The Chief Joseph Trail Ride

by Mark Bedor | Photo © Mark Bedor

Whether it’s wide open sage brush prairie, towering rock-walled river canyons, quiet wooded trails, or a spectacular ridge-top vista, it’s easy to imagine that these unspoiled lands of the Old West don’t look much different than when Chief Joseph guided thousands of Nez Perce through this territory in an attempted escape from U.S. troops in 1877. Participants on today’s Chief Joseph Trail Ride complete roughly 25 miles a day on what has become part pilgrimage, part adventure and part social gathering.

Tracing the Trail of History

Rewind to the 1870s, when growing numbers of European-American settlers swarmed the fertile Northeast Oregon homeland of the Nez Perce Indians. In keeping with its policy, the U.S. government sought to contain the typically peaceful Nez Perce by forcing them onto a reservation. A large faction of the tribe resisted, and the Conflict of 1877 (a.k.a. the Nez Perce War) exploded.

Guided by Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce abandoned their homeland, as thousands of men, women and children attempted to flee to freedom in Canada. Throughout the summer, and pursued by 2,000 U.S. Army troops in a series of bloody battles, the tribe traveled roughly 1,300 miles through what is now Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. They were a mere 40 miles from the Canadian border when the Nez Perce were overcome and forced to surrender at the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana.

Today, part of that epic journey is retraced every summer, during the week-long Chief Joseph Trail Ride. The Idaho-based Appaloosa Horse Club began this annual trek in 1964. The Nez Perce, traditionally known for their horsemanship, are credited with creating the Appaloosa breed. And only Appaloosas are allowed on the Chief Joseph Ride. The trail follows about 100 miles of the 1877 Nez Perce route each year, completing the entire journey once every 13 years. Anyone who has the stamina for the ride and access to an Appaloosa and the proper gear can participate.

Nez Perce tribal member Bonnie Ewing says, “When I started riding 24 years ago, it was intimidating, because just two Nez Perce were riding. But the friends I met were the reason I’m back. I love the people here. These are my extended family.”

According to Appaloosa Horse Club CEO Steve Taylor, everyone is there for the same reason, and they just wanted to honor the heritage. “To have relatives of the folks who were part of that original flight to freedom is humbling,” says Taylor, “and really puts a perspective on the ride that we probably didn’t have before.”

Adventure and Good Company

History is just part of the attraction of what is really one of the more unique horseback adventures in the country. Just one week on the Chief Joseph Trail Ride gets a horseman hooked on two things: the challenge of completing all thirteen legs of the journey, and the people who participate in this adventure.

As the first morning dawned clear and warm, there was much to do before we set out. There’s no one here to feed, saddle and brush your horse but you. Tents had to come down, gear packed up, breakfast to chow down, and a brown bag lunch to fix and store in the saddle bag, along with plenty of water. We were to be in the saddle and ready to ride out by 8:00 a.m.
Most riders come towing a combination camper/horse trailer, so every rider also needs a driver to get their rig from camp to camp, while the rider spends the day on the trail. (My wife Marilyn was gracious enough to handle the driving duties.)

For riders without their own horse or gear, club officials can usually provide sources for rentals. (Appaloosa Horse Club member and expert horse trainer Christy Wood generously loaned me her splendid horse Cowboy for the week. He would prove to be a great partner along the trail.)

The country we crossed was unsettled, unfenced and untamed in 1877. Today it’s almost entirely private property, and the vast majority of the area’s ranchers welcome the riders with open arms.
“The land owners have been just phenomenal,” said Ron Fowler, Chief Scout on the ride. “This ride wouldn’t exist without land owners that let us ride and camp on their property.”

Along the trail, Fowler heads up half a dozen “Scouts,” expert horsemen and women wearing distinctive green vests. Scouts help keep everyone safe and help out whenever called upon. Safety is truly the top priority, which is why the Chief Joseph Ride always has a doctor along. Dehydration is the most common ailment in the arid West. Serious injuries are rare, and a satellite phone is always ready just in case.

A mule carries a pack saddle loaded with medical supplies, and not just for humans. There are horse shoe supplies for the ride farrier, plus all the equipment the ride veterinarian might need to care for the horses.

“The horses are like family to them,” says the veterinarian, “and to have some medical backup is a huge draw for this ride.”

Each day is moving day for the camp crew. And it’s all done with military-like precision, beginning with a busy morning of packing up everything from the Porta Potties, the cooking truck and even a portable dance floor, and ending with a caravan of vehicles pulling out and heading down the road to the next camp site.

“We’ve got a crew of guys that hold back after every move and go around and rake all the horse manure piles down and pick up any trash that might be left behind,” says Appaloosa Horse Club Ride Coordinator Mark Bogar. “We have a very low impact wherever we stay. And to me, that’s really important.”

While everyone says the ride is like a family reunion, that’s the literal truth for the guys who provide the meals. Head Chef Norman Shaw actually got his start cooking 22 years ago, when he started coming on the ride with his dad at 13.

“It’s really cold in the morning,” Shaw says of those teenage years. “I learned the best place to be in the morning is on the grills.”

Cooking on the ride led Shaw to culinary school and a career running a hospital dietary department. On the Chief Joseph Ride, Shaw and his crew serve up hot breakfasts made to order and such tasty dinners as ribeye steak, salmon, spaghetti and a daily fresh salad bar. A dedicated crew keeps the camp running on all cylinders, which includes the nightly dance music from the camp entertainer.

The 2016 ride promises to be an emotional one. It’s the last leg of the Trail, ending at Montana’s Bear Paw Battlefield. After one last bloody battle, Chief Joseph surrendered there, saying, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”