Return to Round Valley

The View: Pete, the Sky, and the Hills

As we floated up Miwok Trail, wafted on the gentle breeze, Laura and I pondered how we ever could have thought of Round Valley as a Monster Ride. Then it came to us: maybe, just maybe, it was because it was 75 degrees, not 113!

Seriously, I think there were three factors that morphed Round Valley from the survival exercise it's been the past couple of years into a technically engaging and very beautiful ride: the weather, the camp site, and the trail condition. The weather both days was reasonable - Day 1 was in the mid-80's and Day 2 didn't get over 75 and was actually stinkin' cold in the morning. As for the camp site, Gene managed to get access to a tree-lined area and then organized the parking so all the rigs (I think) were parked in shade, which made a tremendous difference, for both the horses and the people. And there has been serious maintenance done on some of the major trails, so there are still places you have to think about, but not the entire ride's worth. Here's the story.

Day 0 - Friday

I should have known this ride was going to be great when we arrived at ride camp in exactly the amount of time the Google Swami said it should take - I usually get lost or have to make unnecessary-for-most-people stops or something to make me late. But this time we just motored directly from Santa Cruz to Round Valley. When we arrived, Gene helped me park the rig so that the trailer was backed up against a tall row of trees, so when I put Sunny on the Hi-Tie, she was shaded and, as the day went on, the camper got shade, too.

After we got camp set up, Sunny and I headed out for a stroll. In the past, we'd gone down to the stream that runs right by camp - but this year there was no stream. We managed to find a lonely pool that provided enough water so that there was a satisfactory amount of grass for Sunny to graze on, and there were shaded boulders for me to sit on, so we were all okay. We'd only been there a few minutes when a pick-up truck pulled up on the other, steep side of the creek - it was Gene and Chris, Head Volunteer, looking for rocks to fill snake and rodent holes with. Sunny and I support this activity whole-heartedly, so we lent a hand. The scramble up the hill wasn't too bad, but it took a couple of repeats to do the descent stylishly.

Check-in started about three, with Dr. Greg Fellars as the vet judge and Karel Waugh for horsemanship. Karol managed to find crud on Sunny and gave me a serious eye-brows raised look. Which I deserved. And I might as well get it over with, the same thing happened on Saturday night. And both Saturday and Sunday mornings, when I was saddling up, I couldn't believe that I'd missed cleaning up so many spots. Sheesh. Dr. Fellars had us do the "three circles in each direction" thing and I tried lunging Sunny instead of running with her, as I usually do. Sunny did okay, but, as usual, I forgot about keeping two hands on the lead rope at all times. Again, sheesh. Overall, check-in was uneventful and I believe all the horses made it through.

In the evening, we had our usual pot luck and ride meeting. Gene's primary instructions were "Don't get lost and don't fall off!" He then went over Saturday's route, identifying places to make up time and landmarks for turns. The route was ribbonned, but some of the ribbons always get lost for whatever reason, so it was great to have immoveable reference points!

The Climb to the First P&R - You can see the trucks at the top

When Gene was done, Dr. Fellars and Karel took over. (I guess I should call Karel "Ms. Waugh" if I'm going to call the vet "Dr. Fellars" - but I know Karel better than I know Dr. Fellars, so she's going to have to tough it out.) Their main concern was that we know about a new vet-in procedure that they were going to try here: the Cardiac Recovery Index, usually referred to as the CRI. In this test, the horses are brought back to the vet as close as possible to 10 minutes after they finish. Their heart rate is then measured. The horse is then trotted, in hand, a measured distance - 125 feet, in this case. A stop watch is started as the horse starts the trot out. Exactly one minute later, the heart rate is measured again. If it's lower than, or equal to, the heart rate that was measured just before the trot out, that's good. If the heart rate after the trot out is greater than it was initially, it's cause to look closely for any other signs of undue fatigue. Dr. Fellars informed us that he would be using the CRI results in his horse evaluations. Uh oh.

Oh yeah, about half way through the ride meeting, someone came and asked if we could move the horse that was tied to the last rig in line - they were doing family reunion photos in the little meadow there, and the only child there, a four year old, was afraid of the horse. The rider, Jeanine, went and got her gelding and made him sit through the ride meeting with her. Sunny and I went for a walk after the meeting and ran into the group - the grandfather was a horse lover and he had Sunny and me stick around until his grandson was comfortable petting Sunny. That was fun.

