Friday, September 22, 2023

The Amazing Onaqui Wild Horses

Our favorite campsite with the Onaqui

The Onaqui wild horse herd near Dugway, Utah, has long been my favorite. Most of the wild horses we follow consist of small bands of no more than a dozen horses. A lead stallion protects his mares, foals, and, occasionally a lesser stallion. But not the Onaqui. They have two or three major groups of thirty or more horses, with several bands within each group. It makes for a dynamic situation. Stallions vie for mares, young ones spar, and mares protect their offspring from any ruckus they may encounter. 

We have been reluctant to visit these wild horses since 2020. In 2021, the Bureau of Land Management declared them overpopulated and enforced a major cull. Using horribly inhumane tactics, they drove as many horses as possible with helicopters and ATVs into a corral area. In such round-ups, the horses are terrified by the noise and relentless onslaught, stampeding across broken ground in front of the machines. During this latest cull, half a dozen horses were put down on site because of broken legs. Stallions were separated from their bands. Mares were separated from foals. Over half of the 300-plus horses rounded up are now confined to government corrals because they are considered unadoptable because of age or health. It is a sad commentary on how these creatures are treated and how their freedom is ended, particularly when more humane ways to cull the herds exist and are used in other parts of the country. 

It takes several years after a cull for the  horses released back in the wild to re-establish territory and bands. We wondered if enough time had elapsed. Most often the horses remain so skittish around humans and vehicles that it is nigh on impossible to photograph them. We decided to take our chances. 

We entered the area through the southeastern corner of the Great Salt Lake. The gravel road winds between mountains and flats. 

Great Salt Flats

We camped in a gravel pit during our first night. While walking Sam the next morning, I spied this tiny horned lizard. 

Tiny horned lizard

We drove through Fishing Creek Wildlife Refuge. Yet again, we were too early for the fall waterfowl migration. We saw lots of coots and a dozen or more Ibis-looking birds that were quite coy. I’ll wait until we’re home to name them. 

Fishing Creek Wildlife Refuge

We have a favorite campsite on a bluff, overlooking the Davis Mountains. We have had horses graze right past us in this spot. It also offers a great view of the area. 

Our bluff-side  camp

The next morning, we found one of the herds along the Pony Express roadway near the Simpson Creek campground (please see our last post from David about the Pony Express). We were close enough to watch them from the road. At one point, two of the stallions got into a tussle and ran across the road, right in front of us. I love moments like this. 

After the herd meandered past us, we visited several other places where we have seen herds in the past. But this time, the horses were being shy. 

We went to our campsite and waited until morning. While driving to one of the watering holes, we spied the largest of the Onaqui herds not far off one of the gravel trails. David slowly drove the path, stopping the truck about 50 yards from the herd. To our delight, the horses grazed right toward us. At one point, one of the stallions grazed a mere twenty feet from the truck. Sam, although on high alert, was quiet and respectful.

It is such a privilege to be in the presence of the horses and to watch them interact. We watch several roll in the dust, then shake mightily, creating a cloud of dust. 

We noticed a young filly with a gash across her chest. Hopefully it will heal. Her mother was very protective when several stallions spared nearby. It was the kind of encounter that few are able to enjoy. 

Filly with a gash on her chest

There's nothing better than a dust bath

A sentinel stallion

A cold front was due in by morning, but there was no prediction of rain. So we set camp in our usual spot. By sunset, however, a mountain of red clouds gathered in the south and rain was on the horizon.

Storm clouds turned red at sunset

Storm clouds on the horizon

By midnight, the wind picked up. An hour later, the truck was rocking and rolling against great gusts. Our pop-up soft side billowed and blustered violently. David and I both knew we needed to find better shelter. 

We timed dropping the camper top between wind gusts. At two in the morning, we were making our way down a rugged four-wheel path under the beam of headlights, watching night creatures scurry in front of us. Sam was completely bewildered. 

