Elk Creek Pack Trip

Here’s a story from several years ago about a summer pack trip that I took with some friends.


Summer was a little late coming, but it arrived with a vengeance here in the little valley where I live.  Temperatures jumped over night from the low 70’s to the high 90’s and touching 100.  I got out the clippers and gave the Airedales their summer haircuts; then began thinking of setting up a camp somewhere at a higher elevation.  I stocked up the camper, hitched up the horse trailer, loaded the horses and dogs, and pulled out for the Rye Patch trailhead.

I didn’t plan on staying in one place very long, so I put up a temporary camp; no more than a hot wire corral for the horses, and called it good.  The next morning I saddled up and rode to Paradise Lake.  It’s a short ride of little over an hour, but a steep climb that gains elevation fast.  At a little over 6100 feet it was high enough to offer relief from the temperatures in the valley.

I found a couple of back packers camped by the lake; an ex-Marine and his son from the coast.  We chatted awhile, and fished; and late in the afternoon I headed back down the trail to my own camp.  I spent the night there, and the next day moved my camp to another trailhead.  My plan was to spend the rest of the day there and ride to Sky High Valley the next day.

I was stretched out on a camp cot, enjoying a beer, when Manuel drove into camp.  While he got on the outside of a cold one, he told me that he and Mary and Fred (another friend) were getting ready to leave on a week long pack trip in the Elk Creek country, and that I had better come along.  The catch was that I had 2 days to get ready!  Within a half an hour I had packed up my camp for the second time that day, and was home by that evening.  I needed to get a few chores done around home and make the switch from truck camping to horse packing.

Manuel is a retired commercial packer, and has run a string of horses and mules all over these mountains.  These days he is hampered by poor health, but he doesn’t let it slow him down any more than necessary.  Between breaking colts, building custom pack saddles, and volunteer community projects, he is one of the busiest “retired” people I know.  He still spends as much time as possible in the back country.

Fred is semi-retired from the phone company.  He still works part time in the winter; but he keeps several head of horses, and when the trails clear of snow he saddles up and heads for the high country.  Mary is the only one of the group who was on a time schedule.  She still holds down a full time job working for the county, but she had a week of vacation time coming over the 4th of July holiday and planned to take advantage of it.

Of course I’m a devoted “mountain bum” from way back, so it didn’t take much to talk me into going along on this trip.  I would be seeing some new country I had never been in before, and that always makes for an interesting trip.  Early Saturday morning we met at a prearranged spot and headed out, down river.

July 1st:
The Elk Creek country is on the opposite side of the Marble Mountain Wilderness Area from my home.  A 2 hour drive pulling stock trailers brought us to the small one time logging town of Happy Camp.  Another 15 or so miles of narrow twisting road and we were at the Sulphur Springs trailhead.  We unloaded animals from the trailers and saddled up, then ate a quick lunch.  Most of our outfit was already packed, so it didn’t take long to load the pack animals and get started up the trail.

As usual, I rode my little Appaloosa while my bay mare carried my camp outfit.  Mary rode a tall lanky grey gelding that Manuel had bought for her several years ago.  Manuel was riding a BLM mustang from the “Adopt A Horse Program” that he had started the year before, while he led 3 pack mules.  Fred was riding a part Appaloosa that he had recently bought from Manuel, and he led 2 pack horses.  Later in the trip we would press some of the pack animals into service as riding stock, so that each got a fair amount of use and all got a day off to rest.

Of course we had the usual assortment of dogs along.  I had my 3 Airedales and 1 Hienz “57″ that normally accompany me everywhere I go.  Manuel had his new young dog which shows some obvious hound ancestry, and Fred had a small dog of the terrier type.  This was not a hunting trip, and very little bear sign and no cat sign was seen on the entire trip, so the dogs just tagged along with us and were good company for the week.  Later in the week I was to observe the reaction (or non-reaction) of the dogs to the elk that we encountered.

A 4 hour ride, pushing right along and with no trouble with the packs, and we reached our camp at the edge of Granite Meadows at an elevation of 5300 feet.  We made camp, belled the lead horses and turned them lose in the meadows, and had time to relax awhile before fixing dinner.  We had several days to look forward to; riding, fishing the high country lakes, and observing the local wildlife.

July 2nd:
My Birth Day!  More often than not in the last several years I have spent this day camped somewhere in the mountains, usually with some good friends.  It hasn’t been purposely planned, but it gives a good indication of how I usually spend my time this time of the year.

No one felt inclined to hurry much after the full day we put in the day before, so we spent a leisurely morning in camp; then saddled the riding stock and turned the pack stock lose to follow at their own pace.  An easy 45 minute ride and we were at Blue Granite Lake.