Day 1 - Saturday

I'm telling you, something's changed in Gene, he's just not the same man: the wake-up call was a discrete knock on the camper door, accompanied by a gentle inquiry: "You up, Donna?" And coffee was available immediately. What happened to the 5:30 AM, 180 decibel rendition of "Go, You Chicken-Fats, Go"?

Laura had agreed to ride with me, even though she knows that that would make her totally responsible for guiding us - only a fool would follow me - so I tacked up Sunny and went over to Laura's rig about 6:55, where she and Pete, Jean Armor's horse, were camped - Open were supposed to go out at 7:00. (Jean is laid up with a vascular surgery and Laura's horse, Tango, is laid up with a soft tissue injury, so Laura is riding Jean's horse, Pete.) Laura walked Pete over in hand - but when she went to mount, she realized she didn't have her stirrups on her saddle, so we went back to the rig, found the stirrups, put them on and reported to the out timer. We lost a couple of minutes, which, in years past, would have been the Kiss of Death.

The ride took us out the Miwok trail, which goes through Round Valley, then through one of the zillion gates on this ride, and up to the Very Top of the World. Those gates. I think there were 7 gates on Saturday's ride. They are all Powder River brand, which means, to me at least, that they are (a) spring loaded, (b) way more than 50% likely to be "pull" gates rather than push gates, and (c) hateful. In any case, Sunny wouldn't have anything to do with them, I think because the springs were so strong. We kept giving them a try, but weren't successful.

Pete and Laura Making Gate Opening Look Easy

After the gate, at about 3 miles, I think, Miwok turns into a serious climb, as in the valley floor is at 385' and the top of the climb is at 1725' - in about 3 miles. Again, in past years, it had been complicated by the treacherous surface: torn up sandstone, so it was either intact and slippery or broken up and uneven. This year, someone had been through with some road working machinery - there were only a couple of small patches of spooky surface. Whew! And, although it was still a really tough climb, the day stayed in a reasonable temperature zone. Oh yeah, we saw two bobcats on Saturday and the first one was just at the start of the Miwok climb.

We descended briefly into the shade, dropping to about 1700', then started climbing again - toward our first P&R at about 2000'. Did I mention that there was still *lots* of climbing?

Karel was at the P&R entrance and had us climb up and down a steep bank. I misjudged the steepness and asked Sunny to approach it at an angle, as you would a gradual slope, rather than just pointing her straight uphill - but it wasn't gradual, so she sort of realigned herself under me and hopped up the hill, leaving me behind pretty thoroughly - so I lost points for that. What an idiot I am sometimes - it wasn't bad horsemenship, it was bad judgement which I guess is probably worse, especially if you're poor Sunny!

Right after the P&R, the Open riders split from the Novice and CP and we hit some of the most challenging parts of the ride. We dropped down to cross Morgan Territory Road, then rode back up to the ridge tops, where we were on trails with names like "Highland Ridge" and "Crestview". The people who named those trails must have been trying to warn us, we just didn't get it. There were wonderful views from those roads - this is the first of the four times I've done this ride that Sunny and I were composed enough so that I was able to notice how gorgeous it is. The watershed area itself is wonderful and you can see forever. We had one sustained descent, where we dropped from about 1700' to about 1100', followed directly by a climb that topped out at 2300'. Yikes! Lunch was a few miles after that, at mile 23.

Lunch was nice. There was quite a lot of crunchy grass - Sunny's preferred lunch food - and water all over the place. Unfortunately, there were also a small herd of cattle, calves and moms, at the gate out. We were lucky; by our out time, the group had spread out, so we just had to thread around a couple of adults, neither Pete nor Sunny being particular admirers of cattle. After lunch, we traipsed around on the ridgetops to our final P&R, then headed home via Miwok, the same way we came out. I think the horses worked as hard getting down as they did going up: the footing was good, but they were tired ponies!

Down in the valley, we didn't see the bobcat again, but we saw a mama coyote sneaking a drink at the water tank.

Mama Coyote

Oh, I haven't mentioned times yet. Although the trail was intense, it must have been timed by someone sensible. Or maybe it was the cooler weather, but for whatever reason, even with our couple of minutes late start, we came in at or near mid-times throughout the ride.

Dinner that night was The Usual at Round Valley: some really good Mexican food followed by an insanely rich cake, to celebrate all the juniors graduating from middle school and high school.

