Special Connections with Special Animals on a Pacific Crest Trail Trek

By Annette Parsons (AKA 'Mountain Annie')

Dixie, Nezzie, Annette, and Bones pause by a trail sign at Willamette Pass during their 400-mile 4-week trek across Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I had already known that Bones, the 15-year-old gray Arabian gelding, was one of those once-in-a-lifetime horses. He had proved it many times over on countless endurance rides, Ride & Ties, trail rides, and camp-outs during the years since my husband and I purchased him as a 4-year-old.

I also had sensed there was something very special about Dixie, the 12-year-old pony-sized white mule, the moment I first saw her - crossing the arena the day she stole my heart, at a pack clinic in spring of 2003.

Both animals proved it again many times over on my month-long 400-mile trek across Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) during the summer of 2003.

Bones technically belongs to my husband, Jim Clover. Jim and Bones have completed the 100-mile Tevis Cup endurance race as well as many 50-mile endurance races and 25- to 40-mile Ride & Tie races.

Dixie is the newest addition to our family. I met her at a local pack clinic where she was taking part in a driving demonstration. I had a feeling about her. As I walked toward her, I felt as if I had known this animal all my life. It was love at first sight, and when I fed her the apple from my lunch sack, I think it became mutual. THEN when I saw how calmly she reacted when a young mule broke loose from his tie and was running around the arena, I was convinced. She was tied to the arena fence, and she simply took a step back and watched as the other mule ran UNDER Dixie's tie rope. I knew she was the pack animal I needed for my upcoming PCT trek!


Oregon's Pacific Crest Trail mapped out

But let me back up. I have been dreaming of doing a trek with my horse on the 2600-mile PCT from Mexico to Canada for most of the past 30 years. I first learned of the PCT when I was mapping soils in the Sierra Nevada in the 1970's and hiked many sections of it. The years got away from me and I never did the long trek. Over time, the six-month trek from Mexico to Canada - through California, Oregon, and Washington - sounded a bit more daunting than I was up for at my age. But I thought perhaps I could manage the Oregon section. I decided a couple of years ago that if I was ever going to do it, I had better do it soon! I was not getting any younger, after all! And just MAYBE I would use the Oregon section as a warm-up to the BIG trek after I retire in a few years.

dixie andannette

Dixie and Annette share a quiet moment just before loading into the trailer on the day of departure.

Right off the bat, I asked Jim to go with me. He is a great ultra-runner and one of the youngest 60-something-year-olds I know. He, however, did not think the idea of spending a month sleeping on the ground, eating trail mix and ramen, fighting mosquitoes and traveling 15 to 20 miles a day with a saddle horse and a pack animal sounded like a lot of fun. (I don't get it!) Besides, he has our vineyard to tend to, so he had a convenient excuse. I wracked my brain for ideas of who else I could ask to join me on this adventure. It had to be someone who was tough… no whiners... this was not going to be a cake-walk and I knew it. It had to be someone who could take a month off from work, and someone I thought I could get along with 24-7 under difficult conditions. This someone also had to be able to be safe and savvy around horses. My cousin from Eureka, California kept coming back to mind. Nezzie is not a horse person, but she is tough and stubborn (like me) and when I broached the subject with her sometime in 2001 there was no hesitation in her 'YES!' response.

Nezzie and Bones gaze at Mt. Jefferson, still three days of travel away

So early in 2001 we began the planning process. I was already a member of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and I acquired all the maps, guidebooks, and Forest Service information brochures I could find to learn about the Oregon section of the PCT. I made e-mail contacts with a number of folks who had done the PCT with stock and I picked their brains. I met with people who had backpacked the Oregon section and picked their brains. Over the next year, Nezzie (aka 'Packy Jones') and I met at her place in Eureka or at mine in southern Oregon's Applegate Valley as we planned our itinerary, food and supply needs, and logistics issues. A little at a time, I began to acquire new camping gear to replace my 30-year-old backpack gear I have had since college.

Bones finds snow to be a refreshing snack on a long, hot, dry day on the trail

My plan was to take Bones as our saddle horse and we would trade off hiking and riding… sort of a 'ride and tie'. I have done shorter backcountry trips in this manner before and it is a great way to minimize impacts and encumbrances at the same time, and also get some exercise. Originally, I had planned to acquire a donkey as our pack animal. My shorter pack trips in the past were with a donkey, and I like the size (I am all of 5'2' tall) and tractability of a donkey rather than a mule. I also figured I could get one fairly cheap and sell it after our trek.