A couple of back packers (some of the very few we saw on the entire trip) were just packing their camp to leave.  We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon relaxing and fishing around the lake.  The fishing was pretty slow, but we managed to pick up a few trout; rainbows and brookies.

We arrived back in camp around 4:00 o’clock, and while Manuel said he felt a nap coming on he suggested that Fred and I ride up to another lake and see if we could pick up a few more fish.  A 15 or 20 minute ride from camp brought us to 2 small lakes within 100 yards of each other.  While I tried my luck in Green Granite Lake, Fred walked over to Golden Granite Lake and fished there.  We each ended up with several more fish, so everyone was assured of trout for breakfast the next morning.

We knew that Manuel and Mary would have dinner ready soon after we arrived back in camp and took care of the horses, so about 6:00 o’clock we put away the fishing tackle and started back down the trail.  Both Fred and I had our dogs with us, and they just tagged along, ranging out a little as dogs do.

Fred was leading, and he momentarily went out of sight around a turn in the trail.  When I rounded the turn, Fred was stopped and waiting for me.  He said a cow elk had just crossed the trail in front of him!

Now elk are animals that are completely unfamiliar to me.  Of course, like everyone else, I have seen lots of them on TV on various nature shows; but I had never seen the real thing.  One of the main reasons I was so enthusiastic about this trip in the first place, was that I knew we would be in the heart of elk country.

Elk were originally native to this country, but they were killed off by market hunters way back in the gold rush days.  Several years ago they were reintroduced in several places in the Klamath National Forest, including here in this area of the Marble Mountain Wilderness.  They have increased to the point that there is now a limited hunting season (by drawing), but they haven’t increased their range much from where they were originally planted.  Sightings on the side of the mountains where I live are rare, but not unheard of.  On occasions I have seen tracks and droppings, but never the animal itself.

Of course I perked right up when Fred said that he had actually seen one of the critters, then I switched my attention to the dogs.  They were as unfamiliar with elk as I was, and I didn’t want them to start running the strange animals.  I needn’t have bothered.  Kelly and Fred’s dog left the trail momentarily; but they were soon back, apparently unconcerned about the new scent.  We rode on to camp with something to report beyond the good fishing.

July 3rd:
We were all rested up due to the relaxing day before, so we rustled around a little earlier.  We had a way to go, and we were heading for one of the main attractions in the Marble Mountains.  We left several horses, including my own, tied in camp and switch to some of the pack animals.  I rode one of Fred’s horses, and Manuel rode Trudy, his good mule.

We were heading for higher country, and we soon began to see elk sign; more than I had ever seen in my life.  It looked like there had been a herd of cattle pass through the country, but of course they were elk tracks!  I was impressed by where some of those tracks went!  I know that a cow can go where a horse can’t.  Obviously an elk can go where a cow can’t.  The steepness of the mountain sides didn’t seem to offer an obstacle at all.

A little further up the trail, and Manuel had to answer natures call.  He tied his mule and walked off into an alder thicket.  Upon returning he said that he had jumped a cow elk and a yearling from the thicket.  Mary had seen elk at sometime in the past, so it was now obvious that I was the only one in the party who had never seen one.  It now became one of the main objectives of the trip for someone to show me an elk!
It soon became obvious that the Forest Service trail crew had not been to this part of the Wilderness Area yet, but we picked our way over, through, and around a series of blow downs and about a hour and a half out of camp we came to Ukonom Lake.  At nearly 64 ½ acres and 6053 feet elevation Ukonom is the largest lake in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

We scattered out along the shore of the lake, and for once I out fished Fred!  He was surely having an off day, as he not only takes his fishing seriously, but he is good at it!  We ended up with a nice batch of brookies and rainbows to take back to camp.

That evening, while sitting around the fire and enjoying a little toddy before dinner, a blacktail buck and 2 does darn near walked into camp with us.  A 3X4, he was more than a respectable buck; and it was hard for me to believe he had lived through several hunting seasons.
He gave me ample time to set up a tripod and video camera, and practically posed for me.  Tame as a park deer!

July 4th:
A 4th of July I will remember for awhile!  We were heading for a spot in the Marbles I had heard about for years but never been to; the Cuddihy Basin and Cuddihy Lakes.  Four small but scenic lakes nestled in a mountain basin at 5650 feet.

We had passed the fork in the trail that led to Ukonom Lake where we had been the day before.  Elk sign was everywhere, but some seemed smoking hot fresh!   Manuel, who was leading, suddenly stopped and motioned for the rest of us to come up even with him.  Every one knew immediately that he had found what I was hoping to see.

