Great Reading

  • "Think Harmony with Horses" by Ray Hunt
  • "Ground Work" by Buck Brannaman
  • "Cowboy Logic" by Ray Hunt


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

There's no place like Hope

"Chase Creek Summer Camp, come JUMP!" I couldn't resist the title, pictures or promise of heading up to central Canada to spend a week jumping with Nick Holm-Smith. Nick sponsored and taught the fine art of cross country jumping at his farm just outside of Chase, BC which is about 40 miles north of nowhere in central BC, Canada. I started to do my homework and find out all of the particulars. Nicki was 14 and a very serious Three Day Event competitor and wanted to ride with the best. Nick, a Pan Am Games Gold Medalist and member of the Canadian Three Day Olympic team was just the guy to help her move up and on in her career. I signed the forms and sent the check. In July, we were headed to Nick's!

There was a group of us going. All of the kids that were part of Nicki's little Three Day team. It was going to be a dream to ride with Nick and everyone was thrilled. Being rustic Eventers, and having done my homework, it seemed most folks just tent camped while at Nick's. It was all dry camping with all water being hauled for horses and humans from Chase Creek, no electrical, and a couple of outhouses just a short hike from where we would be staying. I talked to several trusted friends about their experiences at Chase and while camping was a bit on the difficult side, everyone loved the experience. I was all for the tent right up until the stories about the bears started to surface. It seems that Chase Creek is also home to several rather large black bears and one brown sow and her cubs. That was the end of the tent. I started looking for better accommodations that very day. I had always wanted a horse trailer with living quarters and now seemed to be the perfect time to make that investment.

Serendipity and timing were on my side. The previous November while attending the AQHA World Show in OKC, I helped a pal pick out the perfect LQ trailer. I huge Sooner. Double walled and insulated, it was a white painted aluminum three horse with the most perfect interior. I was in love. It was Angie's trailer, but she let me make all of the choices. I had a ball. White washed cabinetry, burgundy and hunter green interior, plush carpets and a mud room. It was girl heaven. I was green with envy. It was my perfect trailer!

Angie only hauled the trailer twice. It was too big for her truck, she said. The wiring was also bad and she was stranded at a show on account of that damn trailer, was the story. I hadn't given the trailer another thought until Angie's rant. Bears still fresh in my mind, I was on the phone asking "How much do you want for it?" Angie sold me the trailer for what was outstanding on the loan. I called Joe, told him to grab the checkbook and meet me before Angie could change her mind. The trailer was mine. I was ecstatic!

The trailer was huge! The guy from Sooner assured me that my Ford F 350, 4 X 4 could haul it. I believed him. Wiring checked, B & W rollover ball installed, new brake controller, and lots of test miles to just about everywhere I could think of, we were ready for Canada! Bears be damned, we were going to be traveling in fine style. Safe, secure and totally self contained, I was brimming with self assurance and confidence! July couldn't get here quick enough!

We were on our way. Kids and horses packed, route meticulously planned, layovers scheduled, it was two days to make the trip to Chase. Easy days with interesting layovers to make the trip fun and plenty of time to get our convoy through customs. Day two, Hope. I tiny little town, nothing more than a motel, cafe and gas station, Hope was the gateway to the Coquihalla highway 116 miles through the northern Cascades and one of the most difficult and hazardous passes in all of north America. I was clueless. Everything seemed to be going great. Customs was a breeze unlike the horror stories we had heard about, our layover stable was clean comfortable and horses and kids were all doing great. Ignorance was bliss.

The haul out of Hope was amazing. The scenery, breathtaking. Towering granite peaks, blue sky's, I wanted to see something amazing like a moose or some other wild creature. My camera was at the ready. I was waiting. We kept on climbing. My truck was doing great. I had heard other friends talk about this stretch of road. No over heating and I was keeping pace with all the other trucks that were hauling much smaller loads. I was feeling good, strong, confident. We were just about to the Great Bear Snow Shed, a landmark on the highway when we saw it, a huge North American brown bear in the highway. Trucks were swerving, everyone was hitting either the breaks or the gas to get out of harms way. The bear was SO big it simply stepped over the concrete barriers in the middle of the highway. It was completely unconcerned with the 4 lanes of traffic in each direction. I think the bear knew that the smelly, belching, burping creatures moving up and down the rock river in the middle of it's range would stay out of his way. I think he knew just how big he was. He was right. No one touched the camera. By the time we reached the bear he was safely ambling up the mountain. Crossing the Coquihalla was just same-o, same-o for him. I was amazed that a bear would be so comfortable that close to people, trucks, and all that noise. That was enough excitement for me. We kept on climbing.

