Backcountry horse trip into the Clearwater Mountains of Alaska

Horse trip into the Clearwater Mountains of Alaska

Day 1: Exploring Windy Creek Valley, Alaska

It took us three hours to go 60 miles on the Alaskan Denali Highway towing the horse trailer. I don’t think that road has been improved much since they put it in in ’59.

Extra gas cans and extra extra spare tires were often a necessity to get from one end of that 140 mile stretch to the other.

As remote as that old dirt road was, we were headed even deeper into the wilderness on horseback.

The Clearwater Mountains ahead of us were teeming with game- herds of caribou, moose, and grizzly and black bears roamed the long green valleys and the mountain bowls held turquoise lakes and streams swimming with sweet freshwater fish.

Edward Abbey said, “Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.”

Take a look at that video below, and tell me your soul doesn't need that?

We couldn’t agree more. My husband, Chris, and I, are both wildlife biologists, and Arctic Horse was founded for the sole reason of giving me the gear I needed to stay out with my horses in all weather in all of the wild places I needed to be in (I took my Tongass Rain Skirt and Backcountry Trail Skirt with me on this trip).

We made our base camp at the foot of Windy Creek Valley. Even in June in interior Alaska, the soaking rain could easily make the horses hypothermic, so they wore their rain sheets to stay dry.

Arctic Horse horse camping denali alaska windy creek camping with horses

The first day we rode up into the wide, emerald Windy Creek Valley. Not a human soul in sight.

No noise save that of the clopping hooves, the rushing of the creek, and the wind tinkling the small leaves of the alpine plants.

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses

As we climbed, the few spruce trees near camp gave way to shrubby highlands of dwarf birch, willow, and the impenetrable alders, my old enemy.

Further up into the mountains, the shrubs faded away as well, and only the tiniest of alpine plants survived the cold and wind of those high regions.

These miniature, gorgeous tundra plants always astounded me with their variety and colors. The perfect pink blossoms of Moss Campion nestled sweetly against the earth, putting on their grandest 2" high show for the ground squirrels and caribou.

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses moss campion tundra plants

I wonder what it must be like to be an old spruce tree or a tiny pink flower on an Alaskan mountain side. No where to go, or place to be other than right here. The constancy of being rooted to one patch of ground, as the world changes mightily around you. The surrender the natural world has to the moment, and the way it is, the original sitting Buddhas.  

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses

Here's my Appaloosa, Faly, turning back for a pat and a treat. He's always sure he's doing an amazing job, probably because I'm always telling him that he is.

I'll tell you one thing, my horse doesn't lack in self-esteem. He'll be the first to tell you, he's very special and important. And, of course, he's absolutely right ;)

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses Jen Dushane

I normally have a little short-shanked hackamore clipped to his halter, but he rubbed his head against the trailer and broke the dang thing off just before we started the ride. And, of course, since we're hundreds of miles away from the nearest tack store, we just rolled with it.

I do carry emergency paracord in the form of our Multi-Rein, for just such a reason, but figured he'd go just as well in his halter. The only time I slightly regretted that decision is when we came across the grizzly bear the next day, but we're not to that part of the story yet...

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses

The light and weather changed constantly out here. The rugged mountains made the weather second by second, piercing passing clouds to let down pounding rain, their topography shifting and funneling the winds.

Spots of yellowed sun bent through the valleys, illuminating heart-meltingly beautiful sections of tundra, a quick double rainbow miracled overhead, and then the mountains grabbed another gray cloud for a further sprinkling rain, and on and on with the changing.

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses Jen Dushane

The kaleidoscope of weather reminding us always of how thin the skin is between life and death in the wild.

Most of us sit in a temperature controlled room all day and night- feeling the wind on our face for maybe a minute or two on the way to the car or back. With all the world happening outside the window.

Enveloped in the elements now, Chris and I mainlined the gorgeous, uncontrolled life around us. Binge watching the ever shifting landscape from the slow amble of our horse’s backs restored us deeply.

After several hours on the trail, we spotted a broad side valley to explore. Taking the horses off trail, we climbed through the brush to land on the tundra in the mouth of this vibrant new valley.

Spongey, soft ground cupped the horses hooves. Tempurpedic mattresses have no claim on a night spent on this velvet ground.

As far into the backcountry as we were, standing at the mouth of another dazzling valley, I wanted to go further. Horse’s and mountains magnetized my heart, the closer I was to them, the closer I wanted to be still. A great dream of mine is to take off into this land with no schedule and wander until my heart says stop.

This picture below is my favorite of this whole year. That next valley beckoning me like a siren and Faly looking back to ask if he was doing a good job, and whether we were going to keep going.

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses Jen Dushane

As much as I wanted to fledge into feather and fly up further into this enchanting valley, we turned around to ride the remaining hours back to camp.

On the way home we met some friends. A moose gazed at us from across a low lake, a red and white hawk took wing across the swirling updraft, and a laughing red fox crossed in front, indifferent entirely to us and the horses, we unworthy of even a single glance in our direction. He was very busy, and way too cool for us.

