There is an old Burlington Northern Railroad grade in Washington State that starts up near Mount Rainier and runs all the way down to the Puget Sound in Tacoma at the town of Ruston. A section of it runs through my area and I have enjoyed riding on it for many years. The grade is now part of the Foothills Rails to Trails so it is a very popular paved walking, jogging, bike riding and, yes, a horseback riding path. But most of the grade by my house is still undeveloped and primitive. The high side of the railroad grade starts where the old town of Fairfax once was and runs down along the glacier fed Carbon River to the small town of Carbonado.
For many years, we had been riding from Carbonado up the grade along the river, and under the historic Fairfax bridge to have lunch in the meadow where the old town of Melmont once was. A few years back I was out riding with a friend on the first Saturday of June to celebrate National Trail Day. As we rode down into Wilkeson we came upon a check point for a relay race that was happening. We just had to stop and inquire about this big event in our small town. It was a check point for the Rainier to Ruston Rails to Trails Relay Race that starts at Mount Rainier National Park and runs 50 miles down to the Puget Sound to Tacoma’s Ruston Way. It is now a annual event on National Trail Day and is heading towards the 11th year. Since that chance meeting I have became a fan of the race and each year check to see where the course is running and to find out which sections of the trail are closed or open. Ok I guess I am more of a fan of the old grade even though the runners doing the race amaze me.
Well it seemed to me that if these runners were coming down the upper section of the old railroad grade, then maybe a horse or two could also get through it if I planned the ride close to the day of the race and before another wind storm which could possibly block the trail with blown down trees. So I made a plan and a few phone calls, found a willing riding partner, and got ready for the adventure of “riding the Carbon”. The plan was to go in with the necessary gear and park a horse trailer at each end of that 6 mile section of grade. We parked one of the trailers in Carbonado and then hauled about 30 minutes up to where the old mining town of Fairfax once was.
The first year I went in with Amber. It was a pretty day and we were filled with the excitement of doing something most would not dare to do as the Carbon is known for taking out bridges and roads, and changing it’s coarse on a regular basis. The Carbon Glacier on Mt. Rainier is the largest glacier in the lower 48 and is not a lazy river by any means. The RR grade starts out in a rain forest, thick moss is everywhere. The views of the river are stunning with Old Growth Firs and huge Cottonwood trees four feet in diameter layed out on the round rock that looks like cannon balls coming down through the steep mountains on both sides. About three miles into our adventure, Amber rode ahead of me and I noticed her looking back at me with a concerned look on her face. She had stopped and was waiting for me after she had just ridden across what we fondly called the ‘sky bridge’. You can see it in the photo where the black dirt has been eroded and is caving off into the river. That, my friends, is a part of the river that had been washed out leaving a ridge or Hogback instead of the trail. On the river side there was a big steep slide going down to the cold gray river coming off of the Carbon Glacier, and on the other side a big wide gully where the river bed may have been at one time or another. To make it even more interesting (scary), the tread was more like a ridge than a trail. I rode across it trusting my horse Curly, since we had been in similar situations before, but this was neither the time or place to take a wrong step. Well, we caught our breath, enjoyed the moment, and thought about how it might have been, before moving on. We had to stop and do some clearing in spots to get our horses through, but we made it down to our lower trailer in one piece, and we’ll always have a good memory and a story to tell about the first adventure riding on the Carbon River.
So time passes, another year goes by and it is June again. National Trail Day is here and the Rainier to Ruston Relay Race happens. I am on-line checking out the course, pondering riding it a 3rd time, wondering who might like to join me. I asked Pam Beall, an EasyCare dealer, and she was willing to give the railroad grade a try since she had heard about my adventures from my previous rides. So on June 7, 2010, we set another ‘plan’ into action. The ride starts out in a normal way, as most adventures do. We both are in awe of the beauty of the ancient rain forest. I was noticing how again the trail had been re-routed around some new obstacles that nature had presented during the year before.
And then we came to it, The Mother of all Mud Holes directly in the trail. It was 40 feet long and so bad that the organizers of the relay race laid down 2-3 logs for the runner to walk on, with swamp and standing water on both sides of the logs. Pam and I discuss which side of the logs looked the best, the right side, and she goes for it. t was not pretty, mud was flying but Pam rode it well! Now it was my turn. We had another discussion at opposite ends of the mud hole as our impression of it had just changed, I go for the narrower left side of the logs and Curly and I step into the swamp and we instantly sank down into the water and mud. Oh Crap! Pam starts yelling “Come On Curly” in true gamer style. He was lunging through the mud in huge leaps while avoiding the logs. Pam was busy cheering us on and I almost went for a mud swim but was able to grab the horn and pull myself back into the saddle. Curly managed to get us to the other side in one piece but we were covered in mud. I even had some on top of my helmet. Pam and I both had our horses booted up so we checked boots and all were still on. Good thing because there would have been no finding a lost boot in that muddy mess.
We had a good laugh about it and continued on down the trail. Only to hit another mud hole. For some reason our horses hesitated and questioned us but easily went through the much smaller safer mud hole. Did not blame them, they are good horses and take care of us. Riding through it once was enough for both of us. The spring of 2010 was a very rainy spring so we encountered a lot more water on the trail, streams, mud, detours, and more challenges then I had the previous two years. We were able to reach where the sky bridge was so we stopped for a break and to take a few photos of the river when we realized we should have taken photos after going through the huge mud hole. Some people might have been miserable but we took it all in stride. I was thankful to have Pam and Cookie with us that day, a lesser team would of had some trouble with what we had to over come. We had ridden through numerous streams, so our horses were cleaned up some but one can still see the mud on the horses. In one photo Pam is pointing to how deep Curly went into the mud. And again, all of the boots on both horses were still on.
You may notice from the pictures that the river had moved away from the slide area from the first ride.
The rest of the ride continued to presented more challenges but at least the sky bridge was safer. We continued down the grade, riding through the old ghost mining town of Melmont, under the historic old Fairfax bridge, down into Carbonado to our lower horse trailer with some tired horses.
Pam enjoying the view of the Carbon River at the beginning of our ride
My husband, Mike, and I went for a hike earlier this month on the RR grade to take some pictures. I wanted to show you what the Mother of all Mud Holes looked like. It has been 2 1/2 years since I had seen but I have shared the story numerous times. Lately the question most asked is ‘do my boots stay on in mud’, and yes, I then repeat this story again. And conclude it each time with ‘I have never lost a boot to mud’. I have had boots come off in a wide variety of ways but have never lost a boot to mud.
This is a painting under the Manley Moore bridge in the town of Fairfax which is the beginning of the historical railroad grade.
What the 40 foot mud hole looks like now, 2 1/2 years after we rode through it. I was happy to see that there was a new trail put in that avoids this mud hole.
I have ridden the grade 3 times now and it is always an adventure. And yes I have plans to go for it again, maybe this June. Sometime around National Trail Day when the Rainier to Ruston Relay Race always happens. When I know the grade will be the most open/ cleared and the best chance for horses to make it down it. But I must admit that after the 2010 ride with Pam, I have more respect for that old Railroad grade and if I come upon anything like we did that day, I may just do my horse a favor, turn around and ride back to the horse trailer and call it a good day.
Martha Nicholas, Team Easyboot Member