Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yo-Ho, Part 4

In Which Mules and Bears Make Their Debut

Tuesday morning was our long-planned mule ride. At the start let me say a word on behalf of these misunderstood animals. We owe the American mule to George Washington, by the way. He was the first to cross-breed large Spanish asses (no jokes, please) to standard mares. Our mule is as large as most horses, as intelligent and more durable. Their reputation for stubbornness comes from two things. First, they expect to be treated decently by humans, and misbehave when they are not. Second, although more sure-footed than horses (because they can look down and see all four of their feet) they will not willingly walk into danger.

Uncle and Hobbes

I have always had trouble getting on with equines. I probably telegraphed nervousness to them, whereupon they decided that they were in charge of the equation. This day, I was determined to radiate confidence, assertiveness and patience: qualities with which I am ill-endowed. The rest of the family does not share my equine issues.

As we waited to mount up, I looked over the mules. At the end was a particularly large, busy and inquisitive mule and I thought, "OK, that's exactly what I don't want."

Naturally, I drew that one. The wrangler said, "This is Hobbes. He likes to outsmart his riders and he wants to eat all the time." Oh neat.

Before we started, it was the wrangler, Tory, who had trouble. She was questioning the horse brought out for her, and there was much whispered conversation between her and the other wranglers. The horse began to shy and buck when she had one foot in the stirrup. The wranglers spread out, surrounded the horse and calmed her. Tory, now as determined as the horse, remounted and brought her under control after a couple of perfunctory bucks.

Hobbes watched this display of horses behaving badly with undisguised scorn.
It was at this point that we began a mostly sotto voce dialogue that lasted the entire trip.

At length everyone was mounted and we started off, with Hobbes in the Number Two position, right behind Tory and her fractious horse: Tory thought Hobbes would be a good influence. Emily, who has ridden much more than I, took the Four spot with Isaac, who proved to have an exceptionally independent outlook. The final two spots were a couple who simply had trouble keeping their animals moving and focused.

I managed to radiate confidence and assertiveness. There were plenty of chances. Hobbes tried to eat everything. This is unacceptable when riding in file, because the hungry horse or mule slows everyone else. He would drop his head for grass. I pulled the reins up. Then he would try for pine needles. I pulled his head away. As we were told, the trick with a mule is to do enough of this to maintain control of the animal, while still allowing it to pick its own path.

This they needed to do. The bridle path to Yosemite's Mirror Lake is no joke, steep and rocky. Tory's horse began to slip and slide early, and Hobbes decided he could do a better job leading the file. He kept trying to slide by ahead of the horse. I held him back. We had words. I told him he was probably right, but that it wasn't his job today. Eventually, he seemed to accept the situation, satisfied that I agreed with his assessment of the horse's ability. He did shove the horse in the butt several times when he was dissatisfied with her leadership or sure-footedness.

The first sign of the end of the bear drought came about twenty minutes up the trail. We were crossing a fairly flat and open spot when all six animals stopped at once, turned slightly to the right and stared at a copse twenty or so metres off with flared nostrils. Tory followed their gaze and said loudly, "probably a deer." I looked but couldn't see anything. As we got the animals going, I heard Tory mutter "no, a bear." I was the only one close enough to hear her, but I still couldn't see it. So they were around, then. Just as well to be sitting on a large animal for the first encounter.

As the trail grew steeper and rockier, it became obvious that we had other things to worry about. One clever mule trick on a narrow trail is to walk close enough to an obstruction--like a rock or tree-- to scrape the rider's foot out of the stirrup. Isaac did this to Em, and Hobbes paid attention to the disturbance this caused. Next chance he got, he pulled the same stunt with me. Somehow, I got back in the stirrup unaided and we went on.

By this time, my mule friend was settling down, conned by my act of assertiveness. However, we had soon crossed a ridge and were starting the descent to Mirror Lake.

Know how sometimes highway departments put a bump sign at or even after the bump? In the same way, Tory called, "watch out! There's a big drop here."
The warning came a little too late for Hobbes and me. Down went Hobbes, and before I could counterbalance, down went Uncle. Not to the rocks, fortunately, but over the saddle horn and onto Hobbes' neck. I said a few words suitable to the situation but perhaps inappropriate for Christian company. Somehow I was still in the stirrups, perhaps the only plus at that moment. The trail at that point was too narrow for Tory to come back to help. In desperation I calmly said to Hobbes, "lift your neck up, Hobbes, lift your neck." He did, and the change of gravity was enough for me to get back in the saddle; a little bruised south of the border but not much the worse for wear. I promised Hobbes a good snack first chance we got.

