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Posted on June 29, 2023
Intrepid rider Sophie has been on three In The Saddle trips, including an expedition across the Andes from Argentina to Chile and a camping trail in the wilds of northern Sweden. With a strong sense of adventure, she favours challenging rides that head far off the beaten path.
In this blog post, Sophie tells us about her most recent off-grid adventure in the Yukon – Canada’s smallest and westernmost territory. We hope you enjoy reading Sophie’s journal from her time on the Shine Valley Pack Trip.
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I travelled to Whitehorse via Toronto and Vancouver and stayed overnight in a hotel before the trip began.
My guide Pierre collected me from my hotel and took me to Shine Valley, about 30 minutes out of town up the mountains. Here there’s no running water, electricity, shower or loo in the guest log cabins.
In the winter months Pierre runs dog-sledding trips and there are 30 huskies at the ranch.
We’ll be a small group on this trip. Pierre and Adriana will be guiding, plus I’m joined by fellow female guest Laurence and another lady who is still on route.
Today we’re given our red bags for the gear we’ll need, and a saddle bag. Pierre went through our packing to check that everything was up to standard for the weather. I live in England so my waterproofs are perfect. I did pack a sleeping bag for -4°, but Pierre said that as there are only a few of us he would bring his Arctic ones as we would need to be warmer. Luckily I decided to keep the other one for when it warmed up. He also informed us that we would be taking a slightly different route as two days earlier he’d flown over where we were going and the pass over the mountain was still covered in snow and all the lakes were still frozen in ice!!
Later, Adriana took myself and Laurence to town for lunch and our last shower – there is a place they always go where you pay $6 for a 20 minute shower! In the afternoon we went to collect some of the horses. At Pierre’s home there’s a field the horses are brought to in readiness for the trip. This is 30 minute ride from his summer field, which is huge. Some of the horses wear bells to help locate them – they can be tricky to find due to the trees and bush. At the moment there is not a lot of grass, so they are getting hay. 18 horses eat a big round bale of hay every day – which costs about £130 a bale!
Everything is packed and we’re just waiting to hear if the third guest is going to arrive in time to join us. Sadly delays between Vancouver and Whitehorse meant she couldn’t. So we’re due to leave a day late with just the four of us.
We set off with four riding horses, three packhorses and Jake the Husky. I was riding a lovely coloured horse called Reeno. Off we set for an easy four hours to our first camp at Bonnyville Lake.
It was cold and very, very windy, but what a view. We sorted out the horses for the night. At this camp they are tied up to a tree for the night and given hay, which Pierre had delivered by snowmobile during the winter – it’s the only way he can get here. He also dropped off logs for the camp fire so we can cook a hot meal.
Pierre then showed us how to put the tents up; we had one each. We decided to go for a wash in the lake as hadn’t had a shower for two days. Bikini and swimming shoes on, we walked down to the lake. Before we got in we saw an animal swimming, I got a great video and Pierre said it was a beaver! As we walked into the lake we sank a bit in the mud. Honestly I had never ever been in water so cold! Remember four days previous, the lakes were all ice, so imagine how cold it was x 100! Well a swim didn’t happen, a sort of wash did, but I then had a frozen cold headache – the strangest experience. Walking back in a strong wind with just a towel on a wet body was an experience not to do again! I changed into all my layers!
Supper over the camp fire was chicken, pasta and vegetables, with wine – perfect. At bedtime I decided four layers in the Arctic sleeping bag would be perfect. Sadly I was wrong. I was freezing, even with a woolly hat and gloves on! Lesson learnt….it will be two sleeping bags from now on!
We set off on our new route, as going over the Pass wasn’t happening due to the snow. I was wondering why snow would be such a problem. Pierre tried to explain that going up a mountain with deep snow and packhorses wasn’t an option. I found out why later on!
The route took us off piste through woodland. At one point we were told to get off and tie the horses to a tree, (they are good at being tied to trees!) We then followed Pierre over a stream that was wide and deep, with low trees and boulders in it. As we carefully crossed it ourselves holding onto the trees, I looked at it and thought, “he must be joking if he is going to get the horses to cross here – no chance!”. But yep, Pierre got his horse first and and held the rope as he crossed. He stayed on one side as I was on the other to collect the horses as they came across. Wow – what brave horses – it was an experience to watch. At least we didn’t have to ride them over!