There is an area about ten miles away from our camp that is near the bottom of the valley and surrounded with juniper trees. We made our way for that protection and located a spot between junipers to safely pop the camper again. I was surprised that we were able to go back to sleep after all the drama. But the junipers surrounded us, offering their safety, and we drifted back to sleep. 

Our safe camp, nestled between the junipers

The next morning, all was calm, although the clouds were heavy. We located both herds, but they were all at a distance. With rain in the forecast, we decided to leave my beautiful horses. With its heavy clay base, this road is not to be trifled with in rain. It quickly turns to a sticky, slippery muck. So goodbye once again to my beautiful Onaqui horses. Vaya con Dios. 

Onaqui stallion

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

From Six Months to Six Seconds

Original Pony Express route near Dugway, Utah

Please welcome commentator David for this post on the Pony Express...

In 1845 it took six months for correspondence from New York or Washington to reach California. By the time it arrived, it was old news.  When California was admitted to the union in 1850 current communications between Washington and Sacramento became more critical.

On January 7, 1860, after several attempts by California US Senator William Gwin to encourage the federal government to improve mail delivery time, a private consortium established The Central Overland California and Pikes Peek Express Company, better known as the Pony Express. Its expressed goal was to transport communications from St Louis, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in ten days. They also hoped to garner other commercial contracts from the army and private companies. 

The Overland company used existing stage and freight routes in the east but needed to establish new weigh stations in the west. The company purchased 400 to 500 mustangs, hired 200 men to manage the stations, and 80 riders. The riders were mostly single and many had no family because the route was fraught with danger. 

Due to the encroachment of settlers into American Indiana territory, the needless slaughter of the buffalo, and the atrocities perpetrated by the gold and silver miners from 1859 to 1860 in Western Nevada, the American Indians were hostile to the pony express riders and station managers. Although the riders and their horses were fast enough to escape the dangers, many station managers lost their lives due to their stations being attacked. 

The more fleet-footed thoroughbred horses worked well in the plains of the east, but the half-broken mustang horses where favored in the west due to their strength and endurance in the arid and mountainous regions of the west. 

The average horse could cover about 10 to 12 miles per day at full speed, so the company set up stations every 10 to 15 miles where the riders could exchange their rides for fresh horses to continue their journey. 

The first rider left St Louis on April 3, 1860. However on October 4, 1861, the transcontinental telegraph line was completed, creating a much faster and cheaper way to send communications from the east to west coast. Nineteen months after the first Pony Express ride, it became obsolete, but the legend of the Express lives on in the stories of the brave riders, horses, and their station managers.

The original route traveled right through Dugway, in central Utah, where we photograph wild horses.  The Oregon Trail Memorial Association and Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association have preserved the trail by constructing monuments, information boards, and preserving one of the weigh stations along the Utah portion of the trail running through Dugway west of Salt Lake City. 

Preserved Pony Express Station near Dugway, Utah

And today the history and legends of the Pony Express live on in the wild horses of the Onaqui. 

Sunday, September 17, 2023

A Return to Steens

Vista from Steens Mountain Loop near Frenchglen, Oregon

Over the years, we have tried several times to take the Steens Wild Horse Loop in Southeast Oregon near the town of Frenchglen but have been thwarted because of snow, slumps, and timing. We decided since we are slowing up our travels for the conference, we now have the opportunity to take our time to see what we can see. 

We learned from a store owner in Frenchglen that the loop had a slump over the road that prevented us from taking the entire 40-mile stretch. Based on her information, we chose to drive the southern section where we would most likely see wild horses. We traveled the entire 26 miles without seeing a single horse. 

It was late in the afternoon, and we were looking for a camping place. The designated camping area was next to an equestrian campground and inundated with black flies, so we moved on. Shortly afterward, we found the perfect road that would nestle us in the trees. To our surprise, we spied two wild horses, a stallion and mare, just beyond where we wanted to camp. 

