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On Equipment Post by :jenmary201 Category :Essays Author :Stewart Edward White Date :August 2011 Read :1224

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On Equipment

If you would travel far in the great mountains where the trails are few and bad, you will need a certain unique experience and skill. Before you dare venture forth without a guide, you must be able to do a number of things, and to do them well.

First and foremost of all, you must be possessed of that strange sixth sense best described as the sense of direction. By it you always know about where you are. It is to some degree a memory for back-tracks and landmarks, but to a greater extent an instinct for the lay of the country, for relative bearings, by which you are able to make your way across-lots back to your starting-place. It is not an uncommon faculty, yet some lack it utterly. If you are one of the latter class, do not venture, for you will get lost as sure as shooting, and being lost in the mountains is no joke.

Some men possess it; others do not. The distinction seems to be almost arbitrary. It can be largely developed, but only in those with whom original endowment of the faculty makes development possible. No matter how long a direction-blind man frequents the wilderness, he is never sure of himself. Nor is the lack any reflection on the intelligence. I once traveled in the Black Hills with a young fellow who himself frankly confessed that after much experiment he had come to the conclusion he could not "find himself." He asked me to keep near him, and this I did as well as I could; but even then, three times during the course of ten days he lost himself completely in the tumultuous upheavals and canons of that badly mixed region. Another, an old grouse-hunter, walked twice in a circle within the confines of a thick swamp about two miles square. On the other hand, many exhibit almost marvelous skill in striking a bee-line for their objective point, and can always tell you, even after an engrossing and wandering hunt, exactly where camp lies. And I know nothing more discouraging than to look up after a long hard day to find your landmarks changed in appearance, your choice widened to at least five diverging and similar canons, your pockets empty of food, and the chill mountain twilight descending.

Analogous to this is the ability to follow a dim trail. A trail in the mountains often means merely a way through, a route picked out by some prospector, and followed since at long intervals by chance travelers.

It may, moreover, mean the only way through. Missing it will bring you to ever-narrowing ledges, until at last you end at a precipice, and there is no room to turn your horses around for the return. Some of the great box canons thousands of feet deep are practicable by but one passage,--and that steep and ingenious in its utilization of ledges, crevices, little ravines, and "hog's-backs"; and when the only indications to follow consist of the dim vestiges left by your last predecessor, perhaps years before, the affair becomes one of considerable skill and experience. You must be able to pick out scratches made by shod hoofs on the granite, depressions almost filled in by the subsequent fall of decayed vegetation, excoriations on fallen trees. You must have the sense to know AT ONCE when you have overrun these indications, and the patience to turn back immediately to your last certainty, there to pick up the next clue, even if it should take you the rest of the day. In short, it is absolutely necessary that you be at least a persistent tracker.

Parenthetically; having found the trail, be charitable. Blaze it, if there are trees; otherwise "monument" it by piling rocks on top of one another. Thus will those who come after bless your unknown shade.

Third, you must know horses. I do not mean that you should be a horse-show man, with a knowledge of points and pedigrees. But you must learn exactly what they can and cannot do in the matters of carrying weights, making distance, enduring without deterioration hard climbs in high altitudes; what they can or cannot get over in the way of bad places. This last is not always a matter of appearance merely. Some bits of trail, seeming impassable to anything but a goat, a Western horse will negotiate easily; while others, not particularly terrifying in appearance, offer complications of abrupt turn or a single bit of unstable, leg-breaking footing which renders them exceedingly dangerous. You must, moreover, be able to manage your animals to the best advantage in such bad places. Of course you must in the beginning have been wise as to the selection of the horses.

Fourth, you must know good horse-feed when you see it. Your animals are depending entirely on the country; for of course you are carrying no dry feed for them. Their pasturage will present itself under a variety of aspects, all of which you must recognize with certainty. Some of the greenest, lushest, most satisfying-looking meadows grow nothing but water-grasses of large bulk but small nutrition; while apparently barren tracts often conceal small but strong growths of great value. You must differentiate these.

Fifth, you must possess the ability to pare a hoof, fit a shoe cold, nail it in place. A bare hoof does not last long on the granite, and you are far from the nearest blacksmith. Directly in line with this, you must have the trick of picking up and holding a hoof without being kicked, and you must be able to throw and tie without injuring him any horse that declines to be shod in any other way.

Last, you must of course be able to pack a horse well, and must know four or five of the most essential pack-"hitches."

With this personal equipment you ought to be able to get through the country. It comprises the absolutely essential.

But further, for the sake of the highest efficiency, you should add, as finish to your mountaineer's education, certain other items. A knowledge of the habits of deer and the ability to catch trout with fair certainty are almost a necessity when far from the base of supplies. Occasionally the trail goes to pieces entirely: there you must know something of the handling of an axe and pick. Learn how to swim a horse. You will have to take lessons in camp-fire cookery. Otherwise employ a guide. Of course your lungs, heart, and legs must be in good condition.

As to outfit, certain especial conditions will differentiate your needs from those of forest and canoe travel.

You will in the changing altitudes be exposed to greater variations in temperature. At morning you may travel in the hot arid foot-hills; at noon you will be in the cool shades of the big pines; towards evening you may wallow through snowdrifts; and at dark you may camp where morning will show you icicles hanging from the brinks of little waterfalls. Behind your saddle you will want to carry a sweater, or better still a buckskin waistcoat. Your arms are never cold anyway, and the pockets of such a waistcoat, made many and deep, are handy receptacles for smokables, matches, cartridges, and the like. For the night-time, when the cold creeps down from the high peaks, you should provide yourself with a suit of very heavy underwear and an extra sweater or a buckskin shirt. The latter is lighter, softer, and more impervious to the wind than the sweater. Here again I wish to place myself on record as opposed to a coat. It is a useless ornament, assumed but rarely, and then only as substitute for a handier garment.

