Trail Riding at the Gallop: Riding to Hounds with the Fraser Valley Hunt – November 13, 2016

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Somewhere back in the mid 2000’s, my good friend Kerri-Lynne suggested that she and I take a trip over to the mainland to ride with the Fraser Valley Hunt, a club she’d ridden with back when she was a teenager. And so we did, she on Lyrique, her phlegmatic Canadian, and me on Phabulous, my very game one-eyed warmblood. I couldn’t have told you where we actually rode, but, this past weekend,  as I drove to the FVH meet Pai and I were attending, things started to look familiar. As we pulled in the driveway at the Kirkhovens’ Nicomen Farm on Nicomen Island, the flashbacks became solid memories: yup, this was the very same site at which I’d ridden my very first hunt, about a decade ago.

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Phab showing his sexy sunken eye socket. Riding with the Hunt back in 2000-and-?

In the intervening years, Phab, my flamboyant, willing, spectacularly athletic jumping/dressage/eventing horse passed away, and Pai was meant to be his Horse Trials replacement. Except, that never panned out. Despite the piles of time and buckets of moulah invested in dressage lessons and jumping lessons and cross-country lessons, life and injuries and COPD variously got in the way, and we have competed in pretty much… nothing at all. (OK, yeah: one CTR and one LD, both in the past year).

In that three or four year interim, Pai and I did, however, find opportunities to ride with the FVH a couple of times, and we had a blast. And so, when my work schedule gave me a weekend off this month, my first thought was: HUNT.

And that’s exactly what we did.

Foxhunting (the FVH is a drag hunt: there is no live quarry) is unquestionably the biggest rush you can ever have on horseback. It is trail riding. Group trail riding. Group trail riding, at a gallop. Group trail riding at a gallop, with hounds. Group trail riding at a gallop with hounds, over jumps.

(What could possibly go wrong? Is it pure coincidence that Jägermeister and Irish whisky get passed around at pauses?)

It is also a beautiful way to ride, with the baying of the hounds echoing through the woods, and riders all impeccably attired (well, they’re impeccable before they get covered in the mud flung up from the hooves of the horses in front of them).

This is how it works:

The day starts off with a gang of mounted riders, all looking supremely elegant in coats and tall boots – scarlet (“pink”) for the men with seniority, black with green lapels for the ladies, and navy or black for the rest of us – gathering together to partake of the “stirrup cup”, which is the entirely well-advised tradition of knocking back a glass of sherry before heading off en masse at a gallop to jump jumps. The purported “fox” is actually a couple of riders who drip scent from a flask as they charge ahead over the designated terrain. They set off ahead of everyone else with a 5-ish minute lead time, and lay the course, which the hounds are trained to follow. The hounds are managed by the Huntsman, and one or two Whips who assist in controlling the hounds (and they do indeed carry hunting whips with long lashes). Two to three fields (groups of riders) follow the hounds, each led by a Field Master. The first field is fast, right up with the hounds. If there are jumps, they will generally take them. The second field is a little slower, and may or may not take the jumps (there’s always an option for going around rather than over jumps). If there’s a third field, it is slowest, and will often forego jumps entirely. Every 10 or 15 minutes, there’s a “check”, where there’s a break in the scent and the riders pause to knock back liquor in relief at still being alive rest the horses, while the hounds cast about, waiting for a new trail to be laid. The Field Masters take the opportunity to warn the field about potential known hazards up ahead. And then: the horn sounds, and we’re off again!

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Hanging out at a check. The hounds with the Hunstman, Alysha.

As the riders were all marshaling at the start of the day’s ride, Pai began to demonstrate her Lipizzan genetics, getting alarmingly light in the front end. She iced that particular cake by shooting forward (with, you know, a cute little buck for good measure) if I applied the slightest bit of leg.  I began to think I ought to have put on my eventing back protector, since an involuntary dismount seemed extremely likely to be looming in my future.

In hunting, there is a bit of etiquette one needs to be aware of, most of it pertinent to keeping riders, horses, and hounds safe on what could otherwise be an utter gong show, and the FVH does a very good job at making sure everyone dies some way other than foxhunting.  Deciding upon the most sensible place, safety-wise, to position Queen of the World (who was wearing a bright ribbon in her tail as the prescribed notice to others of her personal space issues) when the hounds would set off was tricky, and I ultimately opted to ride at the back of First Field with my friend Carol, since I knew Pai would want to be fast.

