It’s year-36 for 4H Wagon Train and my second year as a Teamster on this adventure. Last year’s 70+ mile Trek on the Barlow Road in the Mount Hood National Forest was a life-changer for me. It might not seem possible, but my passion for 4H Wagon Train has grown in the months since my last post. Everything seems to be related to Wagon Train – what I read, gear I buy, horse-activities – most of my casual conversations seem to unintentionally funnel into a discussion of Wagon Train.
My affection for my Wagon Train family also grew during the months since we concluded our 7-day journey together last July. I’ve reunited on various occasions with new friends from Wagon Train and deepened my connection to Teamsters and other leaders who mentored me through my first year. I’ve also come to know more about the amazing family of devoted volunteers who quietly and humbly put heart and soul into making the 4H Wagon Train adventure happen – with over three decades of experience and a solid record of success, their work is truly a wonderment.
I hope to repeat the success of my year-one experience, as it needs no improvement, but there will be one change – I’ll have a new Swamper this year, Grace Clark. Grace is a 14 year old, 8th-grader with a great passion for horses and learning and improving herself as a horsewoman. Last year, Grace approached me on day-one hour-one of Wagon Train Tune-Up to offer help with my team of horses. That day she picked-out hooves, and by the last day of Wagon Train Grace was harnessing and driving as well as any pioneer. Jeff Clark, Grace’s dad, told me that whenever he was looking for Grace during Wagon Train he knew he could find her hanging around the teamsters looking for horse(and mule)-related jobs. (If you read last year’s “Wagon Train Connectivity” post about two teenage brothers on the very first 4H Wagon Train, this behavior might sound familiar). Grace might be making an appearance in this blog with her views of her first 4H Wagon Train experience. For me, Grace has given even greater meaning to Wagon Train in year-two.
Since the end of Wagon Train last year, Grace has taken every opportunity to drive, plow and log with horses and mules, and gained impressive skills and confidence. Grace turned her new learning experience into a school project and she made the local news. She has many qualities that I appreciate, but her calm, quiet, self-assuredness around horses and mules is what I believe will make her a great Swamper and someday a great Teamster. I am happy and proud that Grace will sit beside me on the seat of the wagon as my Swamper for every mile of the 2018 4H Wagon Train as my Swamper.
Swamper is an 1850’s slang term for “assistant” which meant someone who worked with loggers to clear roads through a swamp. The moniker transferred into many industries to mean someone who does odd jobs and keeps things running smoothly. On a wagon train, the Teamster and the Swamper work together for the care and maintenance of the team, equipment and wagon, and if the Teamster is disabled the Swamper takes over. The Swamper plays a vital role in wagon operations – she is the sidekick and navigator, she is an extra pair of eyes and hands and an extra brain to calculate safety and avert crisis. On a steep trail, the Swamper is the invaluable brakeman – she uses all of her strength to lever the handle of the brake as tight as possible against the rear wheels to prevent the wagon from pushing the team down hill or running them down.
I am already counting the days until Tune-Up weekend in June when we make sure the team, wagon and equipment are trail-ready for the big week-long Trek in July. Grace and I will also get to practice as a two-woman crew taking care of two 1,800 lb. horses, a 2,000 lb. wagon and all the necessary gear. I’m also gearing up to continue this blog writing project – last year I wrote a dozen installments to this blog telling the story of getting ready for my first wagon train and the history of this uniquely American experience. If you’re interested, you can go back to my 2017 posts to this blog to get the story of year-one. This year, I hope to share more about the people of wagon train, past and present. My next post will be about human perseverance and includes the remarkable story of the great grandmother of one of our very own 20-year 4H Wagon Train veterans.
If you are considering participating in 4H Wagon Train, the Tune-Up weekend is a wonderful way to get yourself ready and see what it’s all about – this year it will be at the beautiful 4H Center outside of Salem June 9-10, 2018, outriders and walkers are welcome (*limited availability)! Participants are required to attend at least one of the three 4H Wagon Train orientation meetings – more info at www.4HWagonTrain.org.
The first 2018 4H Wagon Train orientation meeting is only 3-weeks away, on March 17th! It’s the best meeting of all because the excitement has been building all Winter. We will meet new folks who want to hear about our favorite summer pasttime, and the best “summer camp” ever invented, and we will reunite with members of our existing wagon train family for the kick-off. Hope to see ya’ll there!