The horses were a bit spooked at our arrival, but David cut the engine, and they settled down. I opened the door to the truck slowly, staying close to the cab to keep from alarming them. I spoke softly to them. Horses are such curios animals that they ventured as bit closer. The pair stayed near us while we set up camp, ultimately grazing out of our area. 

During a walk with Sam that evening, we came upon the carcass of a wild horse. In horse management areas, the horses live and die on the land. They receive no medical attention if they are injured or aged. While some would disagree, for me there is a dignity in their being able to live life that way… free and far from the things of man. 

Carcass of a Steen wild horse

An evening stroll with Sam.

As we left the next morning, we saw several other small bands of horses. It was uplifting to see them, even at a distance. Although the Steen horses were small in number, a wild horse is a wild horse in my book. I’m just delighted we found them. 

Steens wild horses

Steens wild horses

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Towering Giants

Old growth cedar forest.

On to the Steens... farmers are beginning to burn their fields.  This was a fire near where we planned to camp.  The smoke was so bad, however, that we drove on to another site.  

The burning of the fields.

We passed through Idaho on our way to Oregon and the Steen wild horses. Last year we discovered an old growth cedar grove west of Lolo.  It was the perfect place to camp for the night. 

The grove is nestled beneath several enormous trees and next to a creek.  It is secluded and off the beaten path. After two times camping here, we have seen only one other vehicle in the area. We call it our gnome and fairy campsite because we feel so small there. 

To give you an idea of how big these trees are, here’s a little test. Can you find David and Sam in the photo below?  Hint: They’re near the base of the middle tree. 

David and Sam beneath the old growth cedar trees.

Friday, September 8, 2023


Between Jasper and Banff

We left Muncho Lake under cloudy skies and nearly freezing temperatures. Soon we realized that the mountains just above us had a fresh dusting of snow on them. We were here to witness the winter’s first snowfall. 

Now we travel on to Jasper. It has long been a favorite stop for us. We normally camp in Whistler campground. They have several bull elk there that gather their harems in the area. They are a treat to see. Several years ago, we saw a bull elk just outside one of the men’s bathrooms. As soon as he left, at least half a dozen fellas came boiling out of the bathroom. Bull elk in rut are nothing to trifle with… they have even been known to attack vehicles that they felt were invading their territory. 

We have a special place that we visit that is  territory for a certain bull elk. To our delight, he was there in all his glory. He had only acquired a small harem at this point. We knew immediately that we were early for rut. 

Elk near Whistler Campground, Jasper

The next morning, we visited several places we had seen elk in the past. Unfortunately, there were none to be found. The weekend was upon us, and the crowds were larger than expected because of a music festival.  The campground was full and crowded. It was time to move on rather than wait for the elk. 

While in Spokane, waiting for the new tire to be installed, we toyed with the idea of driving straight home. We are tired… maybe road weary is a better term. The problem is that it will take us a full four days of hard driving to get home. Nine days later, we will need to make a two-day hard drive to reach Los Alamos for the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers and Photographers conference. I am outgoing president and need to be there. And I know myself… once I’m home, I want to be home. Plus, those hard days of driving will be so difficult for Sam. So we continue. 

We have decided to retire our sock caps for cowboy hats. Our search now will be for wild horses. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Rocky Mountain High

(Warning:  Waxing Rhapsodic... this is a repost from the first time we visited Muncho Lake.  I feel the exact same way again each time we visit.)

When I was just days from turning sixteen years old, I saw the Rocky Mountains for the very first time.  I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday.  I fell in love immediately.

I had never seen anything so spectacular in my entire life.  Snow-capped mountains pushed high out of the earth.  Their jagged peaks beckoned to me.  I felt that I could touch the Face of God if only I could climb to the top of one of the highest summits.  They awed and humbled me at the mere thought of the Breath that had created them.

Nearly 35 years ago, on David’s and my first vacation together, we visited the Rockies.  It was then that I took my first steps on what I considered holy ground.  Since that time, we have traveled, camped, hiked, and backpacked through the Rocky Mountains. 