Mistake.

The horn sounded, the hounds raced off all gorgeously baying, and Queen of the World lost any remaining vestiges of her cool. She blew off my aids, and I didn’t have enough hardware in her face to manhandle her into keeping the pace I wanted. She instantly figured out that Those Dogs were in the front, and she also instantly decided (seriously, I could see the thought bubbles coming out of her head) that if she could get ahead of Those Dogs, she would be the one running this entire show. And that’s what she tried to do.

So, yeah. That was fun.

We circled around to the back of the field a couple of times during the run in order to maintain a safe distance from the hounds, but, as the Field Master – a veterinary colleague of mine – pointed out, circling could potentially foul the scent line for the hounds depending on where it was laid. Oops.

(As an aside: I was wearing long underwear, because I always get cold, riding in the fall, and the forecast was for a cold, rainy, miserable day. I’m sure I have a mental Note to Self filed somewhere in my brain from previous hunts about how much work it is, but yeah, no. I had forgotten everything useful I had ever known. So when we pulled up at the first check, I was un-freaking-believably hot. WHAT WAS I THINKING?? Long underwear???)

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Hounds casting for scent at a check.

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Steaming hot horses at a check.

At the first check, Pai and I sheepishly (I sheepishly, she churlishly) dropped back to Second Field to avoid becoming personae non gratae through committing a giant breach of etiquette, namely, busting past the Field Master in a spectacular display of crap horsemanship.  Carol, my friend of twenty-five years and current Master of Foxhounds at the FVH, very gallantly offered to ride along with us, which was very helpful to my keeping my horse to a reasonable pace. Having a steady horse (Max) to canter along with neck and neck rendered Pai at least marginally civilized.

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Pai (“WHO SHALL I DOMINATE NOW?”) and Max (“Chill the f**k out. What is wrong with you? Jaysus. Relax.”)

The hounds followed a path that had us crossing small forks of the Fraser River two or three times over the course of the hunt. At one point, the route involved a steep muddy drop into a deep (surpri-ise!), water-filled ditch, and up the other side. Horses were flinging themselves into the ditch like it was cross-country water jump, horses were (unsuccessfully) trying to jump that mofo like a regular ditch, horses were plunging around like there was a sea monster down there. I was inordinately pleased with my girl when she met that question with a blasé “Sure, yeah, whatevs,” and navigated the whole obstacle at a sedate walk: my good little trail horsie got her brain back when it counted.

The hounds charged along a route that crossed some narrow branches of the Fraser River. After having braved the chest-deep Red Deer River at Ya Ha Tinda more than a couple of times, with its round rock footing and a current that knocked the horses sideways, fording a deep but comparatively inviting fork of the Fraser was a meh. Because she wanted to be in front, Pai fairly pulled my arms out in order to march into the river where others hesitated. (I. WILL. BE. YOUR. QUEEN.)

It was a meh for Pai, but for others, not so much. The river was running quite high, and at least one pony had to actually swim to get across. And more than one rider ended up toppling off for an unintended Bathing Beauty award.

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Pretty spot for a check.

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Just hangin’ out, wondering where that First Field has gotten to…

It’s been two or three years since Pai has done any jumping, so I was delighted when she negotiated the jumps (well, all but one) nicely. I, on the other hand, likewise having not jumped for a couple of years, was supremely inelegant and, also, unhelpful. I dropped a stirrup over a log as we were galloping through a winding track in the woods, and was the polar opposite of deft in getting it back. (But got it before the next jump. Phew.)

One of the other people I  met up with on this hunt was Nichole-from-Squamish, whom I’d hit it off with camping in Merritt this past summer. Nichole and her Canadian mare Cricket had ridden with the FVH a couple of times earlier in the fall. On this hunt, which was a little less newcomer-oriented than her previous rides, Nichole shared my struggles with managing a green horse who gets over-excited in a group, but enjoyed her day nonetheless.

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Nichole and Cricket at the pre-hunt marshaling. Photo: William Donnellan.