Then I met Dixie. It was like one of those slow-motion commercials when the couple sees each other across a crowded room. I was drawn toward her, thinking 'I didn't know they made mules in that size!' When I got close to her and I reached out to pet her forehead, she calmly accepted my caresses with all the grace of Queen Elizabeth. She LOVES attention, loves to be petted, and does not have a mean bone in her body. I had learned from her owner that she was indeed for sale, but as half of a matched pair of little white driving mules… her sister, 'Chicks', was the other half. My heart sank. I knew I could never afford the money nor the time to own a pair of mules, no matter how much the idea appealed to me (a LOT!). Once her owner heard what I wanted her for she agreed that she would be the perfect animal. She wanted way more than I had intended to fork over for a donkey, but in the end I decided that my safety and peace of mind were worth a lot too. So we struck a deal and I drove my trailer over and brought Dixie to her new home. I now fully understand why her previous mom had tears in her eyes as I drove away. Dixie is quite the heart-stealer.

Annette and the animals cross Trapper Creek

I immediately set about hiking the mountain trails around our home with Dixie, building up to several times a week, in order to get her in shape for the big upcoming trek. Some neighbors were kind enough to loan me their pack gear, and others gave me tips and pointers on packing and mule psychology.

Annette and Dixie glissade down the permanent snow packs of Mt. Jefferson Wilderness


Dixie took calmly and willingly to the pack, and there was probably more than one local resident who wondered who that homeless woman was who was always wandering the trails and road with her loaded pack mule.

As our July 12 date of departure for the big trek drew near, we met more frequently to acquire and package up our food and supplies. We shipped out six supply caches to friends who were to meet us at designated places along our way. We received re-supplies about every 5 to 6 days on the trail.

For our big trek this summer of 2003 we decided to start at Highway 140, near Fish Lake in southern Oregon. We had already covered the parts south of there to the California border on weekend shakedown cruises. Jim was drafted into the role of trip coordinator and point of contact for our crew of re-supply supporters. On July 12, our day of departure, he was unable to see us off at the trailhead since he was running a 30-mile stretch of the PCT on Mt Ashland as a participant in an ultra-run. I said 'good-bye' to him as he left the house about 5:00 a.m. to pick up his running buddy, knowing I would not be seeing him for nearly a month. That was tough!

Bones and Dixie took to life on the trail as if they had done it all their lives. They developed a deep and intense bond with each other, as we high-lined them together each night. If one of them got out of sight of the other, there would be much whinnying and braying until we got them re-united. Both animals accepted the tough daily grind of early rising, pellets for breakfast and dinner with what little grazing we could find in between, and carrying us and our gear 15 to 20 miles each day to a new place. Each day saw us on the trail for eight to ten hours. Bones and Dixie were champions when it came to crossing the challenging and dangerous glacial melt streams of Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood. Russell Creek on Mt. Jefferson was especially frightening. The guidebooks all caution PCT trekkers to cross it before 11:00 a.m. as the glacier melts and flow increases later in the day. I was nervous before I even saw it when I heard the roar of the steep gradient cascading creek, and when I first glimpsed the ford I said to myself, 'There's no way I am riding a horse across that!' However, as I conversed with myself in the few seconds that seemed like hours, I said 'But I HAVE to… that's what I'm here for. Oh well, at least if I die, it will be in doing something I chose to do.' The creek is not particularly huge. It is perhaps 25 feet wide at the trail crossing, and several feet deep in between the boulders. The problem was the two- and three-foot boulders, of which the stream bed was comprised, and over which the deafening roar of the milky cascading glacial melt drowned out any chance of communication with Nezzie. That, and - oh yes - the steep drop-off into the gorge just below the ford.

Annette and the animals enjoy the peaceful meadow beside Pamelia Lake

I had worked out with Nezzie our crossing procedure. I would ride Bones and lead Dixie from horseback. Nezzie would gently haze the mule from behind using willow branches to keep her from balking and throwing us out of balance or spooking Bones. After the animals and I made it safely across Nezzie, would pick her way across on foot. Knowing from experience that many horses will try to stop and sniff or examine the water before they step into it, I explained to Nez that once I started the animals moving toward the water, we had to KEEP the forward momentum going. We had to totally focus all our energy on moving into and across the roaring creek and could not afford even one distraction from those forward thoughts, nor could we allow the animals to stop even for an instant. So I took a deep breath, gave the signal, and FORWARD we went toward the creek. As expected, Bones at first tried to sniff the water's edge. I kicked and yelled (he could not have heard me over the din of the rapids but it made me feel better anyway) and kept him moving. Right off the bat I thought we had bought the farm when he tried to veer DOWN stream toward the drop-off instead of up and over the 3-foot boulder he had to tackle. I screamed 'UP! UP!' and kicked and reined him upstream for all I was worth, and miraculously he heeded my not-so-subtle cues and clamored up and over the boulder and all the others to get us to the other side. As all this was happening, I was so totally focused on getting him upstream and across I was completely unaware of the little white mule gamely following along like a trooper. It was not until I was on the other side, dismounted, and shaking like a leaf that I realized Dixie had never once pulled back on her lead rope. I looked up just in time to see Nezzie hopping her last rock onto our side. Now that we were all safely across we gave each other the biggest hug of the entire trip! I took a deep breath, hugged Bones and Dixie, and told them what awesome critters they were, and we continued on up the steep narrow trail into dense hemlock and fir forest.