During those precious times, we have truly encountered God.  We saw Him one autumn outside of Hermosa Peak on a mountain draped in its coat of many colors.  We remembered His promises as a double rainbow arched across a ragged sky. We’ve prayed for Him to calm the storm and lead us home.  We have seen a flaming bush that did not burn and water so clear that surely He had already walked upon it.  We glimpsed Him in the sunlight on an eagle’s wing, heard Him in a buguling elk, and drank His sweet fragrance in an ancient juniper grove.  We’ve witnessed His Glory in such stunning views that time suspended and our hearts seemed to stop.  And we almost touched His Face as we climbed on top of our second fourteener, Handies Peak. 

Today, I am most blessed and privileged.  I stand at the northern edge of my Rocky Mountains.  We have now traveled them from stem to stern… over 1,850 miles of the most majestic scenery in the entire world.  Praise God… and thank You.  This is truly my Rocky Mountain high.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Muncho Lake, British Columbia

There is a section of the Alaska Highway that always captures my heart. The area between the Liard River and Toad River offers some of the best wildlife viewing ever. 

This time was no exception. Near the Liard River and Hot Springs, the Alaska Highway is known for its Wood bison, a different subspecies of the well-known Prairie bison. Wood bison are distinguished by their habitat and their squared-off shoulders. We even had to stop for a bison jam. One of the bulls showed recent scars from the last rut. Of course, the babies always get attention. 

Wood bison bull

Bison jam along Alaska Highway

Bull with scars from recent rut encounter

Wood bison baby

We saw at least nine black bears grazing along the roadside. These bears are in hyperphagia now, an insatiable hunger necessary to ready themselves for the onslaught of winter and their six to seven months of hibernation. Most were grazing berries. 

Black bear grazing berries

Black bear (probably first year on his own) grazing berries

We also saw a Golden eagle feasting on carrion. Later, we saw a small herd of Stone sheep. 

Golden eagle feasting on carrion on Alaska Highway

We camped at our favourite MacDonald Provincial Park on Muncho Lake. I have so many beautiful memories from this place. It is a homecoming of sorts. 

Even the rain didn’t deter. Although cloudy skies meant we would see no northern lights, it was still beautiful. And Sam loved swimming in the crystal clear, albeit cold, cold water. 

Panoramic of Muncho Lake, British Columbia

We awoke to frost on the pumpkin. A lady in the campground said her thermometer measured 28 degrees. Burrrrrrrr!

A frosty morning on the Alaska Highway

We took the drive to Toad River and spied a moose cow in a pond along the road. We laughed out loud… she was in the exact place I had photographed a moose cow during our first Alaska trip in 2010. Although the sun wasn’t in our favour, we still managed to take a few photos. 

Moose cow on Alaska Highway

Later, we spied a wayward porcupine. Their eyesight is poor, so I hopped out of the truck and photographed him at a distance. 

Porcupine on Alaska Highway

Then we spied some Woodland caribou. Sam was having a blast, smelling all the new creatures. This particular caribou was interested in her smell, too. 

Woodland caribou on Alaska Highway

The temperature was in the 60s by afternoon. We took a hike up the Mineral Licks Trail, enjoying the sunshine. It was a splendid day, indeed. 

David and Sam on Mineral Licks Trail

By evening, clouds rolled in again. It has rained every night for the past three weeks. This was probably our last chance to see the northern lights. I was a bit disappointed, but the reality is that we have already been blessed so very much this trip… and for that, I am forever grateful. 

Tomorrow we head even further south. We had planned on travelling to Yellowknife and Wood Buffalo National Park where we first saw the northern lights. But raging wildfires have evacuated the town, and we were discouraged from visiting there. When we discovered the road between the Alaska Highway and Yellowknife closed, we abandoned the idea completely. So we pray for the community’s safety and move on. 

Our next stop will be Jasper in Alberta, only about six hours from the US border. We have a date (I hope) with a bull elk at Whistler campground. The elk should be in rut and are always wonderful to see and photograph. And so we travel onward.