By Polly Keary, Editor
Wintertime often finds the young men who work at Skyland Ranch gathered around the stove, telling stories and stepping out for the occasional smoke, instead of saddling up horses for clients who rent by the hour, as they do all summer.
But they all agree; winter is a great time to ride.
Skyland Ranch is located on Reiter Road just outside of Gold Bar, and trails spider off the property into some of the most beautiful winter scenery in the Sky Valley; along riverbanks where eagles fish from the trees to forest land that opens into spectacular views of Mt. Index and the Cascades.
“I think it’s beautiful, the mountains with the snow,” said Jessie Cook, one of about a dozen men who live and work on the premises. “When you go down the main trail and you see the river and the mountain, there is no way to look without it being stunning.”
There are about eight miles of trails meandering from the property, and clients who are experienced and known to the ranch can rent a horse and ride alone. Others can get one of the residents to ride along, or go out in groups, for $30 per hour per horse, year-round.
The forest is beautiful in all seasons, said Dave Pitkin, a former San Diego judge who has owned and run Skyland Ranch for 30 years. He once even wrote an article about what each season brings to the ranch.
Winter offers opportunities no other season does, he noted.
“Along the river road, we go down this little trail, and there is a cliff face on the left, and in the winter it will be a solid lattice work of icicles,” he said.
And sometimes entire stories are written in the snow, if you know where to look.
“Once we saw deer track 20 feet apart,” he said. “The deer was just flying. And right behind were the prints of a mountain lion. You could see where the deer jumped up on a cliff, and where the mountain lion skidded, and then where he gave up and walked off.”
Animals don’t flee at the sound of a horse like they do at the sound of a human. So it’s easier to spot wildlife from horseback. Fox, eagles, even bear are among animals Pitkin has seen.
There is a lot of serenity on horseback in the woods at any time of year. It’s for that serenity and the therapeutic presence of horses that the residents who live there and care for the horses have come.
Skyland Ranch is first and foremost a center for men who are in recovery from various addictions. They come from all over the United States to the quiet ranch, where each is assigned a horse for which to care. Once they are proficient enough to serve as guides, they take customers on trips or help with summertime moonlight rides or events like horseback weddings, of which there have been several on the ranch.
The ranch is a nonprofit and is less expensive than a lot of other recovery centers, and the men may stay from a few weeks to two years. The residents tend to rave about the experience, often marveling at their good luck in finding the retreat.
The Skyland Ranch website has a page of letters from former residents telling of lives saved. One man returned to South Carolina, regained his license to practice law, and was invited to speak at military school The Citadel of his recovery. A former New York City stockbroker found recovery there, and the ranch converted him from an urbanite to an avid horseback rider. And many parents wrote to thank the ranch for turning around the lives of their sons.
Pitkin, the ranch owner, is himself 27 years sober, and he said that although his brother, the former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, and he bought the ranch together to one day retire there, after his brother died of cancer and he got through treatment for alcoholism, he immediately knew what he was supposed to do with the ranch.
In the decades it’s been open, it’s drawn such a loyal clientele of riders that Pitkin doesn’t have to do much advertising, he said.
In the summer, groups are coming and going all day, and reservations pile up in advance.
But in the winter, it’s easy to get in and rent a horse, head out for a peaceful ride, and return; knowing that the money was doubly well-spent because it goes toward rebuilding the lives of the men who saddle and groom and care for all the horses.
For more information or to book a ride, call (425) 327-9458.
The ranch is open for riding every day but Tuesday.