Finding the Carle Wagon Road

“I followed a crazy man on a horse ride up Hatcher Pass.”

That’s how Susan Dent described our recent ride up the Carle Wagon Road. The purported crazy man was Dick Stoffel, a long-time horseman and backcountry traveler, whose hearty constitution for rugged conditions outdid the rest of us.

The afternoon lay before us like a gem, with the season’s first snow laying lightly on the landscape. Our plan was to ride along the historic Carle Wagon Road. The Matanuska Borough Parks, Recreation and Trails Advisory Board had recently passed a resolution in support of Back Country Horsemen of Alaska’s development of the trail for equestrian use. We’d reconnoitered this trail to a certain point, but were unsure of the old road’s exact location beyond it. So our goal that day was to further explore the area and enjoy a nice afternoon ride.

Our group consisted of a cadre of Back Country Horsemen, Dick Stoffel, Susan Dent, and me. Added to our group were Susan’s 20-something daughter Colleen Fisk and Dick’s friend Chris Johnson – who was riding a horse for the very first time. Dick wanted to introduce the young man to horses before a horse-back hunting trip that they were undertaking – the very next day.

The trail sloped gently uphill for a couple of miles and we commented on the great view as we gained elevation. The Talkeetna Mountains are a treasure and we felt privileged to be there in the company of fine horses, good dogs, and newfound friends. The snow grew deeper and the trail narrower and I was thrilled to realize we’d intersected a slender hiking trail I’d taken earlier in the summer.

Our horses worked hard as we climbed a steep ridge. The landscape fell sharply away on either side. This didn’t much look like a wagon road. At several points we got off our horses and led them, letting them rest along the way. We’d gotten a late start and mention was made as to when we ought to turn around. But no one wanted to be the one to say “Let’s go back.” Besides, on an earlier weekend, Dick had ridden from the start of the trail on Edgerton Parks Road all the way up to Independence Mine and the A-frame chalet where he’d enjoyed a cold beer with the proprietor of the place, “Hap” Wurlitzer. That sounded like fun.

We reached a snowy plateau at which the trail all but disappeared. Here, Dick said it would take just as long to reach the chalet as it would to go back. So we made the decision to press on.

Turns out – between the lack of trail, additional snow, and impending darkness – it would take us almost twice as long to get to the chalet than we expected. And this is where the real adventure began.

The horses traversed the mountain one solid step at a time. We were amazed at their sure-footedness, especially in the places where we got off to give our horses a break on a slope that was increasingly growing steeper. While the horses carefully picked their way, we humans slipped and slid along the hillside. At one point, I slid directly under my horse’s feet. She was agile enough to avoid stepping on me. For the most part, it seemed safer all-around just to stay on board.

Colleen’s horse was side-hilling when the terrain under the snow suddenly turned slick. I looked back to see horse and rider skiing sideways downhill. At this point, Colleen’s mother, Susan, began thinking some choice words about our Sunday afternoon ride. But once again, the horse’s athleticism won the day and no one fell.

It began to snow and it would soon be dark. We still had a valley and a mountain slope to traverse before we would even see the lights at the chalet. Now Susan’s choice words were muttered aloud – and her daughter laughed.

A long beaver pond with dams on either side greeted us in the crease of the valley. The only way to cross was to pick our way over the smaller of the two dams. We dismounted and sent our horses across, who tiptoed quickly over the jumbled mass of logs and sticks. As evening turned into night, the horses were our heroes. We experienced first-hand the great partnership between horse and rider as our afternoon jaunt turned into a more serious challenge.

As we rounded the mountainside, the lights of the chalet finally came into view. All of our spirits lifted – even the horses – at signs of civilization. My horse put her ears forward and her stride suddenly had new purpose. The chalet was still several miles away with a deep wide creek bed in between. Our horses’ exceptional night vision helped them find the best footing through that last valley. By the time we reached the road, we were exhausted but elated that all horses and riders were intact. Cold and hungry maybe, but without a scratch.

Our elation turned to dismay when we discovered a “Closed” sign on the chalet door. Dick knocked and suddenly there stood before us a smiling face. We understood immediately why Dick’s friend had the nickname “Happy Jack.”  We were sure happy to see him. He invited us inside and we shared what food was left from our saddlebags – a peanut butter sandwich and a couple of power bars. Susan checked her GPS. We’d gone nearly eight miles and made 3500 feet in elevation gain in five hours.

It was nearly 10 p.m. when we loaded the horses into Dick’s large stock trailer. Horses will often balk at loading, especially into a dark unknown trailer with a steep wooden ramp. My horse must have known it was her ticket home because she nearly knocked me out of the way to leap on board. “Get me home,” was a sentiment shared by all.

Dick transported us back down the mountain to our own rigs and trailers, telling stories of other misadventures he’d had in bygone days. Was it here that Susan came up with the notion of him being a “crazy man” or was it sometime earlier in the day?  And to Chris Johnson, whose first ride he’ll likely remember as a suffer-fest – keep the faith. The partnership between horse and rider is hard to beat. And the Carle Wagon Road must be out there somewhere.

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