LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - I did not really expect to find our missing horses that day in mid-November when our long-time friend Steven Green took me up in his little PA-12, 76 X-ray.
With gorgeous weather after weeks of fog, we couldn’t pass up a chance to fly.
But five months had passed since old Dropi unbuckled Meyla’s halter in our camp 50 miles from home. The horses had disappeared into the wilderness and could be anywhere by now. With winter full upon us, many people thought the horses would be dead of starvation or predation. However, while concerned about deep snow later on, my sister Miki and I felt that freeze-up actually increased our chances of finding them. The snow would make their tracks visible from the air, especially once they moved onto frozen marshes to graze.
The horses could soon cross the freezing wetlands that blocked the way home, making a spontaneous reappearance at home a possibility.
Searching close to home seemed pointless. A late freeze-up made the swamps and creeks treacherous, and if the horses actually were nearby, they’d eventually trot in by themselves.
Instead, we flew south toward the north face of Denali, which loomed darkly before us, shadowed from the low winter sun.
Miki was leaving on a trapline run/horse search the next day, so we checked cabins and river crossings for her. Ground-water streams were open, and even mostly-frozen rivers still showed treacherous holes.
“Can the horses find food on the river bars this time of year?” Steven asked.
“Not much,” I told him.
We would more likely spot horses or tracks along any grassy lake or swamp, but the thousand-square-mile area had hundreds of lakes, ponds, potholes, bogs, vales, grassy drainages, old overgrown sloughs and other wetlands.
Steven flew up our trapline and then above treeline, passing small bands of caribou that left horse-like tracks in the snow. We swung over the old campsite where the horses escaped, looped around the knob-and-kettle uplands, and then made a proper grid of the lower trapline with its extensive bogs.
“See the V made by those two open forks of Hult Creek? If they couldn’t cross a place like that, they might stall out for weeks.” While famous for their homing ability, the Icelandic horses’ survival instinct makes them cautious. Ours simply would not cross a deep swamp that could trap a horse, and that whole country was nothing but swamps and complex boggy streams.
Until it froze harder, they would have to wind their way around countless dangerous obstacles. If savvy little Meyla was in the lead, they might not even try. Old Dropi knew the route, but he would never abandon the young mare.
In over three hours of flying, we covered just a fraction of that impossibly big country without spotting a trace of the missing horses. The thought of finding them at some extremely remote, isolated location in mid-winter worried me, too.
Disappointed but not surprised after the long flight, I went home to help Miki gear up for trapping.
Loading the dogsled the next morning, we heard 76 X-ray fly by. “Steven’s heading back to Fairbanks,” I thought. But he circled overhead, and circled again. I ran inside for the aircraft radio, then rejoined Miki in the yard.
“He found the horses,” Miki said, only half joking, and we stared at each other. I keyed the radio. “Steven, do you copy?”
“Just fine. Guess what, I found your horses,” he replied calmly.
I staggered with shock.
“Oh, Steven, that’s FANTASTIC!” I shouted.
The little red ski plane glided in to land below the house and we rushed down.
Steven glanced at his GPS.
“They’re 3.5 miles from here,” he reported laconically.
I wanted to shake him and hug him, but managed to tone down my reaction to a few hysterical giggles.
Steven said they were still together, prancing around on the far side of Spencer Creek near an old cat tractor trail, and he could land Miki nearby. He began pulling his Fairbanks-bound load from the rear seat while we dashed back to the yard. Miki yanked open her sled bag and dragged out her sweater and lunch, a thermos of tea, an ax and a radio. I ran for horse pellets and a halter. Moments later, she was off.
Steven landed on a frozen pond just a few hundred yards from the pair, and Miki climbed out to blow her dog whistle. “Dropi, Meyla!” she called, and almost immediately the two long-lost horses appeared from the brush, trotting over only to stall out a few feet away. Miki poured some oats on the ground, backed up 10 feet and sat down.
Once Meyla started eating, she didn’t mind when Miki haltered her.
The horses appeared great. Dropi looked thin but not starving, while Meyla was so fat Miki couldn’t even feel her ribs. He still wore his halter, she her bell. Six of their eight shoes had fallen off but their hooves, though long, were healthy.
No fresh wounds or scars appeared to testify about possible misadventures, just a small sore under Dropi’s chin from the halter. They were both alert, perky and mildly pleased to see her.
Miki led Meyla, letting Dropi follow behind. The little mare didn’t want to cross Spencer Creek; fresh overflow and a crunchy surface explained why they’d stalled out so close to home. Trusting Meyla’s judgment, Miki headed upstream looking for a safe crossing. Meanwhile, Steven flew back for me. From the air we searched out a good route home, and then we landed to help scout the creek crossing. Once the horses safely reached the homeward side, our hero flew me home and headed for town.
Miki and the horses crossed a swamp, hiked down the brushy cat trail and crossed a large pond, then trekked up a trapline trail, down an old slough and up a riverbank to the lake, a two-mile trek typical of the contorted route the horses had already journeyed.
Once, stopping for a break, Miki placed her hands on 24-year-old Dropi’s cheeks, pressing her face to his forehead. “I missed you SO MUCH,” she whispered. When she emerged on the lake, she hailed me by radio and I ran the snowmachine across the open flats to lay a trail and meet her. The only mishap of the day occurred just as I reached her.
A DC-4 suddenly roared over us from an altitude of about 100 feet. The four-engine fuel transport plane shivered the ground with its bellowing engines and Meyla momentarily panicked. Miki held her tightly so she wouldn’t gallop away across frozen flats that were riddled with mud holes hidden by shell ice.
Catching our breath, we traded places and I walked the horses on in, arriving by dark just six hours after Steven spotted them. Our remaining horse, Mr. B, was pleasantly surprised to see them, but Meyla screamed with excitement and Dropi joined in to shout that Meyla was HIS mare and NOT Mr. B.s!
After all, despite his age, it was probably Dropi who showed Meyla the way home. The independent-minded young bay would be happy anywhere she found grass, but Dropi had lived with us for 21 years.
He knew his home, and he probably knew that without us they might not survive the deep snow of winter Somehow, Dropi must have convinced the bossy little mare that they had to keep traveling, to cross all those rivers, creeks and swamps, threading the needle to reach home. We did not rescue them so much as speed their way home.
Their exact route remains a mystery… but when Miki finally went trapping, she found the horses had come through the first trapping camp in late fall and grazed down the yard.
To all our supporters and to the pilots who joined in the aerial search, thank you. To Steven, who found them at last, thank-you, thank you!
And to Meyla and Dropi especially, thank you for coming home!
Julie Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.