(Another aside: Nichole has one of these Arctic Horse all-weather riding skirts, which fill me with envy as winter trail riding apparel, and are now on my first-ever Christmas wish list. As she was walking down the laneway post-ride, someone told her she looked like the Empress Sissi returning from a hunt. And she did.)

At the end of the hunt, riders gather for a mock kill, where the hounds get their reward, and have excellent dog fun tearing it apart (“it” varies, but whatever it used to be, this veg-head can assure you that it is already as dead as whatever you eat for dinner) and gobbling it down.

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The hounds arguing over ownership.

The ride is followed by the Hunt Breakfast (in fact a late lunch), served with or without “Irish” (whisky for your coffee). This day’s Breakfast was put on by the Mission Hills Pony Club, some of whom had ridden at the meet. They very shrewdly offered a fund-raising tack cleaning service post-ride, of which I would totally have partaken had I not already spent all my cash.

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Missed my opportunity to have someone else deal with this mess.

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The steed got a little dirty, too. Photo: William Donnellan.

Woo baby, what a ride!

Tally ho!

Notes for horsey folk:

The Fraser Valley Hunt holds its meets on Saturdays, mainly in farmlands around Abbotsford, with some special hunts being held at other venues: Washington State, Pemberton, and the Sunshine Coast, and occasionally elsewhere. The hunting season runs from September through April.

The Hunt members are a very friendly, welcoming group, and are happy to see new people show interest in the sport. They are also a wealth of helpful information for newbs, and are always concerned about safety.  At this meet, there were Pony Clubbers riding along in Second and Third Field, as well as a new-ish rider on an Appy, in a Western saddle.  Non-members are welcome to ride with the Hunt as guests, paying a “capping fee” to do so – see the website for tips, etiquette, fixtures list, and contact info. There is no formal dress code for guests as long as they are neat and tidy.

The terrain covered varies from flat farmland to rolling hills to winding lanes through woods, and hunts last anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours. Footing can be muddy, and there may be water crossings.  Jumping is not mandatory.

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Riding Out the Typhoon: Cowichan Valley Rail Trail Ride – October 15, 2016

It must have been a slow news week, because, Thanksgiving weekend, the CBC outdid itself in alerting listeners to the fact that Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland would in for a big storm within the next few days. Going by the frequency and urgency of the warnings, you’d think they were prophesying End Times. On the following Saturday afternoon – the day of the purported peak – as the third front approached the coast, the CBC was interrupting its regular programming to issue solemn “Updates” every 15 minutes.

Given the zeal with which news outlets reported the impending storm, people could be forgiven for thinking Armageddon was approaching.

A little backtracking:

Every fall, for the past five years, I have planned to attend some special weekend event or other with Pai. I don’t work much, but I do work Saturdays, and so attending something horsey on a weekend involves finding a fellow doc willing to take my shift, and taking my call if I’m scheduled on. If I’m going to the States, it involves getting a Coggins test and Health Papers organized. If it’s a competition, it involves months of training beforehand. And for every one of these events I’d planned for and trained for and hoped to attend, each fall for the past five years, it’s all gone to custard. Whether it’s been attending a super-fun hunt, competing in a horse trials, or riding a CTR, every single year we’ve been foiled by injury, illness, or weather.

The best one was the year we planned to go down to Lyndon, WA, with the Fraser Valley Hunt. We managed to overcome (1) a pulled shoe a day before I was supposed to leave (my wonderful farrier gave me an emergency shoeing), (2) Health Papers that went AWOL and only turned up on the day of my departure, and (3) a crazy day at work on that Friday.  We made our scheduled ferry the night before the hunt…only to have pretty little flakes of snow start to fall a couple of km from my stabling. And the pretty, pretty snow fell and fell and fell overnight…. And the ground froze… And the hunt was canceled. All in, between papers and ferry and gas and a bottle of wine for the stable owner, our nice little sleepover in Langley set us back $500 or so.

Yeah, and that’s how it’s gone every fall for what seems like forever. So, this year, the year I had arranged a weekend off to ride Pai in the Limited Distance (25 mi) event at the Cowichan Valley Rail Trail Endurance & CTR… This year, when the weather reports turned ominous, I was gloomily positive that the ride would be canceled, and my plans would once again go pear-shaped. It just effing figured.