Annette is dwarfed by Dry Creek Falls, just a couple of miles from journey's end

Bones and Dixie were exemplary as trail companions and carriers of us and our gear, and they soon learned that backpackers and runners on the trail were not a threat, as long as we made sure to ask passers-by to please TALK to the animals or us as they went by. They learned to wait patiently while we adjusted a pack, or sawed a log out of the trail, or moved limbs out of the way for passage.

Another frightening incident was when we reached the portion of the PCT that crosses under the ski lift at Mt. Hood. It was in operation and was full of snowboarding teenagers on their way to and from the slopes. Their hollering was not the worst of it for Bones; it was the intermittent creaking and rattling the lift made as we passed under it. Bones lost his brains that day, and for the next 5 hours or so, on some of the steepest slopes and narrowest trail in all of Oregon, he jigged and danced and tried to bolt and was generally a very big handful. When he nearly backed off the edge of the trail, I dismounted and led him the rest of the day, trying to keep him off my heels as he jigged behind me. His adrenalin level finally returned to normal about 5 hours later and he was fine the rest of the trip.

We were rewarded many times over by unsurpassed sights, smells, and scenery on our trek through Oregon's high-country wilderness that included Crater Lake National Park and the Sky Lakes, Mt. Thielsen, Diamond Peak, Three Sisters, Mt. Hood, and Columbia wilderness areas. We were blessed with fabulous weather… it rained only three nights of the entire four weeks, and each time it stopped by morning. And thank heaven we did not have any major encounters with bees, bears, lightning, llamas, or other pack strings while on steep narrow sections of trail or ridges. We did have several bee and hornet encounters and each of us got at least a sting or two, but thankfully, nothing really horrible happened on steep slopes with narrow trails.

We finished our excellent adventure on Thursday morning, August 7 at the Cascade Locks/ Bridge of the Gods trailhead on the Columbia River. I had never seen the Columbia River upstream from Portland, and when we rounded a ridge in the trail Wednesday afternoon and caught our first glimpse of the gorge it was an indescribable moment of excitement and intense emotion! We camped a few miles from the trailhead that night, got some more rain, and traveled out Thursday morning to find Jim and our videographer friend Heather Bash greeting us as we approached the trailhead. Jim and Heather had champagne and fresh-baked cream-filled doughnuts waiting for us when we got to the truck and trailer. It was quite a tailgate party for 9:00 in the morning! Even Bones and Dixie indulged in the cream-filled doughnuts and a teeny taste of the champagne!

Journey's end! A tailgate celebration - Annette and Nezzie are jubilant; Bones licks his lips after tasting champagne and donuts, and Dixie reaches for more.

I cannot ever thank Jim enough for his undaunting support, nor our friends and the people we met along the way who helped accomplish this 30-year dream. From the kind people we met at various camps along the way who donated hay for the animals and fresh home-grown garden vegetables and home-made cookies for us, to our friends who took days out of their busy lives to meet us and bring us supplies, to the blessed soul who placed a handwritten trail sign on notebook paper held down by a rock in an area where the official trail sign had burned during recent fires, we owe them all! We were continually impressed and inspired by the wonderful generosity and support from complete strangers as we made our way along the length of the state of Oregon.

All in all, it was definitely an experience of a lifetime, and we could not have asked for two better animals to accompany us on our big adventure than Bones and Dixie. They were solid, dependable, and did everything we asked of them the entire month with no complaint in spite of the tough conditions in which we lived. Both animals will have a place in our family as long as I live.

About the author:

Annette Parsons is a freelance writer, soil scientist, and GIS Analyst. She works for the US Forest Service and the BLM doing mapping and assessment of wildland fire effects. Annette lives in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon with her husband Jim Clover and their two horses, one mule, and three cats.

For more information:

Ride & Tie Association

Endurance and Distance Riding

Pacific Crest Trail