I was the last in line, but we all rode up together and I was in time to see a bull elk and a cow just before they disappeared into the timber.  If it had been a hunting situation, Manuel said he would have had plenty of time to step off his horse and shoot.  He and Fred had the best look at the bull, and both agreed that it appeared to be a 5X5.  A very impressive animal!  From the view I got, it looked like a horse with antlers.  Very BIG antlers!

I was riding my own horse, the Appaloosa.  He was as unfamiliar with elk as I was, but it was obvious he could smell the bull.  He just didn’t know what to make of it.  He wasn’t rattled or spooked; just at full attention.  The dogs with us paid no more attention to the new animals than they would to a bunch of cattle.  Interesting!

The elk gone from view and the excitement of the sighting died down, we continued along the trail.  We hadn’t gone 100 yards when 2 cow elk were seen on a ridge top, just standing and watching us.  They weren’t excited in the least, and continued to hold their ground until we rode out of sight.

I had finally seen my elk, and it pretty much made the whole trip for me.  Of course I joked that I now wanted to see a bull elk with half a dozen or so cows, standing out in a meadow where I could photograph them.  I was plainly told that my birthday was over, and I would have to wait another year to see that!
The rest of the ride and the fishing at Cuddihy Lakes was a bit anti-climatic now.  Clouds were beginning to build up, and it looked like our run of good weather was about to come to an end.  We knocked of fishing early, and before we finished lunch it started to rain.  We all had rain gear with us (it is foolish to travel in the mountains without it), and we soon had it on and got an early start back toward camp.

We were approaching the place where we had seen the elk, when Manuel suddenly stopped and pointed up hill.  There stood 2 cow elk on the hillside, just standing and watching.  Whether these were the same 2 we had seen earlier on not was anyone’s guess, but we seemed to have broken the ice and were seeing elk everywhere.  As it turned out, these were the last we would see for the balance of the trip.

July 5th:
Rain!  Nothing serious.  Just a light wetting rain that lasted, off and on, most of the day.

Manuel had a big tarp set up where he and Mary slept, but with plenty of room left over for everyone to gather and sit comfortably.  I had my own little dome tent set up a little away from the others where I kept my dogs away from the main camp and the kitchen.  Fred had a cot which he moved around to where ever it was dry; sometimes under a tree, but mostly under an edge of the big tarp.

It was a snug camp; and aside from a trip to gather firewood the day was spent mostly on heavy duty resting, and talking about other pack trips, past and future.

July 6th:
Our last day.  We swapped horses again, and I rode Fred’s horse for the second time.  We rode the same trail out of camp that we had been using until we got to the ridge above Cuddihy Basin.  I had to stop and take some pictures.  We could see the whole Cuddihy Basin and all 4 of the Cuddihy Lakes at one time.

We continued over the ridge and down the other side to One Mile Lake.  There were horse tracks on the trail ahead of us, but we ran into heavy blow down and who ever was in the party ahead of us had never made it all the way to the lake.

We found 2 parties of back packers camped at One Mile; the most people we had seen all week.  They had come in via a different and much shorter trail, but they didn’t come through all that good elk country either.  We spent the late morning and early afternoon fishing, then made the 2 hour ride back to camp.

July 7th:
Up and at it for an early start!  We broke camp and started the packing up job.  I had my little camp down and packed away in the bags.  I lifted one bag to judge it for balance, and threw my lower back out!!!

It’s a recurring problem, and I’ve put up with it for years.  It just picked a lousy time and place to act up!  I set the bag down and sat down for awhile with my back against it.  Mary saw me sitting there when she knew I should be busy, and figured out pretty quick that something was wrong.

I got up after awhile and managed to saddle my horses; then did my best imitation of a hitching post.  I held the horses and mules while Fred and Manuel did the actual packing.

We headed out on the 4 hour ride back to the trailhead, and somehow it just wasn’t as much fun as the ride in had been.  We had to keep moving right along too.  The clouds were building again, and really looking black this time.

We had the trailhead in sight when the first thunder rolled, and it was starting to sprinkle as we rode up to the trailers.  We were hardly off the horses and hadn’t begun to unload when the lightning flashed and the sky fell!  Rain and hail in a torrential down pour.  We all jumped inside one of the stock trailers to wait it out, but our gear was soaked in minutes.  Everyone spent the next couple of days at home drying everything out.

Eventually we got everything stowed away in the pickups, loaded the animals, and made the drive home.  All in all, it was a fine trip; and I doubt if it will be the last time any of us sees that part of the Marble Mountains again.  After all, someone still has to show me that bull elk with his harem out in a meadow where I can photograph them!


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