If horseman Ron Wilhoit has a business plan, it is clearly built around mythologist Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss.” That’s exactly what the former owner of Tye Dye Trucking, a Seattle waterfront trucking business, is doing and he couldn’t be happier.
With Alaska Draft Horse, Wilhoit is inviting others to share that bliss as he guides clients into the Kenai Peninsula backcountry astride Liberty and Justice, two gentle equine giants.
An hour and a half ride skirts the hillside overlooking Chakok River. To the west, the summits of Iliamna and Redoubt volcanoes are visible through spruce trees. To the east, the Caribou Hills stretch along the horizon. Rooftops sparsely dot the landscape. Over it all is a profound, away-from-it-all silence disturbed only by the sound of leaves and grasses ruffling in the breeze and the snuffling of horses.
Wilhoit can point out plants along the way, vegetation with which he has become familiar since moving to the area. This one can be eaten. This one can’t. This one has medicinal properties.
For the most part, the horses set the pace. Occasionally, they stop to graze, creating a perfect break to enjoy the scenery, breathe in the air, share stories.
“You’re in tune with the horses walking and breathing. It makes people open up and tell stories about their lives, who they are, why they’re who they are. A lot of people get that way when they get around horses,” said Wilhoit.
Having grown up in rural Washington State, as an adult Wilhoit relocated to Seattle, where he operated Tye Dye’s fleet of trucks and truck drivers. As the business grew, so did his disenchantment with city living and the associated anxiety and stress.
“In a big city, every interaction with a stranger was probably the last one so there was no investment in how people treated each other. I missed the connection of a small community, of everyone knowing everyone,” said Wilhoit.
In 1998, he and his wife Tamera decided to change all that with a move to Alaska.
“I was really allergic to the population density and needed to gain solitude out in the woods. That’s what I really hungered for, just being in the woods with nobody bothering me. To be me, free, and breathe without having the vibrations of someone else’s energy right in my face,” said Wilhoit.
The couple settled on 240 acres overlooking the Chakok River valley, just north of Stariski Creek, and began developing a self-sufficient lifestyle very different from the rhythms of city living. With the help of Matt Trail of Nikolaevsk, Wilhoit built the house in which he and his wife live. A garden is a large part of their food source year round, thanks to Tamera’s canning skills. A combination of generators and solar panels help the Wilhoits distance themselves from the grid.
With a clear vision of how they wanted their life to be, Wilhoit said, “Every problem we’ve come across over the years has just been another solution needed.”
A few years ago, Wilhoit received an invitation from a friend that brought a new dimension into his life.
“My buddy Gary called me up and said, ‘Hey, let’s go out moose hunting for a couple of weeks on horses.’ I said I’d love to, but I’m a big boy and I’d kill one of those quarter horses in the woods,” said Wilhoit.
Assured that his friend’s Belgian horses were capable of not only carrying him, but carrying a load of moose meat as well, Wilhoit accepted the offer.
“It was like stepping in a time machine back to 1863,” he said of that two-week experience of being in the woods. “It was a peak life experience.”
Wilhoit began riding with his friend every chance he had. Finally his friend asked, “Dude, when are you going to get your own horse?”
Growing up on his family’s Washington ranch, Wilhoit hadn’t been a fan of horses. They were big and heavy, had herd mentality he didn’t understand and getting stepped on by one of them was painful. Amy, an Arabian, took a liking to Wilhoit, however. She followed him the way a faithful family dog might do, eventually winning Wilhoit’s heart.
Enlarging his Alaska lifestyle to include horses “was a big commitment. It takes a lot of emotional energy because they’re emotional beings, but the desire to have a horse in my life won over,” said Wilhoit, who now has four draft horses.
Justice and Liberty are beautiful black Percherons, chosen by Wilhoit for their size, gentleness, patience and strength.
“She’s 18 hands tall and 2,000 pounds,” said Wilhoit of 7-year-old Liberty, who came from Palmer.
Arriving from Montana, 15-year-old Justice “is a little bit shorter and a lot lighter. When I look at his girth, he’s not as big around as her and his footprints don’t push down in the dirt as much.”
Fannie and Seth are Suffolk punch, another type of draft horse, and are of slighter build than Justice and Liberty.
The tour Wilhoit offers through Alaska Draft Horse is his way of sharing the beauty and peace he has found in Alaska’s backcountry with others, as well as his love of horses.
“People can go out in the woods on these big docile, gentle, sweet creatures and see beautiful, wonderful Alaska,” said Wilhoit.
In 2013, Wilhoit and Alaska Draft Horse had eight guests. This summer the business grew to 46 clients and is still going strong. With calls still coming in from people eager to experience what Wilhoit and the horses are offering, it is clear the end of summer doesn’t mean a close of business.
“I feel full of gratitude that I’ve had the power to make my life so I can live in the woods, ride horses in the woods, have the life I have,” said Wilhoit. “I love horses. I love the woods. Summertime, springtime, winter, fall. If someone called me up and wanted to go for a horse ride, I’d take them.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alaska Draft Horse
Owner: Ron Wilhoit
Sterling Highway mile 150, go five miles east on Tall Tree Avenue, follow the signs.
Hour and a half ride, $99; four-hour ride includes lunch cooked over a campfire: $250
More info: alaskadrafthorse.com