The first of three 4-H Wagon Train general meetings was held March 18, 2017. The main themes for the meeting were a little bit of getting to know each other and a lot of inspiring us to start getting ready for wagon train. Yes, the overnight Tune-Up Trek & Campout is not until June 10th, and the full 4-H Wagon Train “Barlow or Bust” trip is not until July 7th, but clearly now is the time to start getting in shape and planning for what you will need to make your wagon train experience a great one.
For advice on how to get your body ready for your adventure, I consulted Leslie McLeod, “The 4-H Wagon Train Fitness Expert” (an unofficial title), for insight and assistance. Leslie has held many official and unofficial volunteer titles with 4-H Wagon Train over the years. This year she is part of the Scouting Committee, meticulously planning the route, obtaining permits and riding/walking ahead of the wagon train to make sure the trail is clear and dropping markers for the train to follow. She is also an avid runner and off-road biker, swimmer, and, did I say, a meticulous planner?
Q: How long have you been participating in the 4-H Wagon Train and what volunteer jobs have you held?
A: “I attended the 1996 trek as a youth walker then reconnected with the program in 2011 as an adult leader and have since been a swamper, mule rider, horse rider, and walker. I have held the position of Ramrod, Scout, Scouting Committee Member, Trail Boss and unofficially been part of the trail clearing and flagging crew as well as organizing many past recruiting efforts, fundraising, and craft projects.”
Q: What’s the best part of 4-H Wagon Train for you?
A: “One of the things that I look forward to most besides the trip is getting prepared. It not only is getting you prepared but building excitement and belonging. I like to look at it as the big goal is accomplishing the trek but there are all kinds of little goals (meetings, a piece of gear, a physical achievement, a bit of knowledge, a work party) that are fun steps to look forward to and accomplish. I think it is wise to encourage people to break this up into manageable chunks and identify critical components to really show them the “doability” early on and to also help them fit little pieces into our everyday busy lives.
Q: What is you best advice for getting ready for the 4-H wagon train adventure?
A: Condition! Acclimate! Practice! Desensitize! – This goes for horses and people! I think these go hand in hand and starting early and establishing a routine is critical. Walk in the shoes you plan to bring, use the saddle and pad you are going to bring, try to take at least one hike and trail ride at a slightly higher elevation than you are used to or in conditions such as sand or plowing to accentuate the workload the higher elevation is going stress. I usually plan 1 or 2 hikes to Saddle Mt. for the walkers. Use the fanny pack, back pack, or saddle bags you are going to carry.
Practice with your gear – like putting up highline, and then letting horses who are not used to it spend time figuring it out at home or in low stress environments. If you are a returning participant, this is just as important – pull all your gear out and make sure it’s functional and ready.
Being preconditioned/acclimated/desensitized, whether equine or human, will make for a more enjoyable trip. The trip is challenging mentally and physically and things do happen. It is much better to meet these challenges in comfortable shoes without blisters or with a team that can push that extra little bit into camp after a hard pull without sacrificing their health. I like to say that yes it’s a working wagon train with both pre-engineered and unexpected stressors – but if you have prepared yourself and your horse(s) you make it an enjoyable and fulfilling achievement versus a struggle.
Q: If I’m not a person who camps out a lot, what should I expect?
A: This is a great first time camping experience because everyone takes care of each other – you’ll have a lot of help. Personally, my biggest struggle is usually my first night and getting very little sleep. You have to acclimate yourself – sleep outside or on the porch a few nights in your bedroll. The natural white noise is actually a great sleep aid for me now, but I still have to get used to it every year. By the way, there is a flyer on the 4-H Wagon Train web site called “What to Expect” – I wrote it, and I recommend it!
Q: You’ve provided a readiness challenge for the 4-H Wagon Train participants this year?
A: Yes, it’s the “200-Mile Challenge” – you log your training miles/activities from now until the end of the wagon train route and if you achieve 200 miles you get a custom handmade medal. It’s really just about moving your body and any movement counts. You can find the flyer about the challenge at 4HWagonTrain.org. I find that keeping track of your activity and seeing others participating is encouraging. The 200-Mile Challenge is just that, giving purpose to your movement and finding value in your movement – every little bit counts.
Q: Okay, the big question! Boots or sneakers?