I guess I should have known there was something special, something different about the Coquihalla. Maybe the number of tow trucks conveniently parked at the top of the pass should have been a hint. I simply thought it was a normal "Canadian" thing. It was a long haul up, but the excitement of the bear and the ensuing conversation made the miles fly. It was no time at all and we were in Merritt, then on down the highway towards Kamloops and Chase. The day was waning and we wanted to make Nick's place before it was totally dark. No time to think or analyze.

It was a sharp right hand turn onto the road to Chase Creek. No markers. Just the river to the left and a simple road sign to the right. It was the first time my engine strained. It was dark and we were in a hurry. We were close and had to set up camp, find the corrals for the horses get the kids to bed. I was already thinking ahead and not noticing the grade we were having to climb. My truck was feeling the load. It was working, hard. I was only able to eek out 25 miles an hour. At this rate the last few miles were going to take forever. We kept twisting, climbing. I was impatient, we had lots yet to do. The road was now gravel and finally leveling off. We had climbed up the side of a mountain and were now following the valley between two peaks. This was Chase. We were finally there.

I was ground crew for the week. Nicki was there to jump her little thoroughbred, Jupiter. A very handy and athletic gentleman, he needed miles on the cross country course. Chase was going to offer them both that opportunity. Nick Holm-Smith was a man in miniature. Short, hairy and powerfully built, with gray hair (everywhere), sparkling blue eyes and a lisp, "ride like stink" was the phrase of the week! And ride like stink they did. Nicki was to have been jumping Novice and Training. Someone forgot to tell Nick. It didn't matter to him. If he thought you could, you would! It didn't matter that you had never seen anything over 3'3", if it was in your way, you jumped it. I tried to video the jumping lessons. My poor camera spent most of the time getting dropped on the ground. I was too new to big fences. I had not build up my "Mother of an eventer" nerve and kept gasping and dropping the camera. I have lots of great video of my shoes and the grass. I did get better as the week went on.

The stay was coming to a close. Horses and kids were getting salty. Fears conquered, confidence built, even the Weldon's Wall and wedding cake in the middle of the second water complex was no longer causing fits of exasperation and tears. The coffin complex in the woods was the only jump off limits in that a mother bear and her cubs had taken up residence there. Nick had taken one group out to see if they could use the series of fences and ditches, only to raise the ire of mother bruin and send the whole group frantically crashing through the trees to find safety in non-bear infested pastures. It was a great week.

Sunday was get-away day. Horses and memories packed, good-bye's said, we headed out. Down the gravel road two turns, three more turns and then suddenly onto a steep grade that just kept getting steeper. I had been on a mental wander through the last week. Had I missed a warning sign? Was this the same grade we came up a week earlier? Was I really on the right road? There was NO shoulder, NO guardrail just a very sheer and quite unsurvivable drop to a very green and pastoral looking field about 1,500 feet below. My back went weak and watery. The trailer was pushing us ever faster down, down, down and then there were curves. We were going too fast and I knew it. I hadn't properly adjusted the trailer brakes and the truck was taking the full load. I had to slow down. I had to. I didn't know if I could or should try and gear down. It was too late. I could smell a sickening hot smell. We were in trouble. Big trouble. I was responsible. My children, their friends, horses, I hadn't paid attention and now we were all going to...I couldn't think it, it was terrifying. I could see what was coming, the last long downward stretch, a sweeping right hand turn to a stop that teed into the highway. If I couldn't stop, I would shoot across the highway over the railroad tracks and into the river, that is IF I made the turn. I had to choose. I hit the brakes. I reached down and grabbed the manual controller for the trailer brakes. Truck brakes, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand; trailer brakes, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. All of the talking and giggling in the truck stopped. "Mom, what's wrong?" the girls kept asking, begging. I couldn't answer. I was sweating and praying. I wanted to throw up, cry, yell. I wanted the damn truck to stop. I was gaining on the rig in front of me, too close, too close was all I could say out loud. I think my voice was a bit shrill. The girls were getting scared. We had to stop, we had to STOP.

We were finally slow enough I slammed the truck into first, the transmission caught, the engine revved, I saw smoke. My calipers were on fire! It only seemed like a million years later, we were stopped. Friends from the truck in front of me baled out screaming, "Your on FIRE!" I yelled at the girls, "Give me the fire extinguisher, NOW!" Being from the school of over prepared is just prepared enough, I knew I had 6 fire extinguishers to choose from. Two in the cab of the truck and 4 in the trailer. I grabbed the extinguisher, pulled the pin, aimed and...nothing. Not a squirt, not a fizzle. "What the F%$*K! GIVE me the other one, NOW!" I grabbed the second one and again, NOTHING! Unbelievable! The fear and now the frustration were just too much! I let loose a string of expletives that would have made the most hardened sailor blush! (That was for you EZ) I was screaming like a drill Sargent, kids and adults alike were scattering. A chain gang had formed to retrieve the remaining extinguishers from the trailer with one helpful bystander offering up a cup of coffee to quell the flames shooting out of the rims of my front tires.

