"Clyde Caught in a Slide" by Willis Lamm

On May 1, 1998, Sharon, Patty Thomas and I decided to go out on our first trail ride of the year. The winter had been pretty rough, but since it had been dry for several weeks, we expected that the trails at nearby Contra Loma and Black Diamond Mines Regional Parks would be in decent condition.

Patty was taking CJ, her new mustang, out on their very first trail ride together. Sharon took her quarter horse, Mikey, and I rode Sharon's half Clydesdale mare, Havilynn. The horses were not in good condition, so we chose a moderate trail with which we were thoroughly familiar and that we knew the horses could handle. Sharon was recovering from a groin pull, her doctor thought riding would be therapeutic, and we expected this ride to give her some exercise without overdoing things.

When we reached the park, there was no indication that the trail was not safe to travel nor did any of the park employees we spoke to make mention of any trail problems when we entered. As we started out, we found the trail generally to be in fair condition, however there were several small to moderate washouts on the downslope side of the trail and a number of mushy places that were nuisances. There were also several old winter washes which had dried and left brick-hard cow hoofprints which were up to a foot deep which were a treacherous and time consuming to pick our way across. At about the halfway point we encountered a particularly rough stretch to cross. I scouted ahead and the trail ahead looked a whole lot better than what we had traveled, so we decided that continuing forward made the most sense and we plodded on through the rough terrain and took a rest break at a cattle tank.

The next mile of the trail was uneventful. We caught a few sprinkles of rain, but the trail surface was pretty decent and we made good time. About 3/4 through the trail loop we came down a steep grade which had very steep rolling hills shooting up on our right that sloped down to a meadow just below us on our left. The entire meadow had a couple of inches of water standing on it.

As we progressed around the bends in the trail, we came upon about a 3 to 4 acre landslide which crossed the trail and spilled into the meadow. There were footprints from cattle who had traveled across the slide's crusty surface. I dismounted and ventured across the slide on foot and was disturbed by the relatively deep holes left by the cattle in the slide's uneven surface. Looking for an alternate route, I hiked down to the meadow and splashed along its length to determine the suitability of that route. The ground supported my weight but I was uneasy about bringing the horses through there. I went back to the slide and reassessed a route over it.

By picking our way to the upper edge of the slide, we could find some relatively firm footing which was not too torn up by the cattle. We had one marshy spot, about 10 feet across, to negotiate at the end of the slide. While this would be slow going, it looked far favorable to retracing our steps over the torn up sections of the trail which we had previously been over.

The plan was that I would lead one each horse through the marshy spot, sticking to the fairly hard cattle path. Sharon, who was experiencing some pain due to a groin pull, would pick her way across at a lower elevation and meet me at the other side. Patty would hold the horses on the side we were leaving and Sharon would hold them on our destination side. I decided to lead Havilynn across first.

The Players:

* * *

Mikey & Sharon
Patty and CJ
Willis on Havilynn and
Patty on CJ climbing out of
Contra Loma Regional Park

I started leading Havilynn across, a process that I soon discovered was not easy. I had to pick my way through the maze of holes and try to keep Havilynn going along the smoother upper edge of the slide. At one point I stepped toward her to clear an obstacle and the lead rope went too slack and she stepped on it. She didn't panic, but she sort of humped forward to get clear of the rope. In doing so, her right front foot left the firm area and sank into the muddy crevice above the slide. She lunged forward to pull her self free as I tried to scramble forward to give her enough slack in the lead rope that she could move her head for balance.

The big mare broke through the damp upper crust and immediately sank up to her shoulder in mud, rolling over onto her left side. Her left foreleg and shoulder had completely disappeared into the muck. I had no idea if she had broken or dislocated it. Her other three legs were flailing uphill as she lay crosswise on the slope, her topline pointing downhill. I watched in horror as she struggled in vain to get up a couple of times, but with each movement she only sank deeper. She finally took a great breath and lay her head down on its side. Sharon's leg was too sore for her to make it up to us let alone help pull the mare out, so she scrambled back to hold the horses and Patty came up to the scene.

There was no way to get help, and even if we could, it would take too long as the trail was impassible to vehicles. We had to solve this problem ourselves and we had to do it fast as it was late in the day.

The first order of business was to get the saddle off. I considered that if we could get her legs free we could roll her over and with her feet pointed downhill she could get herself up, and we needed the saddle off to try that. Patty stayed at Havilynn's head to keep her calm in case she stirred.

Getting a saddle off of a horse which was laying on her side buried in the mud was not an easy task. I was able to free the cinch from the top side, but I also had to undo the laces which held the billets to the saddle on the underside. This required scooping the mud away from them sufficiently to get at them to untie them with my Leatherman tool. Next I had to dig the stirrup out from under the great beast. With that effort completed I had the saddle off and Patty lugged it away from our work area.

Next I had to find Havilynn's buried left front leg. This was not easy. It was under several inches of sod and mud which Patty and I had to dig away double handfuls at a time. It seemed like it was taking forever to remove the mud as more crept into the hole I was making. I finally touched her leg and started to work along its length. It was in a flexed position and showed no signs of deformity. I kept having to reposition myself as I worked because my feet would start to disappear into the pudding-like soil.

