Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pack Train! (Cocoa pt 4)

Here is the 4th installment in the series of posts about my adventures with Cocoa, the  BLM mustang . 

The January following our first experience horse packing into our hunting camp , our small group of woodsmen once again met at the trail head in the Powhatan Wildlife Management Area.  As usual, we were outfitted in our 18th century gear.  This time we had two horses.  My horse, Cocoa, and my friend, Mark Jeffries' horse, Blue.  Cocoa, by this time, had a hunting trip and several public demonstrations behind her.  Blue had been on a few trail rides, but had never carried a pack load. Also on this trip, I was using an Appalachian style pack saddle on Cocoa.  This allowed me to organize the load much better than before, and to safely carry more weight.  Because of Blue's inexperience, we opted to pack him lightly, lashing a set of pack bags over his riding saddle. 

As before, some of our party forged ahead to hunt while others stayed with Mark and I to pack out the horses.  Cocoa carried two bales of canvas wrapped hay, each cut down to 3/4 size.  These were lashed with barrel hitches to each side of the pack saddle.  In addition, she carried the picket rope, and our kitchen box filled with food and cooking utensils.  The box was tied down with a figure 8 lashing.  I had been a bit concerned about overloading her, so I weighed all of it beforehand.  Together, it came to just under 100 pounds.  Blue was carrying all the soft things that we could stuff into the pack bags.  I had my blankets and extra clothes folded individually, so they could be distributed evenly on both sides of the horse.  The other mens' gear was in individual bedrolls.  The bedrolls, extra canvas, and more food and rope were also balanced out in the pack bags.  We set off down the trail, paying close attention to how Blue handled the new job.  We needn't have worried. Blue conducted himself like a trooper all weekend long.

Setting off with the pack string.  Blue in front, being led by Mike Payne.  Cocoa and me in the back.  Photo by Mark Jeffries

Figure 8 lashing holding a keg to an Appalachian style pack saddle.

Cocoa also put in a solid performance.  But, I didn't expect anything less.  We went straight to the campsite we had used the previous winter.  By the time we got there with the horses, the others had already begun the camp chores.  They had cleared the area where we would set up our shelter, and begun collecting firewood.  One of them had also taken a squirrel on the way in.  Most of the camp gear was on the horses.  Mark and I unloaded them and began setting up the picket line.  The other guys grabbed what they needed from the pile of stuff, and finished setting up camp. 

Crossing the stream about halfway to the campsite.  Photo by Mark Jeffries
  Once our camp was good and snug, most of the group fanned out to hunt and explore some more.  Mark and I tended to the horses.  We had set up an overhead picket line to secure them.  We tied Cocoa and Blue far enough apart that they couldn't bother one another or get tangled up.  Each horse had it's own pile of hay to munch on. 

Picket line.  You can see the broken saddle sitting too low on Cocoa's withers here.

While we were unloading, I found that one of the joints on the forks of the pack saddle had failed.  The original it was based on had been made from the forks of a tree.  The fellow who made mine didn't have tree forks available to him.  He had made the forks using glued half lap joints with a dowel helping to hold the two pieces together.  The glue had failed, but the dowel  had kept the fork from separating into two pieces.  No problem.  Cocoa had not been hurt, and we had gotten everything into camp alright.  The camp and horses were secure, and there was plenty of daylight left. 

I decided to carry the broken saddle back out to the trail head on foot. While most of our party were out hunting, I stripped the rigging off of it and hiked it out.  I used the walk to puzzle out how we would get all our stuff back from the campsite.  I decided on a variation of an old style, a Spanish aperejo.  An aperejo was a stiffened pad used to protect an animals back, and to lash cargo to.  They often had an internal wooden frame that gave them enough body to lash to.  The thick saddle pad I had made was not stiff enough for that, but would be enough to get our gear out of the woods. 

Back in camp, I rigged up the pad with the cinch just to make sure I could keep it secure.  Then I settled in to enjoy the rest of the weekend. 

The makeshift aperejo
 We passed the evening pleasantly.  We dined on a stew of squirrel, root vegetables, parched corn, and a few other chance ingredients we had brought along.  After supper, we took the horses to water.  Then we made sure they were secure, and had plenty of hay.  Afterwards, we settled in for conversation and didn't neglect passing the jug around.

We slept snug in our open faced shelter, feeding the fire by turns.  Our camp was tight, and we had a mountain of firewood to last through the night.   In the morning Mark and I took the horses to water, and refreshed their piles of hay.  We breakfasted on oatmeal, cooked with dried berries, and fried sausages. 

In Virginia, there's no hunting allowed on Sundays, so we broke camp and prepared to head out.  We had to carry our gear out without the pack saddle, so we put my plan into action.  We tacked up the horses, blue with his riding saddle and pack bag, and Cocoa with the makeshift aperejo.  I made two blanket rolls and loosely lashed them together side by side.  These were draped over Cocoa's back and formed a platform of sorts to help support the rest of the cargo.  Loose gear was bundled up into a pack cover. and lashed into the center of the blanket roll platform.  Blue had worked well on Saturday, so odds and ends that didn't fit onto the aperejo were added to his load.  We got everything loaded except for the wooden box that had held our cooking utensils.  With the experience I've gained since then, I think I could have loaded the box as well.  But we left it to be retrieved on foot after the horses were safely loaded out.  As before, the horses performed admirably.  We all arrived at the trail head and everyone claimed their gear from the loaded horses. 

I repaired the broken saddle shortly afterwards.  It was a simple fix.  I had a blacksmith from a local historical site bend a piece of iron, and punch a few holes in it.  This was fitted over the forks and held in place with clinched nails. 

The repaired Appalachian style pack saddle.
I have used the saddle frequently with no problems since then.  We haven't packed into a hunting camp lately.  We have done plenty of demonstrations . 

A couple of years after this trip, Cocoa developed the heaves.  She is retired now, living out her days as a pasture ornament on a farm in North Carolina.  The old gal taught me a lot, and we had a few good years together.  Given the chance, I would not hesitate to take in another BLM mustang.  I hope anyone else with the patience to work with their peculiarities does the same. 

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