We knew there weren’t many good days left. Snow had already sprinkled across the tree line and daylight was shortening to where we’d be home in the dark. The tail end of hunting season wasn’t the best time to head for the hills but the lure of solitude and valley vistas outweighed fear. Caution we carried with us.
My riding partner and I watched the sky lighten, clouds lifting and moving off the hills to the south of the Thompson River, our destination that day. Overnight rain had dampened the sagebrush and bunch grass. Penny Lake would see frost, maybe even a light dusting of snow, but that wasn’t enough to deter our craving for the high country where the eagles govern.
Horses loaded and dogs stashed, we wound down to where the CN mainline parallels the river, bumping over the train crossing while watching intently for a wayward freight lumbering along the tracks. Two hairpin corners led us to the Walhachin Bridge, crowned by an Osprey nest built with baler twine gathered from nearby hay ranches. Climbing up the hill to the bench that guards the valley bottom there is one more railway crossing, this time over the CP mainline. We tug up a draw, switchbacking the side hill, and meet a truck hurtling downhill, larger than my rig. The driver glances over at us, scowling at our hindrance of his decent while I hastily pull my truck and horse trailer out of his way.
Catch pens reside at the top of the draw, a gathering place for range cows. The fences are in poor repair but it’s a good spot to stop and unload our horses away from the road, busy that day with hunters and wanderers, all of us in some way seeking the same place of peace to catch the last good days of travel in the hills of the South Thompson.
Warmly layered for late fall and the shade of the north slope, we wear “high vis” clothing. Our dogs are adorned with survey ribbon, a precaution so they won’t be mistaken for coyotes. We don’t trust the judgment of those camouflaged boys with high-powered scopes and rifles.
Meeting a few hunters along the trail as we make the ascent, some say hello and answer our questions about the game they have seen. Others ignore us but we know they are watching, wondering what two women on horseback are doing in the hills in hunting season?
The mid-November sun warms us as we traverse the meadow west of Penny Lake, our gaze drawn to twenty Trumpeter Swans lounging in the water. Ducks swim about and an eagle soars over, as if sent on cue.
A vehicle litters the meadow. The lone hunter/owner who seems lost tells us that not long before we arrived it sounded like a war zone, and although he’s been hunting here for years, he hasn’t seen a moose in a long time.
Riding around the south side of the lake we come upon an abandoned campfire, still smouldering, empty booze bottles strewn about. A gunshot echoes like an explosion over the lake and across the hill, eerie in its reverberations. That is our cue to head into the trees and hopefully out of sight.
Our last day of mountain riding before winter hit was glorious! Horses exercised, dogs tired and the craving for the high country satisfied, we sauntered off the mountain chuckling about the hunter who said he hadn’t seen a moose in years. There was moose sign. I saw it. Both times while squatting under a bush to pee!