One fine day in June, 1959, I packed equipment and supplies for three months into the Grand Teton National Park backcountry. I was a 21-year old seasonal ranger. The remote Death Canyon Ranger Station was going to be my home and patrol base until the end of August.
The next morning I reined King back down the trail to return the two pack horses to White Grass Ranger Station, their panniers empty. As we descend the narrow trail hacked into the north wall of the canyon, I can see across Jackson Hole to the Wind Rivers, my home mountains. The sight stirs memories. My mind wanders. I should have been paying attention.
Suddenly everything is wrong. Both packhorses are beside me instead of strung out behind. They are still headed downhill, but I’m looking uphill. We are stopped side by side, facing in opposite directions, high up on the precipitous canyon wall, three horses wide on a one-horse trail.
Then I understand. I had been warned that King’s right foreleg was suspect. I was told to try him out. If I reported him unsound, he would be exchanged for a different saddle horse.
Now we are in a tangle on the trail because King has decided he’d rather go uphill. His gimpy foreleg, tender from the previous day’s work, has made going downhill painful. At each step the damaged joint has to absorb the weight of both horse and rider.
Noticing me woolgathering, King has taken the opportunity to turn back. And he picked a narrow spot on the trail to do it. The horses, even the knot head Sandy, recognize the situation is dire. King freezes. The packhorses roll their eyes at the abyss falling away to their right and skitter to the left against King. They freeze too.
For the moment I’m trapped in the saddle. Sandy’s pannier jams my left knee against King, and King jams my right knee against the granite cliff. Speaking reassuringly to the horses while wiggling free of my stirrups, I squeeze down between King and Sandy. Carefully separating the three, I get us realigned and headed downhill again.
King was a willing worker with a fine temperament. A big black half Morgan with a star and stockings, he and a smoky bear hat made handsome accessories for a young ranger, I thought. But King never again challenged the steep trail into Death Canyon.
Author : Don M Ricks