A: This is a tough answer as it can be individual and really should be something that is broke in and what you are accustomed to wearing walking over uneven terrain for as much as 14 miles. If you have poor ankle stability then I suggest wearing a taller boot or shoe. Traditional hiking boots have been suggested in the past but they can be heavy and expensive. If you opt for a lighter shoe be aware that the uneven terrain causes more foot fatigue as the unevenness of the ground pushes through the soft sole material and cause your foot to move around in your shoe more. There are also ways to lace your shoes to help alleviate minor fit problems or issues that crop up on the trail.
What works for me is a broke in trail shoe with stiff insoles. I would stay away from, “keds” type, basketball, fashion sneakers, and open toe shoes. Riders and Teamsters should also wear a shoe/boot that is recommended for their activity but also one that can be walked in comfortably as there are instances where they may find themselves on foot temporarily. The second part of the equation for foot care is socks. Splurge on your socks and wear mid weight merino wool socks meant for hiking. Cotton and synthetic socks are terrible for your feet and are usually the cause of blisters and hots spots, so are too thick and too thin of socks. Change them every day at least and use foot powder.
Q: What do I wear on the trail, and do I have to dress like a pioneer?
A: On the trail I dress in shorts or convertible pants as a walker or jeans as a rider/swamper/teamster. A loose fitting tee shirt with a long sleeve button up light shirt that can easily be tied at my waist. I wear a head covering with sunglasses and have my daypack or saddlebags with water bottle and suggested contents from the different pack lists whether you are a rider or walker. This attire may change with predicted weather conditions so I plan for and pack other layers of clothing for wet and/or cold conditions in my main duffle bag to pull out and take with me for that day. Most of the time the dress requirements are based upon hot sunny conditions. It is imperative to wear or have with you clothing that covers your arms, legs and face in addition to sunscreen. You do not have to dress like a pioneer on the trail but you can. Pioneer attire is available to dress up in on layover day. Also, there is a Dress Code for 4-H wagon Train that you may want to be familiar with (yes, it’s on the web site) as well as refer to the “What to Pack” list for more details.
Q: What other gear do you consider critical?
A: Well, first of all, you don’t need to spend a lot of money. Some of what you need you may be able to borrow if you start asking around and I get a lot of my clothing and gear at thrift shops. Some of it you can even make, like your bedroll. Check out the “What to Pack” flyer on the 4H Wagon Train web site. (I know I keep saying that, but there is a lot of great info there!)
There are a few necessary items that are somewhat unique to wagon train – Highline Equipment, a Bedroll and a Mess Kit should be emphasized from the list of things to pack. There is also a flyer about Highlining on the web site.
I’m in the process of putting together information about building your bedroll and making your mess kit, so stay tuned.
Q: Okay, here it is: The Big What Else?
A: Hmmmmmmm I’m going to pack Lettuce and Marbles and I can go (this is a campfire game we play, if you know the game shhhhhhhh)
Q: Is it true that you are training a pack goat to come along on the 4-H Wagon Train?
A: “Dottie, my rescue goat, probably won’t come on the big trek this year. I still need to discuss with teamsters and riders as they can be very disruptive to horses and mules, which is why we do not allow dogs. She might make an appearance at the Tune-Up Trek & Campout on June 10th. She was a rescue and her body condition and feet need a lot of TLC. Right now she is happily carrying an empty pack around, leads, ties, and snuggles her humans and a horse.
Yes, it would be a first, but we’ve had a sort of mascot before and the kids really loved it. Kids who were not used to big draft animals got to start with Festus, a pony-sized pack mule. It helped teach responsibility and it was always a daily honor for one kid to be Festus’ keeper for the day. We’ve had chickens before and there was talk of a pig at one point.
Q: What would you say to people that still have concerns about the physical requirements?
A: This is a working wagon train and there is physical exertion but it is very moderate and spread out over extended periods of time with many pauses. The main reason behind the 200-Mile Challenge is to encourage people to be moving early on so that they can better enjoy the Trek itself and reduce the risk of injury. You can make significant changes to your health in a short amount of time even with a busy life. The 200-Mile Challenge is the motivation to do such. You all have 4 months to work towards making this your best year and your best Trek. 4-H Wagon Train has been a catalyst in my life, a program that has provided challenges, guidance, a family, and a place for me to grow even as an adult. This is a springboard to healthier living, make every day count and do a little bit every day.