A few years ago, I was elk hunting in the backcountry. I had seen a nice bull elk the previous afternoon along the edge of a large meadow about 1½ miles from camp. Rather than hike up and hunt in the black timber where he’d gone, I decided to ride the donkeys a little farther in, high-line them and hunt from there. I left camp around 3:00 in the afternoon, rode about three miles, and tied up the donkeys. I had the rest of the afternoon to hunt so I headed out on foot. I saw a few elk but didn’t hear any bugles and the steady rain was slowing things down. About 30 minutes before sundown, the rain had stopped and the skies were clearing somewhat. It was getting late, so I headed back to where I’d left the donkeys. There was a full moon so I didn’t need my headlamp. I’ve found in the past that the light and shadows it produces can sometimes spook the donkeys so I decided to rely on my night vision and the light of the full moon. I saddled DarLynn and put the panniers on Honcho. He was carrying my bow on one side and my daypack on the other.
About the time I climbed in the saddle, the clouds began to roll in again. With no moon to light my way, it was dark under the trees. I lost the trail for a minute or two and had to get off DarLynn and find it again. Finally, we made it out into a big park. Out in the open there was a little more light. Fortunately, in the waist high grass I could still make out the trail. DarLynn seemed to be in charge, walking steadily forward At this pace we’d be back at camp in no time. Under darkening skies, it wasn’t long until I could hardly see the back of DarLynn’s head, but I could feel her snaking around, following the trail. I gave her more reins and trusted that she knew where she was headed. I then realized we had two more sections of dark timber and two creek crossings before we reached camp.
Since this was my first time riding her in the dark, I wondered how she’d do without me guiding her in any way. After about 20 minutes we reached the first section of timber. Ten feet in and I could not see my hand in front of my face. It was “backcountry-dark!” I could feel her moving around obstacles in the trail but at this point, with no visual cues, I had totally lost my sense of direction. I was hoping we were still on the trail. It’s very unnerving to feel her moving around things like logs on the trail when I can’t see anything at all. At one point I felt the overwhelming need to put my hand up just in case I was about to hit a tree limb. Just before full panic set in I saw light up ahead. We were almost out! As we neared the next open meadow I could make out the edges of the large logs that had been downed to clear the trail. What a relief to know she was right where she was supposed to be!
As we rode, I could hear the creek approaching and it was beginning to sprinkle. The trail leading down to the creek was very muddy. I could hear the donkey’s feet sucking in the mud as we went down the steep bank. I felt DarLynn’s head drop as she neared the edge of the water so I gripped the saddle horn in case she decided to jump. To my surprise (and relief) we crossed the creek just fine and Honcho never even put any tension on the lead rope. Although I couldn’t see him, I felt he was as close to her as he could get.
Next, it was up and around a narrow side-hill trail, through more trees and across the creek to camp. Almost there! The rain was getting harder so I had a little tighter grip on the saddle horn. The next crossing was a bit trickier because two creeks met to form a T. In order to cross, we had to go around some thick willows, make a left , cross the creek, climb up the other side, turn left again, then right, and then around a large tree. If she missed the first turn we would have crossed the other creek and gone in the wrong direction.
In the dark, I thought we were past the willows so I gave her a bump on the left rein. She just stopped on the trail and stood there. From the sound of the water I quickly realized we hadn’t gotten to the turn yet. Oops. You were right DarLynn! I sucked my lips and put her back on auto-pilot. Without any prompting from me she went around the willows, across the creek, and around the tree, all with slack reins! She walked right up to my tent and stopped at the front door. Just in time because the rain really started coming down as we arrived. I jumped off DarLynn, patted her on the neck and told her what a good girl she was. As quickly as I could without any light I unsaddled her. I went back to Honcho to take off his panniers and pack saddle and he was trembling. I guess the only one who wasn’t scared was DarLynn. What a good donkey!