On Thursday morning, I got a call saying that half the competitors had pulled out because of weather concerns, and asking was I still game?  You bet I was. Even though I hate being wet and cold, and even though the idea of horse camping in a field in the face of a monsoon was not making me turn cartwheels of joy, I was still game. I had arranged the weekend off. I was already packed. The show must go on, dammit.

The first and only other time I’ve ridden in an Endurance event was about ten years ago, at the Ride Over the Rainbow event just south of Merritt, on my 23-year-old Standardbred, Fred (The Rainbow trails are absolutely gorgeous, by the way – if you get the opportunity to ride there, do. There is camping as well.). Although I had competed in Competitive Trail with Fred for many years,  riding the Rainbow ride, I felt like Endurance perhaps better suited my temperament. Now, after a decade away from trail riding competitively, I have been keen to try an Endurance ride with Pai. A starter-level Endurance ride in mid-October seemed like a good way to dip our not-quite-peak-of-fitness toes into Endurance. Pai and I had the spring Spruston CTR under our belts as a bit of get-your-feet-wet intro to competitive riding, and five weeks of riding on the prairies and in the mountains to start the summer off; on the downside, my 3-to-4 weeks in PEI in August had morphed into a 6-week stay that didn’t get me back on Vancouver Island until the middle of September. The horse had been parked in a field, getting fat. (Pai has insulin resistance, and gains pounds eating air.  With 6 weeks off work (other than some longing done by a very nice friend), she’d gotten a little chubby, and had lost a little fitness.)

When I got home from PEI, we spent a month working our way back to cardiovascular fitness, riding out on local trails 5 days a week.  Aside from riding the relatively short loops in Hemer Provincial Park, which is adjacent to Pai’s farm, we rode at Spruston, which has trails ranging from hilly single track through forest to mossy decommissioned logging roads – fantastic footing! – to active gravel roads. The trails pass a couple of lakes as well as the Nanaimo River, and offer some gorgeous views.

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Carol and Sharon on Spruston’s “Friend of the Bride” ridge trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail

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Spy looking out over Crystal Lake

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The trails skirt the Nanaimo River

We also rode at Cable Bay, a mossy, ferny forest which is practically in my back yard – an easy ride from Pai’s barn.

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Riding with Christina and Michelle on the main Cable Bay Trail (photo: Christina Young)

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The road home from Cable Bay (photo: Christina Young)

And, on the recommendation of a friend, we popped down to Paldi just north of Duncan, to ride the Cowichan Valley Trail, which is a multi-use rails-to-trails route that is part of the Trans Canada Trail, and to explore some of its offshoots.

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A beautiful fall day in the Cowichan Valley.

The photo above, taken five days before the Limited Distance Ride, is pretty much how I’d originally imagined an October CTR/Endurance ride might pan out – blue sky, crisp air… Ah, fall.  But nay, nay. On Friday morning, as I finished up at work, the rain was bucketing down outside the windows.

The weather did clear a little as I did my final packing up, and it was actually briefly sunny as I headed out on the road with Pai in tow, but when I arrived at the ride base camp, the gorgeous Hi-Point Guest Ranch, two days of sluicing rain had taken their toll, and the field designated for camping was too wet to use. (Doug, the guest ranch owner, later told me that the pond had risen by about three feet over those two days). We were offered an indoor stall or an outdoor paddock, and, with most people having chosen to house their horses indoors, we scored what was the perfect housing for Pai: a big, lightly grassed paddock with an enclosed shelter that would keep her happy nibbling grass all night, and cozy should the promised tempest manifest itself. I joined the other campers in the gravel parking lot outside the indoor arena, and set up my little camp there.

While the night turned out to be clear, with a big bright moon, and no wind, the rain did start again the following morning as we were tacking up, and built up steam throughout the day until it became a relentless downpour. I had donned my full-on Man from Snowy River garb, and had hand warmers in my gloves and toe warmers for my feet, and had a saddle cover for the times when I walked the horse, so we maintained some vague semblance of dryness over the course of our 25 miles.