Our ride meeting was structured the same way as the previous night's. The only thing of note is that (a) Gene glared at me as he gave the Prime Directive: "Don't get lost and DON'T FALL OFF!" and (b) the hill where I came off last year was christened "Stidoph Hill" for the purposes of the ride meeting. I'm *so* honored.

The ride schedule said that Quiet Time started at 10 PM - but I went to bed at 9 PM and I think I was the last one outside. It had been a long, hard day - my GPS said we did 5700' of climbing. GPS is notoriously inaccurate with elevation, but looking at the topo map, it doesn't seem way unreasonable. Whew.

Day 2 - Sunday

When we got up on Sunday, it was actually cold - overcast, with a chilly wind. This time we rode out in the opposite direction, taking Hardy Canyon and Murphy Meadow Trails up to meet Miwok, where we did the major part of the climbing. Again. The day stayed cool, even after the sun came out, due to the wind. We could see the fog banks to the west(?) of us, really close.

The ride was, again, beautiful. Also, we seemed to have found the hiker's area: we ran into several people marching up the hill. We couldn't figure out where they came from because it took us *hours* to get there and we were on horses! There were also some very well-behaved loose dogs - not too much of a problem - and cattle, which kept our horses on high alert. I don't know how the horses perceived them, but I was surprised by the cows a couple of times; there would be bunch of them laying down in the shade of a tree and between the dark shade and the tall grass, they would be invisible until they stood up. Anyway, we made it through. Pretty Much What I Saw All Weekend

The Open riders had sort of snuck under the Horsemanship Judge's radar on Saturday - there was the problem of getting in place in time, then, there were quite a few one day novice riders that *had* to be assessed on Saturday - so Karel, at the ride meeting, had promised us that We Would Be Judged. I was not looking forward to it - but I got lucky.

The first obstacle was right as we left camp - we had to ride our horse down into the creek bed and up onto the road. The point Karel chose was exactly where Sunny and I had gone up and down helping Gene and Chris load rocks on Friday. As a result, Sunny was totally unphased by it, and I had some idea of just how steep it was and could position myself accurately. Whew.

Then I just waited in dread because I *knew* one obstacle was going to be a gate. And it was. As we rode up, we could see the crowd - okay, there were about seven people in deck chairs - on the other side of the gate, and Karel was standing on our side. Dang it! Jeanine was riding with us at that point, so I let her and Laura go through first. They both did flawless jobs, as usual.

Sunny Opens the Gate

When it was our turn, I told Karel that we'd give it a try, but I wasn't going to insist - my major goal was to just finish this ride in one piece. She got that, so I had Sunny side up to the gate. It was (of course) a left-handed pull gate. Sunny did beautifully on getting the gate opened and pivoting so that we were on the correct side of it, but then she couldn't take the pressure of the gate coming at her and she sort of scurried through. But she didn't leap or bolt through, and it was the *first* gate we had successfully opened on this ride - I was thrilled! Dr Fellars put "Rushed through" on Sunny's vet card - little did he know that "Got through through with rider intact" was way more than I expected. I'm not ever going to be good at poker, either, because I whooped and hollered and did victory dances. And Sunny gave me one of those "Why do you always have to make a Big Deal of everything?" looks.

View Descending Miwok

Shortly after that we had our final P&R on the course, and headed down Miwok - which isn't that much easier than climbing it because of the (improved over last year but still) very technical footing. And for the first time in my experience, we met a mountain biker, also descending. Luckily, Laura was trailing and The Imperturbable Pete just let him go by, but Laura warned the sissy Arabs up front, so we were prepared.

I figured the excitement was over at that point, and it was, mostly, for us - but Jeaninne had some challenges ahead. When we got to the vally floor, about to the two mile point, her gelding could see horses in front of him and he could smell his trailer, so he started attempting to make his move. Jeanine responded masterfully: they side-passed, they did shoulders-in, they serpentined, they backed. (That was pretty funny - Jeanine asked if it was still forward progress if her horse was facing the wrong way. Laura and I felt that it was because the progress was judged on distance from the end of the ride, not orientation of the horse's nose.) They didn't finish with us, but they finished under control, so all was well.

When we got in, we had to re-appear after 10 minutes for the CRI, which went calmly this time. Sunny got a 23/23, so she didn't lose points, which worked out well - she ended up winning Open Sweepstakes and we got a beautiful ceramic platter to take home, although I intend to keep it in the camper to use for NATRC potlucks.

And, all of you who missed this ride? Eat your hearts out - it was fabulous!