Extinguisher #3 was as useful as numbers one and two, however good ol' number 4 and 5 saved the day. Flames quenched, I was able to assess the situation. I didn't like it. We were 40 miles north of no-freekin'-where on a Sunday morning with a flaming front end, no room in any other trailers, and two days to home. Nice. Then I heard a voice, "You must be one of Nick's people, ay. Follow me. You can make it ay. My shop is about a mile away." It was a tow truck driver. He had been parked at the bottom of the "hill" waiting, as he did every Sunday during the summer when Nick ran his camps. Seems that it was commonplace on the unmarked 12 percent down grade for unsuspecting horse haulers to smoke either brakes or transmissions each and every Sunday or as the local repair shop called it "cash day". So, three hours and $700.00 US dollars later, we were on our way.

Needless to say my confidence was shaken. The girls had seen a side of me that left a distinct impression or more aptly put, a scar! They heard things that I had hoped they would have only heard in college or better yet in the military! It was very quiet in the truck for most of the afternoon. After fuel and a snack the mood lightened a bit. We were three hours behind schedule with miles to go. Coquihalla miles. Down grade miles. Truck pushing, brake burning, tire flaming miles. I was scared. After closer inspection of my truck and trailer, the kind, confidence shattering, mind blowing, terror instilling tow truck driver explained to me just how horrifically overloaded my truck was.

He was telling the truth. I was lucky to have gotten to Chase and I would be lucky to get my rig home. There was nothing left to do but to hit the road and hope for the best. No one was coming to rescue me. I had to get home. Joe was in San Jose. I had our only truck. No one headed in our direction had room for our horses. I asked the tow truck driver what he would do. The advice was simple, direct and honest, follow the semi's. Go slow. Stop frequently and let the brakes cool down. Crawl out of the Coquihalla in 1st gear. 25 miles an hour. It was the only way. It was going to be at least 53 miles of 6 to 8 percent downgrade. It was going to be a long, long night.

The rest of my little convoy eventually distanced from me. The plan was for them to go on ahead and if things fell apart for me, they would unload horses and come back for mine. I asked the girls if they wanted to ride with one of the other parents and I received a resounding "NO". They eventually fell asleep in the back seat. The weight and responsibility of getting everyone safely home was huge. I was Mom, protector, leader. I wanted them to remember this trip and make it again with confidence. I tried my best to shake the fear. I dropped in behind a semi, took a swig of coffee and settled in.

I wanted to throw up when I saw the first "Use lower gear" sign. Even in first gear, I had to brake. It was too steep. I was going to fast. I rolled down the windows and waited for the smell of over heating brakes. I had adjusted the trailer brakes so that the load was more even. I could smell them getting hot. I had to stop and wait. The truck driver in front of me kept going. He was like my life line. I had followed him and paced myself by him. I had make a "cooling stop" behind him. Now he was able to continue and I had to stop, again. I was trying to remember, was this where we had seen the bear on the way up? I was starting to get a little frantic and slightly shrill. Her I was, alone, just kids, horses, hot brakes and bears. I called Joe. "I'm in a meeting" he whispered. "I don't give a crap" it came out a hysterical whisper. I didn't want to wake the girls. "What should I do if I loose my brakes? Scrape the divider or try and wait for the run-away truck ramp?" I choked out the words. Joe could offer nothing. He was safely sitting in a conference room a million miles away and I was hauling a giant lunch box through bear country with our children! I'm sure nothing smells better to a bear than horses barbecuing over a tire fire. I was loosing it. I was on the verge of a total mental meltdown when a semi truck pulled up and stopped next to me. I don't know the drivers name, but he was a saint to me. He said simply, follow me. He would watch out for me and that we would be fine. If I got into trouble, I was to flash my lights at him. He has a quiet confidence about him that put me instantly at ease. Never being one to trust strangers, let alone a truck driver given the reputation of most in that industry, he was a blessing, I'll even go so far as to say, angel.

We crawled out of the Coquihalla. Two more stops to cool off and then, Hope. Finally, Hope. Hope never looked so good. My truck driving saint turned left. Two flashes of his lights and he was gone. I turned right towards our layover, friends and home. We had made it. Hope restored us. With Hope came renewal, new confidence, strength, wisdom. Hope, what a wonderful thing.

Sorry this was SO long. Congratulations to those that make it to the end of this tale! Sorry about the punctuation...I hate to edit! XOXO Denise

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