Hobbes, of course, tried to cash in the promise at once. When Tory said that Mirror Lake had good grazing, I used that as my excuse to keep him focused. Mirror Lake, you see, had been pretty much an artificial lake at the foot of Half Dome. Over the past couple of decades, NPS has been allowing it to disappear, along with many other man-made Yosemite features. Doubtless this is a disappointment to humans expecting a lake. To mules, especially hungry mules, it is heaven. The drying lake has left a sandy bed surrounded by long, succulent grass. I let Hobbes know that this was his moment and he made the most of it. You can't see Hobbes' head in the following because it was on the ground, imitating a vacuum cleaner.

There was a down side to this mulish orgy. When Tory called time's up, everyone filed off according to how close they were to Tory and her lead horse. Hobbes couldn't quite tear himself away from that last bit of grass, and we were now in the Three spot, behind Em and the opinionated Isaac. Hobbes wasn't pleased at the demotion, and was inclined to act up. I reminded him that he was the one intent on sucking up the last available blade of grass and had only himself to blame for his position. He seemed to accept this philosophically. As we left, he had managed to inhale a huge tuft of grass, which stuck out both sides of his mouth. For the next two thirds of the trip, Hobbes had his hooves full keeping his feet and chewing.

Just as well that Mr. Know-it-all mule had this preoccupation, because the lead horse was visibly flagging, which seemed to get an "I told you so" reaction from Tory. At one point, the mare was stumbling up a grade. We heard Tory say "overweight, overfed, and knackered after half the trip," or words to that effect. Unfortunately we were passing a couple of up-bound hikers at this moment. My wife reported later that from their looks, the hikers may have thought Tory's words applied to them. Hobbes knew better. If mules could smile, and if this one's mouth wasn't stuffed with grass, he would have been grinning ear to ear.

The downward trip went well, for this family unit. The couple at the rear seemed to have reached an understanding with their mules--and in any case the mules knew they were headed back to the barn--so they were just able to keep up. I appreciated a clever bit of mule ride promotion toward the end: we rode back by way of a couple of adjoining camp sites instead of the direct route, showing the critters off to the campers. The detour also allowed Hobbes to swallow the rest of his snack, so that he could arrive in the barn and claim that he hadn't had a bite since he left.

Farewell, Hobbes! I don't know if we'll do business again, but I feel better about equines, and I hope you feel that some dudes at least can appreciate your view of the world.

Life in Camp

Most of the year, the Merced River, which runs down the middle of Yosemite Valley, is cold enough to freeze your blood from 100 feet off, and runs fast enough to be a genuine danger if you go into it. August finds it at its most benign. It temperature is comparable to swimming off our North Shore beaches--what one might call "invigorating" during the five minutes that you still have feeling. The current speed is down to the point where even children can escape from it. Both of these are good, because a couple of weeks without rain have left the soil of the campsites dry beyond my experience.

I have heard of, but never before seen, soil so parched that it won't absorb water. This was true about everywhere in the valley, but especially the campgrounds. You can see from this where flash floods come from. Although clothes and showered bodies dried quickly, the bodies especially didn't dry fast enough to avoid accumulating a coat of dust as thick as the one washed off in the public showers. One had a couple of minutes with the sensation of cleanliness. Step out of the shower room, and it was gone just as fast.

The tourist guides all suggest bringing ear plugs to Yosemite campgrounds. This is true in most campgrounds, and I have to say Housekeeping Camp's occupants did fairly well observing the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. quiet hours. What was notable was the early afternoon silence, a literal siesta, and very refreshing.

It's noisiest from late afternoon until 10 p.m. It happened that my daughter was reading The Last Child in the Woods, and she pointed out that despite the frequently rowdy nature of the camp kids' play, it was unstructured play in a setting anything but urban or suburban, and on balance probably good for the kids.

About that observation about water absorption. At Yosemite campgrounds, be prepared to replace ice at least once--sometimes twice--a day. It's not brain surgery. Put a large container of heavy gauge steel out in the open in 90 degree heat and you have an oven. When you put a cooler inside it, you have a cooler inside an oven. Campers buy lots of ice, and conduct percolation tests with the very expensive water left from the ice they bought a few hours before.

If you don't like this, you can spend an hour or more sitting in traffic jams coming and going from off-site hotels, or spend some very serious money getting a room in the park--assuming you can get one at all.

This night, shortly before midnight, Housekeeping Camp's quiet hours were suddenly interrupted by shouts of "bear, bear, BEAR!!" and the sound of thrown objects and clanging pots and pans. All this human behaviour, by the way, is straight from the NPS playbook. Their objective is to frighten the bear, not harm it. Park Service thinking is very much pro-bruin. This is understandable when one reflects that speeding cars had killed 13 bears year-to-date when we entered the park.

The curious bear-less interval, it seemed, was at an end.

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Blogger crispix67 said...

I love Hobbes :-)

1:45 pm  
Blogger malevolent andrea said...

Where's part 5???

5:44 pm  
Blogger Uncle said...

Coming as we speak

11:36 pm  

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