Alaskan moose grazes across lake

Day 2: Valdez valley and a grizzly bear

The second day we explored Valdez Creek valley, the next major valley over from Windy Creek.

This valley paralleled the Big Susitna River for awhile. The Big Susitna was an old friend of ours, Chris and I had spent many hours at her mouth in Cook Inlet observing Cook Inlet Beluga whales feeding on salmon. It was a comforting feeling to be with her all these hundreds of miles away in the interior.

It rained off and on all day. I had my Tongass Rain skirt on but just buttoned if up off of my legs for when the rain cleared.

I always have the Multi-Rein looped onto my reins- in addition to being emergency paracord, it's a rein extender too, so it saved my back all day when Faly needed to eat or drink- I could just let the reins go, and hold on to the Multi-Rein. No bending over!

Arctic Horse Tongass Rain Skirt Multi-rein rein extender Arctic Horse

After riding for a few hours, Faly’s nose went suddenly to ground. He sniffed long and strode out, neck down, muzzle touching dirt, tracking like our German Shepherd does. Chris glanced down, too, and noticed the grizzly bear tracks Faly had found.

Soft and fresh against the bare ground, and no sign of the recent rain in the impressions told us the bear tracks were very new.

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses grizzly bear tracks

“We probably pushed her off the road on our way in, looks like a female, or younger bear.” Chris had been a guide out at Katmai- one of the most famous brown bear areas in the world, renowned for its high density of bears. He’d had thousands of brown bear interactions, had lived with them for years, and knew them intimately.

The tracks were headed in the same direction we were. For the next mile or two, we’d look down every so often to see if we could still see her tracks. But, the conversation went elsewhere, and the tall green forest wound us out of the valley towards the silver wings of the Big Susitna River below us.

And, I forgot about the bear.

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses susitna river

Rounding a bend, the golden grizzly stood broadside to us, massive and startling and staring right at us.

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses grizzly bear

{These pictures aren't of the the actual bear- they're pictures of other bears that Chris took years ago, cause I wasn't quick enough or brave enough to get a picture of the bear on the trail that day}.

Some moments undo the world around me; it just disappears. There are no more birds singing in the sky, or river winding below, or mountains beckoning ahead. Just Faly, and I, and this bear.

Faly became a statue, a concrete block beneath me. In all the miles of trail, in all the bends of the road, there’d been no bear around the corner.

Until now.

My heart and mind stilled to the improbable humped form before us, the bear turned off all the wheels and whistles except that early first command in times of danger: stay still and hush. 

grizzly bear brown bear alaska arctic horse horses arctic horse

The blonde bear twirled its immense bulk and exploded quicker than a heartbeat up the hill and veered into the woods. Impossibly fast, the gait a hybrid between the hulking shouldered run of a gorilla and the litheness of a leopard.

Good God. It's shaggy massive frame suggested only the slowest ability to move, but I seriously doubted I could outrun it on my horse if I had to.

Faly still hadn’t moved. We’d both been riveted, but the world now sank slowly back into place.

Not for the first time, I admired the stones this horse had. Faced with a grizzly, he didn’t shy or turn to flee, he’d just stood his ground. In a dang halter. Hot damn, I loved this horse.

Everytime I tell this story, Chris "reminds" me that the bear wasn't that big (he doesn't have a normal reference range, having lived out at Katmai for years with gigantic brown bears). I resist the urge to "remind" him upside his head that it was a flipping grizzly bear standing right in front of us.

That bear made our day. We rode the last few miles back to camp with huge smiles.

But, Chris just couldn't resist telling me that sometimes bears will follow along in the woods for a bit, just out curiousity.

I tried not to give him the satisfaction of turning my head to scan the woods, but when some branches snapped off to the side of us, I'll tell you confidentially, the ligaments in my eyeballs got a real good workout.

Day 3: Fly-fishing and napping

The last day we decided to try for some Dolly Varden out in Windy Creek. We had several stream crossings and spotty weather, so I rode in my Backcountry Trail skirt (water-resistant), and brought my Multi-Rein so I didn't need to bend over to let him drink.

We rode a few hours out in the valley, and set up our portable electric fence for the horses. Boy, do I love that thing.

Chris went down to the creek for some fishing, while I layed down on the tundra and relaxed with the horses in the sweet wide open.

That's our Backcountry Trail skirt I'm snoozing in, ride in it all day, sleep on the ground with it, we've even unfolded it to lay on while changing a flat tire in the pouring rain. That skirt is a workhorse.

The saddlebags are the TrailMax system from Outfitters Supply, and the portable electric fence is a Max-Flex. A few of my favorite tools for exploring the world with horses.

Arctic Horse horse trekking trail riding denali alaska windy creek camping with horses backcountry trail skirt

Well, we didn't catch any fish, but neither of us cared. For days, it was just us and the horses and the wild. An absolute perfect trip.