Finally I exposed her entire left leg, but I couldn't get it out. It was stuck fast in the mud. Thank God Sharon used trusty kernmantle braid marine-grade rope for reins as I was able to get the rope under her leg and haul with all my might to get it free of its sticky bonds. With this done, I looked the situation over and noticed that her right front leg had now started sinking in the mud.

All Sharon could see from her position was the body of her Clydesdale disappearing slowly into the hillside and Patty and my heads bobbing up from time to time. The big mare lay totally still and didn't appear to have any will or strength left.

We dug her right front leg free. Patty moved uphill and got above her hind legs, I lifted her forelegs and we attempted to log roll her down the hill. All we accomplished was to sink ourselves into the mud. Patty appeared to be now stuck up to the calves of her legs. In the meanwhile the ground around Havilynn's rear end was starting to give way and she was starting to sink.

Patty and I freed ourselves and I managed to pull Havilynn's forelegs out in front of her. At least they wouldn't sink for the moment and we could figure out what to do next. Havilynn raised her head, gave a groan and with a tremendous heave, somehow pulled herself to her feet. She started to sink again and I ran out ahead of her calling to her to come toward me. She fell and again sank to her chest, but somehow had enough strength forward momentum to pull her front legs free of the muck and lunge forward a second time. This time she worked free of the bog and as I ran forward, I could hear her chugging and crunching through the soil surface behind me as she scrambled to get clear. Finally she was past the slide and stood on the hillside, obviously sore and shaken, but in one piece. We left her alone for a few minutes to compose herself and hauled the saddle and equipment down to the trail past the slide. I was exhausted and lay down for a minute, pondering how I was going to get the other horses across.

Mikey whinnied at Havilynn who acted like she might try to go back across the slide to return to the other two horses. I called to her to distract her and hiked back up to where I had left her, snapped the rein on her headstall to use as a lead rope her and led her down to the trail to Patty. She was a bit wobbly at first but navigated the hillside without any further disasters. We weren't in a position to split up the group, so now the problem was getting the other two horses past the slide.

I picked my way back to Sharon and took Mikey. We slogged along through the flooded meadow as quickly as we could so he wouldn't sink into the wet ground. Mikey, who generally doesn't like to get his feet wet, traversed the 500 ft. through the meadow without any hesitation. The going was rough and when we reached the other side, there was adobe mud splashed all over Mikey clear up onto the sides and top of his saddle. After giving Mikey to Patty, I went back for CJ whom Sharon had already started leading through the marsh. CJ also waded through without incident. Sharon turned back to cross at the slide and got stuck as well, sinking almost up to her right knee, which as "Murphy" would have it was the same leg as her groin pull. By the time I hiked back to Sharon, her left leg was now sunk. With some assistance getting her legs free of the muck, Sharon finally made it across the slide safely as well.

I reassembled the saddle and placed it on Havilynn so she could pack it out. We led the horses down the trail until it met a road. We didn't know how sore Havilynn might be and felt that it made sense to avoid the last mile and a half of trail which included some steep climbs and descents. We decided that when we reached a point where the trail was near a road, I would set out alone on CJ to get the trailer and bring it up the road to where the group would be waiting.

I climbed up on CJ and the little mustang (on his first trail ride) jogged off away from the group without hesitation. We made great time back to the trailer, CJ hopped right in and we left to pick up the other horses. We pulled the muddy saddles off Havilynn and Mikey, loaded them up and took everybody home.

It was pouring rain by the time we got back to the stable, but it wasn't nearly enough to make a dent in the caked mud which covered Havilynn. It took a while with a garden hose running over a shedder to scrape her down to where one could even tell what color she was. Amazingly enough, she didn't have a nick or a scrape on her. We turned her loose to graze for a bit, then gave her a couple of grams of Bute and put her up for the night. CJ and Mikey also got some extra treats for their part in the ordeal.

Sharon went over to the wash stand and hosed herself down. Patty and I, who by this time resembled two creatures from the Black Lagoon, opted to shed our mud covered clothes in our respective garages and forgo the cold outdoor shower. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief and decided that (1) this was the most adventurous trail ride any of us had even been on, (2) we didn't need this much adventure any time in the future and (3) never, ever again would we assume that a lack of warning by park employees, unlocked entry gates and a total lack of postings or any other notices would be any indication that all the trails in the park would be safe.

A muddy Havilynn
waiting for the trailer

Followup: To the credit of the Park District, the area in which we encountered problems was still public but leased out for grazing to reduce fire hazards. The grazing permittee had reported no problems so Park District personnel weren't aware of the slide. The Park District employees did act on the problem once we advised them of the situation. The East Bay Regional Park District places great emphasis on visitor safety, but any expansive system can have unforeseen hazards. The primary lesson here is to always "read the country," particularly during changing weather conditions, and proceed with caution when things don't seem right.

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