Inasmuch as you will be a great deal called on to handle abrading and sometimes frozen ropes, you will want a pair of heavy buckskin gauntlets. An extra pair of stout high-laced boots with small Hungarian hob-nails will come handy. It is marvelous how quickly leather wears out in the downhill friction of granite and shale. I once found the heels of a new pair of shoes almost ground away by a single giant-strides descent of a steep shale-covered thirteen-thousand-foot mountain. Having no others I patched them with hair-covered rawhide and a bit of horseshoe. It sufficed, but was a long and disagreeable job which an extra pair would have obviated.

Balsam is practically unknown in the high hills, and the rocks are especially hard. Therefore you will take, in addition to your gray army-blanket, a thick quilt or comforter to save your bones. This, with your saddle-blankets and pads as foundation, should give you ease--if you are tough. Otherwise take a second quilt.

A tarpaulin of heavy canvas 17 x 6 feet goes under you, and can be, if necessary, drawn up to cover your head. We never used a tent. Since you do not have to pack your outfit on your own back, you can, if you choose, include a small pillow. Your other personal belongings are those you would carry into the Forest. I have elsewhere described what they should be.

Now as to the equipment for your horses.

The most important point for yourself is your riding-saddle. The cowboy or military style and seat are the only practicable ones. Perhaps of these two the cowboy saddle is the better, for the simple reason that often in roping or leading a refractory horse, the horn is a great help. For steep-trail work the double cinch is preferable to the single, as it need not be pulled so tight to hold the saddle in place.

Your riding-bridle you will make of an ordinary halter by riveting two snaps to the lower part of the head-piece just above the corners of the horse's mouth. These are snapped into the rings of the bit. At night you unsnap the bit, remove it and the reins, and leave the halter part on the horse. Each animal, riding and packing, has furthermore a short lead-rope attached always to his halter-ring.

Of pack-saddles the ordinary sawbuck tree is by all odds the best, provided it fits. It rarely does. If you can adjust the wood accurately to the anatomy of the individual horse, so that the side pieces bear evenly and smoothly without gouging the withers or chafing the back, you are possessed of the handiest machine made for the purpose. Should individual fitting prove impracticable, get an old LOW California riding-tree and have a blacksmith bolt an upright spike on the cantle. You can hang the loops of the kyacks or alforjas--the sacks slung on either side the horse--from the pommel and this iron spike. Whatever the saddle chosen, it should be supplied with breast-straps, breeching, and two good cinches.

The kyacks or alforjas just mentioned are made either of heavy canvas, or of rawhide shaped square and dried over boxes. After drying, the boxes are removed, leaving the stiff rawhide like small trunks open at the top. I prefer the canvas, for the reason that they can be folded and packed for railroad transportation. If a stiffer receptacle is wanted for miscellaneous loose small articles, you can insert a soap-box inside the canvas. It cannot be denied that the rawhide will stand rougher usage.

Probably the point now of greatest importance is that of saddle-padding. A sore back is the easiest thing in the world to induce,--three hours' chafing will turn the trick,--and once it is done you are in trouble for a month. No precautions or pains are too great to take in assuring your pack-animals against this. On a pinch you will give up cheerfully part of your bedding to the cause. However, two good-quality woolen blankets properly and smoothly folded, a pad made of two ordinary collar-pads sewed parallel by means of canvas strips in such a manner as to lie along both sides of the backbone, a well-fitted saddle, and care in packing will nearly always suffice. I have gone months without having to doctor a single abrasion.

You will furthermore want a pack-cinch and a pack-rope for each horse. The former are of canvas or webbing provided with a ring at one end and a big bolted wooden hook at the other. The latter should be half-inch lines of good quality. Thirty-three feet is enough for packing only; but we usually bought them forty feet long, so they could be used also as picket-ropes. Do not fail to include several extra. They are always fraying out, getting broken, being cut to free a fallen horse, or becoming lost.

Besides the picket-ropes, you will also provide for each horse a pair of strong hobbles. Take them to a harness-maker and have him sew inside each ankle-band a broad strip of soft wash-leather twice the width of the band. This will save much chafing. Some advocate sheepskin with the wool on, but this I have found tends to soak up water or to freeze hard. At least two loud cow-bells with neck-straps are handy to assist you in locating whither the bunch may have strayed during the night. They should be hung on the loose horses most inclined to wander.

Accidents are common in the hills. The repair-kit is normally rather comprehensive. Buy a number of extra latigos, or cinch-straps. Include many copper rivets of all sizes--they are the best quick-repair known for almost everything, from putting together a smashed pack-saddle to cobbling a worn-out boot. Your horseshoeing outfit should be complete with paring-knife, rasp, nail-set, clippers, hammer, nails, and shoes. The latter will be the malleable soft iron, low-calked "Goodenough," which can be fitted cold. Purchase a dozen front shoes and a dozen and a half hind shoes. The latter wear out faster on the trail. A box or so of hob-nails for your own boots, a waxed end and awl, a whetstone, a file, and a piece of buckskin for strings and patches complete the list.

Thus equipped, with your grub supply, your cooking-utensils, your personal effects, your rifle and your fishing-tackle, you should be able to go anywhere that man and horses can go, entirely self-reliant, independent of the towns.

(The end)
Stewart Edward White's essay: On Equipment

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