Packing with Rock Creek

By August 17, 2011
A string of horseback riders of all ages trek through California's High Sierra in single-file formation.

Rock Creek packers get to enjoy the scenic High Sierra by horseback. (Photo by Kelly Sanchez)

Opportunities to pass on something you love to your children can be hard to come by in the digital age. So when I heard about Rock Creek Pack Station’s three-day Parent-Child Ride in California’s Eastern Sierra, I knew it was just the thing for me and my 11-year-old son, Teo. Friends from the L.A. Equestrian Center have raved about Rock Creek’s pack trips, and as a kid I’d loved going on camping and fishing expeditions with my father, an avid outdoorsman.
On a hot day in late June, we headed north from Los Angeles to Bishop, in the Eastern Sierra. We spent the night at Tom’s Place, about a half hour north of town. It’s a funky, no-frills kind of spot (Teo’s eyes widened when he saw our room had twin beds and no TV), but it was just a short drive up the hill to the pack station.
Once settled, we headed outside. “Take a breath of that,” I urged my son, gesturing at the pine trees. He paused and sniffed. “That smells unnatural,” he observed. Our ride the next morning departed out of the pack station’s lower corral, in a valley bisected by Rock Creek, but first our group met for an orientation about horse safety and low-impact wilderness trekking by Jamie Hirnshall, followed by a hearty breakfast of pancakes and ham. We then headed out to meet our mounts, a mix of sure-footed Quarter Horses and draft crosses. Mules would carry our tents, food and gear.

Kids line up for a spaghetti dinner served up by cook Adele Schopf.

Chef Adele Schopf's meals were a highlight of the trip. (Photo by Kelly Sanchez)

We were joined by Jennifer and Steven Walker of Palmdale, who’d brought their nephews, Hunter, 10, and Cody 13. “Every year we give them an excursion-type trip,” said Jennifer. “The boys aren’t experienced riders, so this sounded perfect. It’s safe but exciting, and they’d have a level of responsibility with the horses.”
Susan Dachel was there with her three grandsons—brothers Sam, 8, and Jake, 10, and their cousin Max, 8. Dachel, of Shadow Hills, is a veteran of Rock Creek’s pack trips. She took her first, a 12-day trek over Mono Pass, some 35 years ago. She’s also traveled the Mount Whitney trail half a dozen times and ridden to Benton Hot Springs. Dachel, who keeps a horse at Sunland’s Bella Vista Stable, explained, “One of the reasons I prefer going with Craig [Rock Creek Pack Station owner Craig London] is that he’s a licensed vet. He’s also an educator and a great storyteller.”
According to London, who maintains a veterinary practice in Bishop and also teaches extension classes through U.C. Davis, the pack station has been running parent-child rides for longer than he can remember—“at least 20 years,” he said. “These trips are all about sharing our knowledge of the wilderness. We want people to see that camping is fun.”
Teo’s been on a horse a few times—at summer camp and trail rides on family vacations—but I wanted to be sure he wouldn’t be overmounted. Topaz, a small bay Quarter Horse, was perfect—well-mannered and more likely to wander than to spook. My mare, Pumpkin, was a marvel on the steep switchbacks up and down the mountain. She very nearly converted me from dressage to Western riding.

Phil Hirnshall has worked as a guide with the Rock Creek Pack Station for 35 years.

Guide Phil Hirnshall has 35-years of on-the-job experience. (Photo by Kelly Sanchez)

London estimates the pack station has between 100 and 110 active stock, including some 60 mules. Retired horses stay at Rock Creek, where London can keep his eye on them. “We’re committed to taking care of all our animals—they work hard.” He’s equally committed to making sure his packers and their guests tread lightly on the land: As we ambled beside a mountain lake, the packers gently chided those who wandered beyond the trail’s boundaries. They also took care to leave our camp just as we’d found it—no small feat with nearly a dozen adults, six kids, 18 horses and a handful of mules.

It was mid-morning when we left the lush green of Rock Creek’s lower corral and climbed to a little over 10,000 feet. Late winter and spring storms had left a crown of white on the surrounding peaks, but there were also patches of snow along the trail—much to the delight of our little cowboys, who pelted one another with snowballs whenever they got the chance. We stopped for a lunch of sandwiches, chips, cookies and fruit beneath a canopy of lodgepole and white bark pine, while our horses relaxed in the shade and the boys walked around like miniature John Waynes, getting a feel for their riding legs. Soon it was time to mount up again. The pace was leisurely—safe enough for beginners and slow enough to take in the gorgeous scenery. It didn’t take long to adjust to the steady footfalls of the horses and the sound of the wind through the pines, broken by the occasional call of a frog from a nearby pond.

When we arrived at camp that afternoon, cook Adele Schopf had already set up her kitchen and was organizing a spaghetti dinner as we set up our tents on a flat spot beside a river, a mountain panorama to the west. Two privies were set up on the far side of camp, and a bag of water was warming on a rock in case anyone wanted a solar shower. It felt like we were a million miles from civilization, and yet the pack station’s lower corral was just 45 minutes down the mountain, close enough so the horses—all healthy and well-kept—could spend the night at home.

Campfire songs at the Rock Creek Pack Station

Cowboy songs are a part of any packing trip. (Photo by Kelly Sanchez)

One afternoon the group was lucky enough to ride with Phil Hirnshall, who’s been working with the pack station for 35 years. Lanky, with a ready smile and a way with a story, Phil knows the backcountry like the back of his hand, and he led us through some unforgettable landscape.
The days fell into a similar routine: A delicious breakfast (eggs, bacon and fresh melon or pancakes and sausage), followed by several hours of riding. Then we headed back to camp for free time. Some went fishing, while others read, napped or, in the case of the kids, ran around and got really dirty.
Nights were chilly, and we were glad for the campfire (the kids were even gladder for the after-dinner s’mores). Now fast friends, we’d talk or listen as Susan Dachel read ghost stories from the book her grandsons had brought along. On our last night, the pack station had arranged for live entertainment courtesy of Derek, who played his guitar and sang the kinds of songs that have been sung around campfires forever. After the sun was long gone and the sky was so crowded with stars it literally took your breath away, we fell asleep to the rushing of the river.
All too soon, the trip was over, and we returned to less fragrant air and more complicated routines. But Teo still talks about Topaz and little things like filling your water bottle straight from the river and the view of the world from the back of a horse.

For more information about Rock Creek Pack Station and its excursions, go to www.rockcreekpackstation.com

 

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