- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - After days of frustration navigating trails snarled by fallen trees and scarred by wildfires, Ray Knell and his string of mules broke through to a place of refuge.

Somewhere in the tangled forests near Steamboat Springs, Knell, of Woodland Park, stumbled into an elk calving area. Scores of cow elks were tending to their newborns, whose cries seemed to drown out all interest in Knell and his fellow interlopers.

“There were hundreds of them, and no one flushed. (Newborn elks) were squeaking at mom. They’re feeding. They let us pass like we were part of the family,” he said.

For Knell, 33, it was another thrilling moment in a wild adventure.

An Afghanistan War veteran and former Green Beret with Fort Carson’s 10th Special Forces Group, the burly, bearded traveler just wrapped up more than 90 days on the trail with at least two mules and a horse named Mustang Sally.



They set off May 31, traveling along the Continental Divide from Lake George in Teller County to a small town in the shadows of the Gallatin Mountains west of Bozeman, Mont. Knell’s mission: to deliver the trail-tested pack animals, along with tack, supplies and a horse trailer, to the nonprofit Heroes and Horses, a Montana-based group that organizes outdoor pack trips for combat veterans struggling to rediscover a sense of purpose after war.

Knell completed his goal Sept. 12, riding into Manhattan, Montana, population 1,520, to a hero’s welcome, with a crowd in the hundreds to cheer him.

For someone who’d gone as long as two weeks at a time without speaking to a human, the reception was a tad overwhelming.

“I was having a mild anxiety attack riding up there,” Knell said with a grim laugh, explaining that he never saw himself as a star of his expedition — just the guy leading the pack.

The day marked the dramatic culmination of a yearlong effort by Knell to provide a boost to Horses and Heroes, which formed in 2011 and obtained its nonprofit status in June 2014. In the time since, the organization has led eight expeditions for 32 veterans, some homeless, some with severe injuries.

The intensive program requires a 2-to-1 ratio of staff members to participants, so any effort to boost its scope means growing a complicated mix of qualified trip leaders, sturdy pack animals and financial underwriting, the organization says.

Knell’s contributions, which he accumulated through a monthslong fundraising campaign based in Woodland Park, amounted to a good chunk of change for Heroes and Horses — roughly $20,000.

But for the program’s participants, who tracked Knell’s slow progress through the Rocky Mountains, the mission was powerfully symbolic.

“Ray kind of shined a light on what was possible,” said Tom Brewer, a founding member of the board of directors at Heroes and Horses and a 38-year Army veteran twice wounded in combat. “If Ray could do it for 100 days, then doing it for nine days wasn’t that big a challenge.”

COPING WITH CHALLENGES

The trek was far from a cake walk for Knell, who faced frequent hurdles on the way.

Early on, he had to release one of his mules, Toby, because of a medical condition. Toby is under veterinary care, and Knell hopes to restore him to service with Heroes and Horses after some recovery time.

Blemishing the trip were Knell’s impressions of degraded forests along Colorado’s Front Range, some turned ragged by beetle kill, others tangled and overgrown through lack of management. Many Forest Service trails all but vanished under downed timber, he said.

Knell said he was forced to guide his string on dirt and asphalt roads frequently, which wearied them and wore through their shoes at an alarming rate.

Just inside the Wyoming border, Knell’s mare, Mustang Sally, “got poisoned” from something she ate along the way, and his mules were moving slowly, footsore and badly in need of a break.

Taking up a favor extended him before the trip, Knell called friend and expert pack wrangler Ben Masters, who agreed to take custody of Knell’s exhausted pack and to lend him new animals for a portion of the journey.

After a month apart, Knell and his remaining “ponies” — Mustang Sally and mules Top Gun and Magic — were reunited in early August in the Teton Wilderness Area at a place called Hawk’s Rest, a remote refuge just off the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park.

“When I saw my ponies, they were throwing their heads around like, ‘Hey, you’re back!’ The mare was loving and affectionate. My mules were following me around. Everyone was happy we were back together. It was huge - a big day,” he said.

During an idyllic journey through Yellowstone, there was even slapstick: Knell, then joined by a Gazette photographer and a National Geographic videographer, said he watched in amusement as a buffalo briefly chased after the camera-wielding riders, who were uninjured if a little spooked.

While riding solo again in southern Montana, Knell experienced what he called a “four-grizzly encounter” near Big Sky. First, he spotted a sow and cub clambering out of a drainage. Close behind them was a larger male grizzly, on the run from what Knell called “the biggest grizz I’ve ever seen.”

Fortunately, the rival males ignored Knell and briefly faced off — presumably clashing over rights to a dead elk in the drainage — before the chase continued out of sight.

BRINGING A MEASURE OF PEACE

Brewer, of Heroes and Horses, said Knell’s contribution will allow the organization to reach more veterans in need, even as it brought a measure of peace to Knell, who Brewer said “had a hard time” after leaving the Army. Knell served multiple deployments as a Green Beret and was shot in an armored breast during an ambush in Afghanistan during later service as a government contractor.

“That work is just not for me anymore,” Knell said. “I’ve risked my life more than most people have, and I want to spend the rest of it with my wife and grow old and have a baby with her.”

Instead, he wants to continue leading expeditions, maybe involving graduates of Heroes and Horses who might need more time to adjust.

His wife, Jessica Knell, cheered his expedition despite the three months apart, saying the “peace and serenity” Knell found on the trail were every bit as important to him as they would be to the combat veterans he set out to help.

Even though the expedition is over, she said, the “feeling” of life on the trail with his ponies was “always going to be there.”

“He knows where to find it,” she said. “And he can always have that outlet to tap into.”

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Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com

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