 

 

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Rain? What rain? Pai is keen to hit the trail. (Photo: Claire Viti)

The ride route for both the CTR riders and the Endurance riders was an out-and-back south along the Cowichan Valley Trail, and then, after a hold back at camp, an out-and-back north along the same trail. Being an old rail bed, the trail holds up beautifully to days and days of soggy weather, and the surface does not get torn up by a dozen horses trotting up and down it. The flat route makes for a very inviting ride, over excellent footing.

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See? It’s not that much different in the pouring rain…

The route took all but the Level I riders over the Kinsol Trestle, which spans the Koksilah river at a height of 44m (nearly 150 feet) – that’s like, way, way, way high up. It’s 187m (614 ft) long (about a block), and, in the slippery conditions, we were advised not to risk riding across the wooden surface, but to dismount and walk. My phone was so wet that I couldn’t get much of a pic (my wet fingers on the wet screen cover were useless), but the Victoria Air Photos video has some great footage.

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Best pic I could get of the Kinsol Trestle in a downpour.

In the end, despite the dire forecast, we had nothing more exciting, weather-wise, than what amounted to a long, pretty ride on a very rainy day. No one got trapped by falling trees and no one got blown off the trestle. Christine and Miki, who had organized the Spruston ride Pai and I attended in the spring, once again put on an event that was well-planned and well-run. Having the indoor arena at Hi-Point available for the vetting, and having its kitchen and lounge available for meeting, made a massive impact on rider – and vet (Andrea Plaxton from Epona Equine) – cheerfulness. I didn’t speak to a soul who hadn’t enjoyed their day.

Everyone else in the LD division had canceled, so Pai and I had no fellow competitors on our ride, but that was just fine. My goal was to ride a particular pace and have her come home in good shape. And so she did – we rode at a relaxed 6 mph, and my girl finished her final vetting with A’s in every category. Good girl!

And the “Storm of the Century” never really manifested itself. By the next day, the interwebz abounded with online comments like, ” ‘Storm of the Century’ downgraded after the fact to ‘Storm of the Weekend’ “, and “Storm of the Century: 2 stars, would not recommend.” Basically, fall arrived on the coast again this year. There was wind. Trees came down. There was heavy rain. Some ferries were canceled.

Yup, it’s October again this year.

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

Spruston notes on camping can be found in this previous post.

Hi-Point Guest Ranch and the Cowichan Valley Trail

The Hi-Point Guest Ranch is in Glenora, just southwest of Duncan. It offers camping, horse camping, and a B&B. Horse accommodations range from an indoor stall to an outdoor paddock to an outdoor paddock with shelter to setting up your own e-corral. There is an indoor arena, flush toilet, potable water, and electric hook-up should you need it. A short trail takes you up to the Cowichan Valley Trail, which is a multi-use rails-to-trails path that is part of the Trans Canada Trail. Footing is excellent and you can’t get lost. Cost for camping with a horse was something around $30.

There quite a few access points to the CVT, including a pull-out with ample room for trailer parking at Paldi. I haven’t checked it out, but the Glenora Trails Head Park is a staging area with horse corrals and camping available (note – you will be gated in when the park closes). Camping is free.

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Under-dressed in the Best Little Horse Camp in the West: Hideaway Horse Camp – July 19-21, 2016

Not to detract from all its awesomeness, but camping in a teeny tiny rig has one glaring downside: a lack of running water. Specifically, a lack of hot running water that comes in the form of a shower.

I did have a solar shower with me, not the excellent shower that Mark from Minnesota donated to me, the one that would heat water to 50 degrees C within a few hours (because I forgot that one at home, despite my many lists) but a far-inferior substitute shower I picked up in Jasper. My first attempt at showering with that thing found me sorely disappointed as I sampled the water that had been sitting in the sun all day and found it to not be quite even lukewarm. Fail.

I did have use of the campground shower in Hidden Valley (propane-heated, great pressure, a loonie per 5 minutes), and in Jasper (one of those fabulous, deluxe showers that make you push a button every twenty seconds to make the warmish water come out), and of Vanessa’s house shower in Taber (which felt supremely luxurious), and of my lovely camp mate Doug’s RV shower, and of the shower in the Brooks rodeo grounds, and the not-quite-hot RV shower at Running Reins (I was too impatient to let the water fully warm up).  But between the limitations of camp showers, and not wanting to waste people’s water, by the time I hit Fairmont Hot Springs, I hadn’t had a long, decadent hot hot shower in weeks. And, because I’d stayed there last year and sampled their hot spring fed hot hot showers, I was very much looking forward to my stay there.