Out of the woods and we stopped for lunch in the hot sun. The packhorses are always tied to trees and the others are hobbled and let loose. It’s amazing how fast they can move in hobbles.
In the afternoon we cross undulating ground to reach our overnight stop at Ibex Lake – at 1,800m. It is seriously windy and there is snow near the lake, so we decided against a swim! All the horses except two were hobbled for the night and released – the others were tied up on a picket line. I asked Pierre why this was, he said because those two horses spend the winter here! Half the horses spend 6 months in this area over winter, grazing and living out in temperatures of -40°. He flies a plane over every two weeks to check them – the plane has skis on which allows it to land on the frozen lake. You might wonder how Pierre gets the horses here in the first place. After the last rides of the season, the horses are left here and Pierre gets picked up by the plane.
Tonight I opt for two sleeping bags, three layers of clothing, wooly hat and gloves – I am the perfect temperature!
Off we go and after 10 minutes, we’re on the other side of the lake. I saw a big animal about 100 metres in front of us, sitting like a massive dog. said to Pierre, “what’s that big animal sat looking at us?”. He looked and said “it’s a bear!”. Then it stood on its hind legs and I said “oh yeah, so it is!!”. Not far behind, a caribou was moving towards it. The bear switched from looking at us, to looking at the caribou. It decided the caribou was more interesting and stood up facing it. It wasn’t easy to take a video while we kept moving and Pierre kept an eye on the Grizzly. What a cool thing to see!
We stopped for lunch by Mud Lake. Later, we continue through awesome scenery to our overnight stop at Rose Creek, which marks us at 100km from our starting point.
By now we’re pretty good at putting up our tents. The horses are tied to a tree with more hay that Pierre had delivered by snowmobile. It was still windy, but we tried to brave the creek for a wash. I managed to do the quickest dunk in freezing water. So hard to breathe and got a cold headache again.
We set off from camp and 10 minutes later Jake the dog suddenly came out of some bushes screaming. Poor guy had porcupine quills sticking out of his face and leg. Pierre and Adriana jumped off to help him. Adriana held him as Pierre pulled the quills out with a pair of pliers. Jake was sore afterwards, but at least they were all out and we had to keep going. After lunch we had to cross a fast-flowing river and then negotiate some woodland. We got to use the chainsaw three times when our path was blocked by fallen trees!
Tonight’s camping spot is absolutely stunning. We’re here for two nights and the next day is a day off. The horses are hobbled and set free to graze by the lake.
We’re due a food delivery for the week ahead. But how do you get food to a place only accessible by horse? By seaplane of course! Off we go to a nearby rangers hut, collect the canoe and walk down to the beach. Our Tesco food delivery arrived in boxes, was put into the canoe and Pierre canoed for 400m back to camp where we collected the boxes and brought them onto land!
Somehow while removing the quills from Jake, Pierre managed to get one in his knee, but carried on until we reached camp. He took it out with his pliers. The pain was excruciating; he was in tears. Both ends were like a needle and go in an inch – no wonder it was so painful.
Tonight it’s steak, potatoes and salad for dinner. Some rain starts to fall, so we put up a canvas roof – perfect. We pitch our tents in record time.
No riding today, so we can enjoy a lie in. It’s beautifully sunny – not a cloud in the sky.
After breakfast, Laurence and I decided to take the canoe to the island on the opposite side of the lake where there was a little beach. We kept to the side of the lake and made our way round to the beach.
It was nice and warm, great sand and the water temperature was ok. We needed a wash, but didn’t bring our swim stuff or soap. So I randomly said “shall we go for a skinny dip??!!“. Laurence was game, so we both stripped off and ran in. It was very shallow so we had to run quite a way for it to get deep enough to dunk. So funny! Time to make our way back. Laurence got in first, then I put one leg in and tried to jump in, when my other leg got stuck in the sand and I nearly tipped the canoe over with her in it! Lots of laughter, but we were feeling cleaner!
In the afternoon we sunned ourselves on the shores of the lake, with a few layers on as the wind had picked up quite a bit.
That night Pierre had a chat with us about a new plan and what we wanted to do – this is the real wilderness and sometimes the plan has to change. He said he’d like to fly us out rather than us ride the whole route – we still had four days left. So he said tomorrow we’d ride and go to the island for lunch, the following day we’d ride six hours to a camp he hasn’t used for a number of years and then the following day, ride back here to Rose Lake and stay overnight. Then the next day we’d fly out by seaplane at his expense – we jumped at the chance.
