Near Disaster on the Hurricane Deck Trail
John Fuhring
April 09, 2010


     On Monday, April 5, 2010, my party of 6 people and 7 horses took a pack trip over Hurricane Deck in the Los Padres National Forest, from Potrero trail to the Sisquoc River. I decided to take this route over Hurricane Deck and felt confident to invite my friends to go because I was told that, with the funds and labor the Forest Service had (supposedly) put into this part of the trail since the recent fire, "it is in the best and safest condition it has been in a generation.  This is a once in a lifetime chance to see that outstanding scenery from horseback."  Well, the scenery was spectacular, but trail was not in the condition I was led to believe and the trip nearly ended in disaster.

     Before I continue, I want everybody to know that the Hurricane Trail from Potrero Canyon is in terrible condition. Many times we had a hard time telling where the trail was and a section was so bad, my pack horse slipped off and tumbled down over 100 feet into a very steep canyon.  I will admit that the section from Cold Water Camp to the top of Hurricane deck is greatly improved over the old trail.  Here is a map showing the old trail we didn't use and the new trail I was able to map using my GPS.



The Incident

     At geographic coordinates N34 49.0011, W119 59.1926 at about 3:20 PM, my pack horse passed a really bad spot on this otherwise poor trail whereupon he fell off the trail and tumbled over and over down a steep canyon until he and his pack landed about 100 feet from the trail on an impossibly steep slope in a tangle of thick woody brush. He was completely stuck in the brush, but saved from tumbling another 1000 feet by the even thicker brush down there. To tell the truth, I had a hell of a time even finding the horse and only did so by following the trail of smashed limbs down to where he was. When I finally was able to get to my horse, I found him on his right side with his rear legs tucked under him at a steep angle, stuck in the brush and unable to move. His mouth was bloody (leading me to believe he had internal injuries) and he appeared listless. His pack was still in place with all the lashings secure despite all he had been through.

     After I had ascertained that none of his leg bones were broken and his vital signs were "normal," it was apparent that we would not have to put him down right then and there, but we could proceed to look into his predicament. Seeing how tangled he was in that thick brush, how impossibly steep the slope was and being without tools, I was convinced there was no way on earth we could get him out of there and that I'd have to shoot him nevertheless. Fortunately, Jeff (a Marine Corps Reserve Master Sergent.) had a hand saw and insisted on attempting a rescue. At this point I was willing to try anything, so I undid the horse's pack and saddle so it would fall off him if/or when he was able to move and Jeff began cutting the thick branches away from the horse.

     After the horse was partially cut free, Jeff went back up to the trail to get some rope for stabilizing and helping the horse get up while I stayed with the horse and tried to keep him quiet. Before we were ready with the rope and being unable to prevent it, the horse began to get up.  It was so steep that when he scrambled to his feet, he fell over backwards and landed on his back with his legs straight up in the air and his head pointing down the canyon. The horse's backwards fall was somewhat cushioned by the thick brush, but now he was tangled up worse than before and in an impossible position. 

     With the horse upside down, we had no choice but to cut away more brush until he was again partially free.  At this point we were anxious he would try to rotate onto his left side where he would only get himself in deeper trouble.  I was about to scramble over the brush to his left side and attempt to rotate him by pushing on his front legs (hoping he wouldn't kick my brains out in the meantime) when somehow he was able to flip himself over on to his right side. This was the break we were waiting for, so with lots of pulling and encouragement, the horse was able to scramble upright and with some more effort we prevented him from flipping over again or falling further down the canyon. I then assisted and directed the horse to a clearing Rob and others in our party had made to the north where it wasn't quite so steep. Once in the clearing, I briefly looked him over and was pleasantly surprised that he didn't appear injured.  We then made a diagonal path up the slope to the trail and once on the trail, over to where the other horses were waiting.  The old horse just trotted right up there like nothing at all had happened.

     On detailed examination of my horse, I was amazed that I couldn't find anything wrong with him beyond some very minor scraped skin.  The horse had retained all his shoes and exhibited no lameness, tenderness or swellings. He appeared perfectly sound and able to resume his job as packhorse, so we found and collected almost all of our stuff and hauled it to where we had tied him. We cinched up the pack saddle, repacked the panniers, secured them to the pack saddle, secured the diamond hitch and finished the journey to the Manzana Schoolhouse (somewhat over a mile further on) without further incident.  

     The last mile or so off Hurricane Deck down to the Sisquoc River was a very steep portion of the trail with multiple switchbacks and the trail obviously had not been used in a very long time.  Nevertheless, the trail was easy to find and follow and we did not find it particularly dangerous.

Associated Events, Thoughts and Recommendations

     If I would have known of the poor and dangerous condition of the Hurricane Ridge trail, I would never have risked myself or my horses going over it and, most importantly, I absolutely would not have invited my friends and their horses to go with me on this trip. I feel that I owe everybody a sincere apology for unwittingly risking their lives and the lives of their horses.

     Looking back now, we were saved from disaster by a chain of unlikely events starting with my draining a painful abscess in Jeff's horse's foot on the Monday morning before we left Nira camp.  

     On Monday morning, April 5th, we had all just mounted up and had taken only a few steps when it appeared quite obvious that Jeff's horse was profoundly lame.  Jeff announced that he wasn't going to be able to go with us since his horse was limping so badly.  I did not want to see somebody come all this way and endure the horrible rainstorm of the night before only to miss the ride so I asked Jeff if I could examine the foot and perhaps attempt a fix before he irrevocably decided to drop out of our group.  Jeff agreed to let me take a look and have a try.  I really didn't need my hoof testers since I easily found a badly abscessed area in the sole of the foot by sight.  I then lanced, drained and enlarged the opening to the source of the infection and, as I suspected would happen, the horse experienced immediate relief.  With its first step, Jeff's horse lost its limp and began walking in a way that indicated it was now sound and could make the trip (and thank the gods - and my hoof knife - for that).  

     Jeff's horse was now sound and we all rode out together north down the Manzana Creek Trail.  Without Jeff's horse, we would have lost his company.  Without his company, we would have been without his strength, his cool-headed thinking, his expert help and his saw.   If Jeff wouldn't have been able to go with us, we never would have extracted my horse after his fall.

     The other thing that saved us was my old horse's instinct to tuck his legs under him as he tumbled so they wouldn't get caught in the brush and be broken.  Once again I am amazed at how delicate horses can be at times and yet how tough they are at others.  I'm amazed at how dumb they can be at times, but how Nature has endowed them with wise instincts.  Sometimes they can be unruly and will panic, but at other times they seem to know when they are in trouble over their heads and will wait patiently for you to help them.  They can hurt you if they get scared, but other times they seem to know not to kick or injure you while you are close by helping them.

     I also need to add a word of thanks to the young guys in our party for all the hard work they did in hauling the heavy stuff up the slopes and trails without complaining.  I hope I didn't teach them any cuss words they hadn't already heard before and I hope they had an adventure they can recall with pleasure later in their lives.

     Always remember the old saying I made up a while ago just for these occasions:

"The only real difference between an adventure and a disaster
 is that in an adventure, nobody gets killed."

     In conclusion, it is my opinion that the Hurricane Deck trail from Potrero Canyon to the Sisquoc River should not be recommended for horses and it remains a very poorly marked trail in dubious condition for all other users.

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