And then, of course, I was foiled by their new no-horse-trailers-in-our-campground policy, not to mention my own inability to check a map. No shower for you.

I arrived at Hideaway Horse Camp, just east of Oliver, BC, after eight hours on the road (6 and a bit hours driving time, plus stopping time for gas, coffee, checking the brakes that I noticed no longer seemed to be working as we engaged a 11% downhill grade…). This is the sign I found at my campsite:

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Another homecoming! (For the record, I think #4 is the sweetest site in the campground).

 

After settling up camp, Pai and Spy and I headed out for an hour-ish ride, and came back to find another note inviting me to cheese and crackers and homemade jelly and conversation – absolutely yes!! Anna Maria and I shot the breeze for something like  4 1/2 hours as a thunder storm rolled in, pelted down, and rumbled away.

And I met her fantastic little English Shepherd, Finnegan, who is truly an Old Soul. I offered Anna Marie a trade for The Worst Dog in The World, but she was having none of it.

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Ermagawd! Just look at that face!

 

The next day, Pai and Spy and I hit the trail late morning – sadly, sans Anna Marie, who had other commitments – on a ride I hoped would hit most of the trails on the map. Last time I was at Hideaway, the weather was fairly bleak, and the views I knew were hidden behind the low-lying cloud remained stubbornly out of sight. I’d also gotten a little lost that trip, and so I was determined to pay more attention to the trail markings.

We did pretty well up to intersection 16, after which we somehow lost the plot and ended up on some logging road headed up into the wop-wops. No matter – the views were spectacular:

 

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Looking west towards Oliver.

 

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Lunch stop.

 

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Lunch time view is A-Okay.

 

 

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The critters also admire the view.

 

Despite our little off-piste detour, our ride was exactly as long as I’d planned: six hours. And we saw wild horses (!). Pai paid them far more attention than I would have guessed she would, and seemed quite firmly determined to become a sister-wife. “Come back! Come back!” Seriously. Queen of the World turned into someone who wanted to live in a harem.

So back to wardrobe issues. When we got back, Anna Maria and Larry were on their way out, and my newly-arrived camp mates were nowhere to be seen. I was determined to have that longed-for shower, in Anna Maria’s supremely delightful stone-floored solar shower house. I gathered my things, got undressed, and turned on the water. And waited. And waited. And came late to the obvious realization that the day had not been nearly warm enough to heat the tank.

But I was determined. I wrapped a towel around myself, and scooted back to my campsite to heat water I figured I would use to fill my sub-optimal solar shower bag. After one kettle full and one pot full barely made a dent in the volume of the bag, it became apparent that this was not going to be a speedy endeavour, and so I poured myself a gin and tonic and cooled my jets and set up round two of water. Somewhere in there, the clank of the gate alerted me to the fact that my camp mates were back, and so I hurriedly whipped some clothes on. After three rounds of water-heating and two G&Ts, I was ready to roll. I lugged my bag to the shower house, tied it up, and yay! Except I’d overdone it on the heating, and the water was impossible to stand under. It was just barely tolerable if you crouched on the ground, giving the spray enough distance to cool before it hit your skin. (I’m sure this will become a Thing, something like, Primal Shower Position Number 2, Promoting Inner Thigh Strength). So yeah. Relaxing shower accomplished, I stepped out to discover… the towel I’d wrapped around myself was still back at my campsite.

I peered around the shower house to find that my camp mates were just mounting up for an evening ride. Excellent. A minute or two later, with them bobbing out of sight, I was able to streak naked across the lawn to my campsite and grab my towel.

Turns out my camp mates were from my neck of the woods, just up the road in Coombs on Vancouver Island. It’s a small world.

Coming back to Hideaway was like yet another homecoming on this trip of homecomings. It is a place to come back to, and come back to. Maybe with better wardrobe co-ordination.

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

I have trail and camp notes on Hideaway on a post from 2015 , in which I mentioned the incredibly uptown outhouse:

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Seriously. This is the outhouse. It has running water. And wood flooring. And lots of windows.

 

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Campsite #4, my fave.

 

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