Cairns along the Trail

by Janet Thomas

Assistant Editor

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    Summiteers learn to find the right path even in tough terrain.

    Beth, Blondie, Freckles, Beauty, and Dolly went on a backpacking trip. But on their backs they carried Amy, Linda, Jennifer, Heidi, and Cherish.

    Beth, Blondie, and crew are the four-legged, half-ton-with-mane-and-tail variety of backpackers; but even though they see the trail from a slightly different angle than their human cargo, they know the mountain trails as well as anyone. They know how to pick their way down a rocky trail because they hate to slip on the loose rocks. They remember the spots where they have stopped to camp for the night. They know how to work a little slack into the reins so they have a chance for a quick bite of succulent mountain grass. They know how good it feels to roll in the dust after their humans have removed the saddles and saddlebags. Even though they enjoy getting out on the mountain trails, they are only horses, more intent on their next mouthful of grass than the beauty of a panorama of rugged mountains, blue sky, and snow-fed lakes. Those beauties are left for their riders to enjoy.

    And the beauties of the Tetons, a range of mountains slicing the border between Wyoming and Idaho, were not lost on the girls from the Idaho Falls Idaho East Stake. They chose to spend three days on horseback as their Summiteer trip. The Summiteer program is the adventure-laden fifth year of the Young Women camp certification program. Girls are encouraged to plan and carry out an activity themselves, using the things they have learned about organizing and camping during their four years of the Campcrafter program.

    It was a gorgeous morning in August when the girls met to carpool to the mountains. In reviewing how the activity got started, Susan Butikofer, Summiteer leader for the stake, said that the girls wanted to go horseback riding or winter camping, both ambitious undertakings. She said the girls got together to make their decision. “I backed clear off,” said Susan. “If these girls are here after four years of Campcrafters, they want to be here. The leaders aren’t pulling them along anymore. At this age, these girls have so many things keeping them busy, they have to have a real desire, and some have made a real sacrifice to pursue their Summiteer.”

    It took extra effort to arrange for the trip. Every girl who participated in the horseback Summiteer trip was working a summer job and had to arrange to take the time off without pay. Also they were inventive about the ways they came up with the fee to pay for the rental horses. One girl gathered earthworms to sell to a fisherman’s bait shop to earn the fee.

    The first morning of the trip was spent saddling the horses and consolidating equipment into small bundles to be packed on the mules. Then everyone was assigned a mount. For the inexperienced, coming eye to eye with the animal she would be responsible to saddle, curry, hobble, and keep under control for the next three days was a daunting moment. But the horses knew what they were doing even if the girls didn’t and put up with the fumbling fingers, the jerking reins, and the indecisive directions given by their riders. The horses fell into line behind the lead horse regardless of the directions given by their riders as they headed up the trail. The girls were soon to learn who really was in charge on this trip and that they were just along for the ride.

    It was a glorious summer day. The air at that mountain altitude was crystal clear. The sky was such an intense blue that it was a subject of debate whether it was closer to the color of robins’ eggs or more like a tropical sea. The meadows were alive with wild flowers, every color and kind—columbines, Indian paint brush, bluebells, purple lupine, buttercups. Although the valley was in the heat of summer, here in the mountains, it was spring. It was soon obvious that the horses needed little direction while on the trail. This made it easy for the girls to absorb the scenery with names as colorful as the places themselves—up Fox Creek, past Death Canyon, along the Teton Shelf, down the Sheep Steps, into Alaska Basin, and on the Skyline Trail.

    As the trail climbed, the trees began to thin out. Tall stands of pine were separated by stretches of rocky meadows. Water seemed to gush from every crevice, and clear, cold streams joined together to form high-running creeks. With the sun, the flowers, the water, the scenery, and the good company, it was nearly as perfect a day in the mountains as it could be.

    But there were saddle sores in paradise. At the end of the day’s ride, when at last the camp spot for the evening was selected, there were some mighty groans, some bent backs, and some crooked legs as the girls dismounted. But no matter how tired the girls were, the first concern was to take care of the horses. Saddles were removed, bridles carefully coiled, and hobbles attached. “Come on, come on, just move your other hoof over here.” Linda Garner, of the Idaho Falls 38th Ward, was talking out loud as she struggled to get her horse to put his front legs close enough together to fasten the hobbles, a small girl trying to coerce a large animal into cooperating.