After a late breakfast, we set off on horseback. It was a lovely ride to the island and we had lunch in the sunshine. I thought I could hear music, Laurence said she could too, so we asked Pierre. He said what we could hear were Trumpeter Swans – swans who make a noice like a trumpet!!
A little snooze was in order in the afternoon. Later on, the wind started to pick up again.
A seriously windy night, but luckily our tents hadn’t blown away! We packed up and headed to breakfast. Adriana was cooking and told us there had been a change of plan due to the strong winds.
Pierre had used the satellite phone to contact the sea plane. The forecast was for three days of strong winds; they were definitely grounded today and couldn’t guarantee they could collect us in three days’ time – oh dear! So we’d need to ride all the way back – a distance that usually takes four days but we had to do it in three!
Off we set, for an eight hour ride to a ‘pop-up’ camp. On approaching our new camp, we had to cross a creek – it looked tricky, with a steep downhill approach and deep mud on entry. I watched Pierre’s route as he led three pack horses across and then followed. What I hadn’t seen as I crossed the water was the 8 foot vertical bank to climb up out of it. These horses are amazing – I just held my breath and leant forward, holding onto Reeno’s mane. We made it – phew!
Arriving into camp, it was time to set up our tents and put supper on. In the evening we discussed the day’s adventures. Pierre warned us that tomorrow’s ride would also be a tough one to begin with. We wondered how much more challenging things could get….
Bacon and sausages for breakfast in readiness for a tough day. 10 minutes in and we had to cross the river. It looked OK – big boulders, followed by a sandy bit, more water then a bog. I watched as Pierre crossed with the three packhorses. They seriously struggled through the bog. He made it across, stopped and turned to me – I was looking for another route, but this is the only way. Off I went as the other two watched. We floundered and struggled badly, and at one point Reeno was completely vertical and I thought we were going over backwards, but he righted himself and we made it. Then it was time for the others to cross and they were ok too – phew.
We crossed back towards the mountain and Ibex Lake. Pierre told us we would cross over to the other side, but things could get difficult with the snow. Up we climbed, to reach 2,300m and then began our descent down the other side. The snow banks were made up of wet snow – we hit a number of them and each one was tricky. You can’t tell what’s under the snow; there could be boulders, rocky ground and streams. At each one we waited to watch Pierre and the packhorses get across. The snow was so deep that often my feet were touching the snow, and it reached up to my horse’s shoulders, even at 16hh. Laurence said, “I keep holding my breath crossing these and only breathe again when I hit the other side”. She wasn’t the only one! The day felt like a constant roller coaster – a bit terrifying in places.
After eight hours in the saddle we made it to our final camp on the pack trip.
This morning we set off for home. It was an uneventful ride until we reach Fish Lake, where we come across three people out hiking. People! Strangers! We must be back in the real world!
Back at Shine Valley we unpack and put the horses out in the field. Then we drive into town for a shower – after three part-washes in 10 days, a 20 minute shower is bliss! Then it’s time to board the seaplane to retrace our journey and see the route we rode from the air. It was so, so cool! Tom, our pilot, was from Dorset and flew the plane wearing a pair of wellies!!
After dinner in Whitehorse, we head back to Shine Valley for our final night in the log cabins.
Pierre greets us with his usual question of, “how did you sleep?”. Rubbish…we must have missed our tents I think!
Over breakfast I asked Pierre how many guests get ill. He replied that each year one or two people have to be flown out from the ride. Often guests arrive stressed from a busy work life and it can be difficult to switch off. We all agreed this is a tough ride – tough in terms of weather, terrain, camping, no washing facilities and long days in the saddle. I absolutely loved it, it gave me the chance to utterly switch off and think about absolutely nothing. It’s hard to explain unless you have experienced it. How often in the modern world do you go hours thinking of absolutely nothing?
What. A. Trip.
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We’d like to say a huge thank you to Sophie for sharing her travel blog and brilliant images.
The rest of the 2023 season is fully booked at present, but if there are any last-minute cancellations we’ll promote the spaces on our Facebook and Instagram pages. The Shine Valley page of our website has next year’s dates and prices.