A tiny puff of dust on a patch of shale signaled the passage of a half-dozen or so riders. On Thursday, 150 equestrians rode a stretch of the same trails Chief Joseph traveled on during his historic fight and flight from the U.S. Calvary in 1877.
Since 1965, the Appaloosa Horse Club of Moscow, Idaho, has ridden around 100 miles each summer of the approximate 1,300 miles that started for Chief Joseph in Wallowa Valley, Ore., and ended near present-day Havre, Mont. By riding in annual legs, they complete the ride every 13 years.
This year’s trek embarked from Pilot Creek in the Beartooth Mountains on July 20 and concluded at Line Creek above Clark on July 26, about 16 miles from their location in the Clarks Fork Canyon on the day the Powell Tribune observed the riders.
Like the chief and his people who bred Appaloosas, all riders, brown and white alike, rode the unique spotted equines.
On Thursday, Weiner and his wife, photographer and western painter Pat Weiner, rode their Polaris Ranger up the stone-strewn Clark’s Fork Canyon (Morrison Jeep Trail) to meet and photograph the riders.
The Weiners also raise Appaloosas on their ranch outside Greybull. Rumor has it there is a trail above the river, but it’s likely mighty hairy, so they stick with the Jeep Trail.
While the Ranger ride was rough, it boggles the mind to think what the Nez Perce endured in 1877 when Chief Joseph led them away from American soldiers.
The famed Indian leader was named Joseph at the Lapwai Mission in Idaho where he was born in 1840. His native name translated into English is “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain.”
Joseph’s father helped establish a large Nez Perce reservation by treaty in 1855. However, a gold rush in 1863 caused the U.S. government to reduce the reservation to a small area in Idaho, according to the Oregon Historical Society.
With miners flooding the area, the government ordered the Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph and other tribal leaders, to relocate to a new reservation. To avoid violence, they agreed to the relocation.
However, when four settlers were killed by young Nez Perce, the U.S. Army retaliated against all Nez Perce, including those who were not part of killings, according to the society.
To avoid defeat by the Army, Joseph helped lead 600 Nez Perce toward the Canadian border. They defeated the Army in several battles while en route, and their slow retreat drew national attention. But in the late fall of 1877, Joseph and his weary people were surrounded just south of the Canadian border.
The military was hot on Joseph’s heels, at times no more than a ridge away.
The hill above the river appears almost perpendicular, but all the riders on the re-enactment ride finally reach the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River.
It was a steep trail that the Army did not attempt 136 years ago, but Chief Joseph and his people did, and so do the modern-day riders.
It was “impassable,” according to the cavalry, said Loretta Waltner of Sioux Falls, S.D., but the club members wanted to follow the historic trail, so they slowly descend down it. Maybe the breed of horses made the difference then and now.
“They (Appaloosas) are so tough,” Waltner said.
But even the spunky spotted horse has its Achilles heel just like its skittish cousins.
Waltner’s horse broke a shoe and later suffered a stone bruise on its foot, so Waltner hitched a ride for the last mile or so with the Weiners to rest her mount.
Back at the river, Rita Lovell crossed the river to chat with the Weiners.
Her handsome horse, “White Bird’s Fire,” towers over the folks on foot. He must be at least 16 hands at the shoulder, or withers, which equates to 64 inches. He has a milky coat, white mane and red-brown spots as though someone splashed him head to hoof with burgundy wine.
Sitting atop her mount, Lovell watched fellow riders negotiate the perilous slope she descended just minutes ago.
The switchbacks are so sharp her horse’s front quarters would nearly touch his hind quarters making the tight turns, Lovell said.
Watching her friends brings to mind the 600 to 700 riders and 2,000 Appaloosas on Joseph’s run. “There is almost something spiritual about watching them come down,” Lovell said.
Not all members of the modern-day party are white. Along with Europeans and riders from across the country, there are Lakota Sioux and Nez Perce making the ride too.
Pat Weiner had a very good day photographing and chatting with riders she knows. “I love reenacting history,” she said.
It was the scene of utter tranquility. The river sparkled invitingly as it must have for Joseph and his band. Riders ease their mounts into the current and the horses slosh about reveling in the cool water while a trout snatches a fly from the surface a few yards upstream. Other riders lounge on the bank as cottonwood leaves flutter in the breeze like a million green butterflies yearning to join the trek.
Lovell munched a sandwich and shared it with her horse. For dessert, White Bird gets his favorite, Fig Newtons.
Ron Fowler, of Wenatchee, Wash., joined Lovell and the Weiners. He was the chief scout. Riding drag are a medical doctor, a veterinarian, a farrier and wranglers.
“This is Day 4 and so far we have not had a single injury,” Fowler said Thursday.
Scuttlebutt coming down the line reported the only casualty was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich getting squished.
Identical twins Julie Jepson of Spanish Fork, Utah, and Janet Smith of Park City, Utah, galloped up the river for the sheer fun of it. Any dude or westerner would easily conclude these gals are cowgirls through and through.
“We did this ride in 2000,” Smith said.
“We’ve been doing it ever since,” Jepson finished.
One couple celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary riding the Joseph trail. For some, this ride is a major part of their lives.
“I will always do this,” Waltner said.
In long lines the riders crossed the river. Like a scene from a big budget western movie, the procession strung out heading down the canyon toward Clark. It was a beautiful and inspiring sight.
You’ll not likely see this many horses and riders in one place again, Mike Weiner said.
Waltner’s husband died in July of 2012. Later she met folks preparing for “the Joe” ride and decided to join them, Waltner said.
“Within a week you have a whole family of friends,” Waltner said.
It brought Chief Joseph’s effort to her mind.
“It was very spiritual,” Waltner said, referring to Joseph and the men, women and children dodging the army. “It just makes you think.”
Joseph and his people almost made it, but they were surrounded and surrendered about 40 miles south of the Canadian border in what is now Montana.
The chief reportedly uttered a memorable line upon his surrender. It has been used in history book, biographies, movies and TV shows for decades.
“Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” he said, according to the Army account.
However, some of Joseph’s people actually eluded the troops and crossed into Canada, Waltner said.
The Nez Perce were exiled to Oklahoma before they were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. Chief Joseph gained national stature, and spoke with presidents, urging them to allow his people to be allowed back on their native soil.
But, he was never to return to his homeland. Chief Joseph died at the age of 64 in 1904 and was buried on the Colville Reservation in Washington state.
At the mouth of the canyon, the riders lead their mounts to the river for a final drink before making the last leg of the day’s ride to camp. Waltner said some of the riders along for this leg have a deeply ingrained reason for coming along.
“Those are all the Nez Perce kids,” she said pointing out youth atop beautiful Appaloosas.