FISH LAKE — Back in the days before automobiles and paved roads, if someone wanted to go somewhere they either walked or rode a horse.
A group of travelers from California who are working to keep equestrian traditions alive stopped off at the Tasha Equestrian Campground Saturday evening.
The Fish Lake Cut-off of the Old Spanish Trail is what drew the travelers, who are members of the Backcountry Horsemen of California, to the area.
“We thought we were doing a great job planning, but we ran out of beer,” said Jim Clark, one of the riders. “It’s hard to buy in Utah.” Clark said the trek is something he’s wanted to do for a long time.
“I’ve always wanted to do a long ride like this,” Clark said. He said at one point he considered attempting the Outlaw Trail, but when the chance came to ride the Old Spanish Trail he knew he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Riding the trail, day after day, has given Clark a connection to the past.
“We saw the tracks of the Old Spanish Trail,” Clark said. He said people riding the trail west would do so with approximately 200 mules, which left a distinct trail that in some places is still visible today. However, on the way back east the traders would have herds of 2,000 or more horses.
The trek was broken up into two sections. The first was completed last year as the team of riders traveled from San Bernardino, Calif., to Parowan, which entailed crossing the Mojave Desert.
“It would reach 115 degrees,” Clark said. “The desert is beautiful, but we’ve seen far more of it than we ever wanted to.” The group benefited from having support vehicles, which carried water and grain for the horses and mules, Clark said.
He said the second phase of the journey, which started Aug. 9 in Parowan, has been less challenging.
“There are streams along the way,” Clark said. He said horses greatly prefer drinking from a stream than from a barrel. The reenactment also drew the attention of Clark’s son and daughter-in-law, Ron and Benedicte Schoyen Clark, who are following the trek with a camera and filming a documentary.
There are many routes that make up the Old Spanish Trail, but the group of California horsemen chose the Fish Lake Cut-off for a specific reason.
“It’s not I-15 and it’s not I-70,” said Richard Waller, president of the Backcountry Horsemen of California. Waller, who is also a teacher in Arroyo Grande, Calif., spearheaded the effort to traverse the old trail.
“No one has ridden it since 1848, so it was about time,” Waller said. The group even received special permission from the U.S. Forest Service to ride on the lakeside trail that runs along Fish Lake’s shore.
The group is scheduled to arrive in Santa Fe, N.M., Sept. 16 and participate in a trails celebration.
“We are a group of friends,” Waller said. He said in addition to reenacting what traders in the 1800s experienced, the ride is also a way to promote the message of protecting equine access on public lands.
With pressure from large OHV — off highway vehicle — groups and other interests, sometimes horse riders feel lost in the mix when it comes to public lands use, Waller said.
The group happened to enter the Fish Lake basin during the Central Utah Back Country Horsemen’s annual week at the Tasha Equestrian Campground.
“Things have fallen into place so nicely, so often that we feel like there’s a little rainbow over our heads,” Waller said.
The local horsemen invited the travelers to join them for an evening of food, story swapping and education about the Old Spanish Trail. Approximately 50 people attended the event at the Tasha Equestrian Campground, located near Fish Lake.
“We always have a work day to maintain the trails and fix things,” said Ray Conner, president of the central chapter. Conner spends much of the summer at Tasha as a camp host.
“Every year it gets a little better, and gets a little more use,” Conner said. He said people from as far away as Florida have camped at Tasha, which is reserved only for those with horses or mules.
The Tasha campground’s history is also tied to keeping equestrian access alive on public lands.
“We had a trailhead, but no camping,” said Rod Winkel, member of the Utah horsemen. He said a group of horsemen camped at the trailhead and were given a ticket, which led to the discussions with Forest Service officials concerning how to better cater to equine users.
“We came up and put baling wire around some quakies to make corrals,” said Don Pendleton, also a member of the Back Country Horsemen of Utah group. Since that time, volunteers have spent hundreds of hours improving the Tasha campground, which now has developed corrals, several camping spots and a clean, modern bathroom facility.
Horsemen also maintain trails, clean up litter and try to keep the Fishlake National Forest a gem for everyone to use, Pendleton said.