OAKHURST – Planning ahead and being prepared for the unexpected are among the philosophies of Backcountry Horsemen of California.
These simple ideals were strongly reinforced recently for Mary Odell and her friends, when they went out for what was supposed to be an easy day, and wound up on the same mountain as the Sky Fire.
“A group of us headed up to ride our horses near the Kelty Meadows area on Thursday, June 18,” says Mary Odell, a member of Backcountry Horsemen/California Sierra Freepackers Unit. “We rode from near the bridge toward Greys Mountain Campground.”
Sierra Freepackers Unit is comprised of a cross-section of volunteers who work in concert with the Forest Service and others to keep public riding trails open and safe for horses and their humans. Many of the group are women.
For about three years, a core of Sierra Freepackers has been working on a restoration project for Kelty Meadows Public Campground in the Sierra National Forest. Along for the ride with Mary were Freepackers Suzanna Williams, Cathy Miller, Sue Lehman, and Terry Arner. Later on, the group was further enhanced by the presence of Ann Bates and Cindy Casey.
The ride began perfectly, with beautiful weather and plenty of shade and water for the horses. Soon, the group was surprised by what recent visitors to the forest had left behind.
“The first thing we found was a campfire still burning,” Mary says, shocked at the proof people could be so careless. “We couldn’t believe it. We got off our horses and took care of putting it out. There was a stream nearby with water in it still.” Abandoned campfires are a pet peeve. “We don’t understand why people think they can just leave their fires burning.”
After putting the campfire completely out, they continued on the ride.
“We rode through the Greys Mountain Campground and visited with people along the way. We really emphasized to everybody we saw to make sure that their fires were out when they left. Cold out!”
Next stop, the women enjoyed a packed lunch along Willow Creek.
“Our animals got to enjoy some green grass. We rode back, and thought we were going to have a short day.” They finished on the trail about 1:30 that afternoon, and by 2:30 p.m. the women were all in their trucks and headed for home, back down Sky Ranch Road.
“As we were driving down I noticed smoke and suddenly a large UPS truck pulled in front of me waving, telling us to stop.” Mary had to slam on her breaks to avoid a collision.
“He said, ‘You can’t go down there, there’s a fire and the road is closed!’ Luckily, we were in a spot where there was a pull-out.”
The group was composed of three trailers, and they were each able to turn around in the pull-out, and head back up the hill. Mary and another trailer turned in at Calvin Crest.
“I talked briefly with a man who showed me a map, and told me how to get over to the Sugar Pine Road. We got up to the Sugar Pine Road and we met up with four other trailers that had traveled up and through the Nelder Grove area.” A single car had joined the group, as well. They all had a common goal: get out before the fire comes.
“We traveled down the road, and it was a hideous, deeply rutted, red-clay mess. We managed to drive along and turned at what we thought was the last ‘Y’ before Highway 41, and suddenly came to a dead-end. Thank goodness we are all pretty trailer savvy, and helped each other pull over as high off the road as we could, to get turned around in the small space at the end.”
When they got back to the last “Y” before Highway 41 and attempted to turn, authorities in a parked emergency vehicle said they needed to go back where they came from.
“They said to go back over to Sky Ranch Road where we could cut across to the Greys Mountain Campground. We drove through the camp and up the hill and away from the fire. We had ash falling on us throughout the long drive and I think we averaged about 10 miles per hour. At times, we could see black billowing clouds and flames.“
Eventually the caravan was able to connect with the road over to the Cold Springs Summit and Beasore. From there, they drove down toward Bass Lake, to safety.
“I finally got home around 8 p.m.,” Mary says with relief. “All is well. My truck and trailer were pretty dirty. My horse and mule were happy to be home.”
Mary feels the same way. She recommends now that riders take maps with them, even when riding in local front country trails, so they know their options in case of fire. You can’t always count on GPS or phone service.
Sierra Freepackers have yet to help out with trail or campground restoration after a fire, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t welcome the opportunity if requested.
“We do know how to build water bars to slow erosion. We could pack in seedlings or other equipment for those replanting. There is a lot we could do. We just need to be asked and then we can see if we have the skills needed.”