Want to know what it's like to carve a life out in the wilds of Alaska? Learn about an Alaska horse guide, who's been leading riders for over 20 years in the beautiful Wrangell Mountains.
by Amber-Lee Dibble
“Is it time?” my trainee asks upon hearing me leaving the tent.
“Not yet, get some more sleep, I’ll start coffee and wake you when it’s ready,” I say, slipping out of the tent. I walk over to the fire ring and start adding twigs to the remaining coals.
For 20 years Amber-Lee Dibble has been with Pioneer Outfitters as a Manager & Guide
The flames lick their way over the wood. I grab the water jug and head over to the creek. The water is icy cold. After splashing water on my face and stretching this way and that, loosening up and feeling the perfect joy of being exactly where I am, I fill the jug and return to our camp.
Filling the big coffee pot and setting it onto the fire grate, I grab my camera and start walking back down to the creek towards the horse bells dinging faintly in the distance.
Yesterday was amazing! I smile thinking of the guests with us and their total awe and admiration of the ride out in the afternoon. It is a trail I use often that heads to my personal favorite, Cross Creek.
Yesterday’s Ride on My Favorite Alaska Trail
Crossing the Chisana River, deep within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and the location of Alaska's last significant gold rush, takes about an hour, depending on where the sands have shifted and how many times I have to hold up the line of riders to back track and find a better place to cross a particular channel on horseback.
Euker Mountain, at 6,820 feet, stands alone and proud, guarding the Chisana Glacier. We ride another hour to cross the bottom of Euker, passing through the meadows where our horses range. We wind in and out of the timber through the trails.
Every time, stepping out of the timber, onto Cross Creek, I feel as if all the good feelings of the world rush into me, filling me with a sense of wonder and welcome. The Mountain Caribou that I frequently see here are a joy to watch.
Wide and twisty, Cross Creek is an incredible journey, and a journey to see it completely, takes days. After around three hours, we ride into camp, the horses nickering in recognition.
Back at our Alaska Camp
After we dismount, Terry walks up the trail leading from the cook cabin to the hitching rails and asks how the ride was.
“It went great.” “It was beautiful!” “What a ride!” “That was perfect.” Are the replies along with the satisfied grins amidst the groans and stretching and tying up the horses.
The pack-horses come first, and I let our guests know there was sure to be water as well as juice and coffee inside the cook cabin. After pointing the direction of the outhouse as well as their tents, I untie the pack ropes.
Between Terry, myself and our wrangler/ trainee, we have the horses unloaded and saddles pulled before our new friends emerge from their tents, having changed out of their riding gear.
With each question and smile, the click sounds of cameras, I am once again reminded that there couldn’t possibly be anything more rewarding than sharing this wilderness with others.
Walking along the creek’s edge, I listen to the direction and sounds of the horse bells. The steady dings tell me that they are grazing and not likely to cut and run when they see me.
As I look down, I see fresh Grizzly Bear tracks and hope we see him while we explore and ride again. Well, well… I see more tracks. There is another especially small set of Grizzly tracks there in the sand, and I hope we get to see them.
After we finish dinner, we gather around the campfire on the edge of the rise on which our camp sits. The height and placement of the camp’s fire pit is no accident.
The powerful Cross Creek is just far enough away that the noise of the water is muted and the lights from the full moon are reflected, gently allowing glimpses of the winding water in its channels.
The bench on the other side of the creek is directly across from where we sit and the huge Nutzotin Mountains provide a perfectly black backdrop. Everything in front is illuminated.
Listening to our guests chat and ask questions about things we did and saw and questions about what tomorrow may bring, I can only grin to myself. These are happy people. Happy to be here, happy to experience all we can share. They laugh and joke and thank us repeatedly for helping them choose the horseback adventure they’re taking.
We all sit at the sparking campfire for hours, enjoying the stories Terry shares of growing up here in Chisana in these remote mountains and learning how to survive out of necessity instead of as a hobby. Stories of humorous lessons learned and how looking back may make them funny in the recounting, but could have easily become tragic.
We speak of Alaska and her greatness and of the old timers that were here and taught Terry as a boy. The memories are still so fresh to Terry–– memories of the historic gold rush and the current miners still mining gold in Chisana.
A breeze comes off of the creek and although it still isn’t truly dark at this time of the year, it is dark enough to see more stars than can be seen in most small cities or large towns.
As we say goodnight, I see a gentleman reach out and shake Terry’s hand. His wife hugs him. Watching them walk away, I look over at Terry and say, “So, ya like my office?” We laugh, remembering the first time I said it to him, years ago on one of my first trips as a guide.
The Next Day at Camp in Alaska
The horses are exactly where I had hoped they would be the next morning. Although it only happens when they choose it, I can’t help but think today is going to be a truly excellent day, because the horses are even ready to get to work.
“Hep Boys,” I say quietly as I walk around them and stop to pet Johnny and Thunder. As I reach the end of the pea-vine bar the horses are on, I take a head-count. All ten are there. I feel a rush of relief that I talked Terry out of using Tiny here in Cross Creek. Tiny is the herd mare and enjoys stealing the rest of her mates and taking them home.
“Hep Boys” in a sharp voice brings all the horses’ heads up and wakes the couple that were still sleeping with a jolt. I say, “take it in”, and that starts them moving towards the creek that runs into Cross Creek, and we start back towards camp. They sure make a racket, the horses hobbling in at a jog with bells clanging. It’s as good of an alarm clock as I’ve ever heard.
By the time the horses are at a standstill, half are in the hitching rail circle and half are still on the horse trail leading in. I move up to the horse in front of me, Cookie, running my hand up her side as I walk to her front. I squat down and used my Leatherman to unscrew the hobble clip from the hobbles, then reattach it around her neck. We repeat this routine, as Terry and my trainee arrive with halters for the horses.
Tying them to their preferred spots on the rails, I leave to start breakfast and Terry comes into the cabin to grab a bag of grain for the horses, as a treat and reward for coming in with no troubles as well as a bump for the work they will do today.
“Breakfast is ready!” I call from the porch of the cabin, up to the guys, checking the horses and brushing them down in preparation for the day ahead. Our new friends and guests are up with the horses, chatting and laughing.
As all five guests pour through the door and file past the stove to take their seats at the big table, I serve coffee and hot water for tea as it is easier for me to fill mugs than have everyone stand and reach. Breakfast is hearty and as everyone eats, I make up lunches for the day and pull steaks out of the cooler for dinner this evening.
The fire that I had started when I awoke this morning is bright. It invites me to take a mug of coffee and my notebook to sit here writing this story of life as an Alaska wrangler and guide. I can hear the group inside talking, but I can’t make out the words. As they finish their breakfast, I am planning the route we will take and wonder what detours will pull us off the plan, as they always do.
Will they want to go all the way up to the Cross Creek Glacier at the head of the creek? It would take a lot of resolve, I know from experience, not to be drawn to “what is up that draw?” or “can we ride around that crag?” or the archenemy of plans, “what’s over that ridge?”
No matter where we head, or how far we go, I know beyond a doubt that today will be amazing.
About the Author: For over 20 years, Amber-Lee Dibble has worked as a guide and manager of Pioneer Outfitters, a family run professional guide service that operates in the Wrangell St.-Elias National Park and Preserve located in Chisana, Alaska. Chisana is only accessible by small aircraft and is nestled in the Wrangell and Nutzotin Mountains. Follow Amber on Twitter @AlaskaChickBlog.
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