    After setting up camp and getting dinner started, it was time for a treat. Custom-made snow cones were just the thing to cool down and quench thirst. The crushed ice was gathered from the remnants of a nearby snowfield. Punch mix was prepared at double strength and poured over the snow. No machine could chop the ice more perfectly than nature had already done.

    That evening a full moon rose over the mountains like a spotlight. It was so bright that the girls didn’t need flashlights to find their way around camp.

    By the second day, the girls were old hands at preparing their horses for the day’s ride. Jennifer Goodell of the Idaho Falls 38th Ward saddled her horse and wandered up the hill from camp and sat down to watch the early-morning light play among the peaks. It was a time for a moment’s introspection as she absorbed the beauty of nature and the feeling of oneness with our Creator.

    The second day offered some unexpected challenges. The group had to negotiate a section of steep loose shale, and there were mushy snowbanks that would be too dangerous to ride across. The girls walked down the trail, leading their horses across the snowbanks, staying uphill in case their horses started to slide. Everyone was careful and made it across safely.

    By now, some of the inexperienced riders were feeling more comfortable on horseback. Cherish Haroldsen of the Idaho Falls 41st Ward had never been on a horse until this trip. She was given a gentle horse, and she soon got into the rhythm of trail riding. She just tied her reins to the saddle horn and let her horse find his own way. “I figure the horse knew where to put his feet better than I did,” Cherish said. “As long as another horse is in front of him, he does real good. But just try to make him do something the others aren’t doing. He’s like a teenager. He follows peer pressure.”

    The group entered a beautiful basin where snow-fed lakes connected by small waterfalls descended like huge stairsteps. The trail faded and disappeared altogether as it led across flat, slick rock. By this time, the girls were gaining confidence and, instead of following the lead horse, they spread out in groups of twos or threes, picking their own ways across the rock. But they soon found that taking off on their own didn’t always work well. What looked like a good way to go often led to the edge of cliffs or into an impossible thicket of trees that forced them to turn back and retrace their routes.

    A forest ranger had gone over the trail before and had marked the best way across the slick rock with small pyramids of stone. These markers, or cairns as they are called, were easy to spot and if followed led safely across the section where the trail was obliterated. The girls found they could not rely on their own instincts or observations to select a good path. They found they had to trust the one who had gone on before to show them the best way. The girls started talking about following the cairns. “This is like our leaders giving us lessons about how to live our lives,” said one. “Yes,” said another catching on to the symbolism, “it’s like learning to follow the prophet. By listening to him, we can follow the right trail even when we can’t see where it leads.”

    On the final day, the girls were busy packing the mules and saddling their horses. Heidi Hicks, of the Coltman Second Ward, settled into the saddle and said, “It doesn’t hurt as bad this morning.” Indeed, the girls were becoming toughened to riding, but it was time to head home.

    The downward trail was rough. It was very steep, eroded in spots, and had plenty of rocks to trip up even the most surefooted horse. But things went well. When a horse slipped, its rider hung on or slipped a foot out of the downhill stirrup in case a hasty dismount was called for. Horses and girls came through like troopers. Heidi summed up the feelings of many when she said, “If we had done that the first day, we would have been in tears.”

    At the end of the trail, the horses were anxious to get back to the corral, and the girls were again thinking about the activities awaiting them in the valley. But the impact of the trip was not overlooked.

    As one leader said at the last night’s campfire, “Many of you will be taken to faraway places to serve in the Lord’s kingdom. You’ll always remember these beautiful mountains and your home nearby. Bathe in the beauty, and pay attention to it.”

    The Summiteer program is designed to allow girls to use what they have learned in Campcrafters in planning and carrying out their own activities. It is easy to draw parallels to life. Girls are taught correct principles about outdoor life and about living the gospel. They find that in both, if they follow the markers, the cairns along the trails, set out by wise leaders who have led the way, they can find the correct paths.

    Photos by Janet Thomas

    “This is the latigo,” the outfitter said, holding up a long strap attached to the saddle.

    Learning the names of saddle straps was just part of the first day’s training. A few minutes later, the outfitter was instructing the girls on how to groom and curry a horse, how to position a blanket under a saddle, how to adjust stirrups, how to bridle a horse, and how to cinch up a saddle using the latigo.

    Valleys far below were broiling in summer heat, but here in the mountains it was spring. Snow had finally melted only a few weeks before and wildflowers were blooming in every meadow, perfuming the air with nature’s own fragrance.

    Riding toward an intense blue sky on trails more than a mile and a half above sea level, the Summiteers explored Wyoming’s high country.