breaks, a chunk plunging into Goose’s cheek. Logan’s string of horses lurches forward in the rain. There is blood running down the packhorse’s cheek, her loaded boxes all akimbo.

“Remember when we thought we lost Casey?” It was during trail in, and he just quit. They built a huge bonfire, fed Casey an apple, then a sandwich, but the old horse wouldn’t budge. So they left him. Alan points out the window toward the mountains at the far end of the lake. “We figured he was done,” he says. Then about a week later, sitting having coffee in the lodge, they saw this white speck at the end of the lake. It got closer and closer, and there was Casey back for another season.

Jessie glances toward the end of the lake. The last time they left a horse behind, stuck in the mud, it didn’t make it back. “It was dad’s favorite horse,” she says. Alan tried everything to get him out, even flew all the way to Dawson City to buy a come-along to try and winch him out of the muskeg. “By the time he got back, there was a grizzly on him.” Alan shot the bear.

“Remember the time we lost that wrangler,” says Jessie. They were camped at Louie Brown and the wrangler went off to look for a bunch of missing horses. Night fell, then morning. Eventually the horses came back. But no wrangler. They waited. Even lit a tree on fire. But he didn’t show. Another night, still nothing. So, they saddled their antsy herd and left. “And he just walked out of the bush,” says Jessie. “He’d been chased by a grizzly and ended up treed for two days only a couple of miles away.” Right around the spot she’d last seen Lady.

The snow in the meadow is trampled. Like there has been a soccer game, or a wrestling match. Jessie is just about back to Louie Brown. It’s the end of September and she is trailing out the horses. She guided a hunter on a grizzly this year. She got another hunter a record-breaking ram, earning her a Wild Sheep magazine cover. The fingernail on her Calgary Stampede finger is growing back. And she can’t wait to see her boyfriend, a bronc rider from Alberta.

Logan is already gone. He had to get back for the final semester of business school, leaving Jessie to get all these loose horses home. “I wonder if we’ll see Lady?” The crew of cowboys laughs.

At first, Alan didn’t understand what Jessie and Logan were saying, when they finally got up the nerve to mention the missing horse. “What do you mean you left her?”

“She was tired,” said Jessie. Silence. “Well, she might show up here,” he said.

It was a cold, wet hunting season with the snow settling in by September. Trophy hunters shivered in high-end camo on the side of mountains waiting for rams, glassing for caribou and moose, and keeping an eye out for prize grizzly, while the wranglers turned guides brewed up bush coffee, instant oatmeal and saddled horses. Jessie and Logan guided reality tycoons, Haliburton execs and big oil guys who throw down $50,000 for a week hunting on their dad’s Yukon outfitting concession, while Niall spent the summer building a new log camp, hewing the pine by hand. Goose spent much of the season trudging through creeks and muskeg with a cheek so infected it looked like she was eating a baseball. The stick that broke off in the gentle white packhorse’s face during trail in started to fester and smell. Jessie filled a syringe with milky penicillin and punched the needle into Goose’s neck. The baseball kept oozing. Logan wanted to lance it. Even that didn’t help.  

Vets don’t get called into the Yukon outback. With floatplane rides and exam costs, it’s cheaper to buy a new horse. A foot-long gash on a horse’s leg gets boiled spruce sap stuck over it with a burlap bag. Infections are lanced. And if things get really bad—a broken leg, too deep in muskeg—everyone has a gun.

Jessie has a toque pulled over her ball cap, hands numb. She’s trying to stay on what might be the trail and keep track of all the loose horses, including Goose, who finally managed to fight the infection. Night is falling. Louie Brown isn’t far. They’ll unload the stove, get hot food going, let the horses rest.

Just past the trampled meadow, as they enter the trees, Jessie sees a shadow. It is moving. Coming toward them—fast. There is no time to pull guns from leather saddle holsters, before it is on them. A tinkling bell. Then, not too skinny, no longer skittish—Lady lets out a whinny. The horses whinny back, and the cowboys laugh.