By LISA BRITTON
The scene was serene in the meadow above Whitney as horseback riders, wagon drivers and walkers took a break for lunch during the first day of the Old Oregon Trail Ride on Wednesday.
But in the blink of an eye everything went chaotic as a team of horses suddenly took off driverless through the trees.
The wagon they pulled bounced across the bumpy ground with an echoing clatter until the horses split to avoid a tree and slammed the wooden wagon into the evergreen.
In the melee, another horse was knocked down and another wagon damaged before everything came to a stop in a cloud of dust.
No people or horses were hurt.
The wagons were a different story, with broken tongues and splintered boards.
That left trail riders who'd planned to make the journey in those wagons to make other plans.
andquot;We're camping,andquot; said Judy Reagan of Cle Elem, Wash., who had planned to enjoy the ride in a wagon with her husband, Bill, and 7-year-old granddaughter Marlee Montgomery.
The two other wagons and drivers Shawn and Dot Reagan and Brad Taylor also came from Cle Elem.
The wagons brought by Bill Reagan and Taylor were the casualties of the run-away incident, and the two caught a ride back to Sumpter to retrieve the trailers they'd used to haul the wagons to Eastern Oregon.
Wagon problems are common on trail rides such as this, said Bill Reagan, who participates in a ride to Winthrop, Wash., every year that draws more than 30 wagons and several hundred horseback riders.
andquot;At least one or two wagons break every year, or there's rollovers,andquot; he said.
The pioneers who trudged west on the Oregon Trail experienced the same sort of problems, said Pam Petterson at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
andquot;Wagons broke down a lot. Repairing wagons wheels and axles was a big deal,andquot; she said. andquot;They improvised a lot on the plains there's not much wood.andquot;
When it came to powering the wagons, oxens were much preferred over horses, she said.
andquot;Horses didn't have the stamina to take that long of a trip pulling that heavy of a load,andquot; she said. andquot;And horses needed more specialized food whereas oxen would eat anything.andquot;
Oxen are also less likely to spook and run, she said, and walk about the same speed as humans, which helped the pioneers keep up as they walked alongside the wagons.
andquot;There were no springs in the wagon so it was easier to walk,andquot; Petterson said.
A calm walk through the woods
Prior to that ruckus, the annual Old Oregon Trail Ride was fairly calm as the wagons rattled up Sawmill Gulch Road alongside horses, riders and walkers.
The route took the travelers from Sumpter to Whitney, where they set up base camp and took day trips on Thursday and Friday.
Participants came from as close as Baker City and as far away as Louisiana.
andquot;I think I'm the only one who walks the whole way,andquot; said Joseph Guttzeit, 12, who lives in Jackson, La., and is on his third trail ride with his grandma, Marilyn Goff, 63, also from Louisiana.
Guttzeit always leads the pack of walkers during the four-day event.
andquot;I walk plenty I help my dad on the farm,andquot; he said.
He can't, however, fathom walking every day for the six months it took to travel the real Oregon Trail.
andquot;If I did, I'd probably never want to walk again,andquot; he said.
Ann Ward didn't mind that he walked ahead of the rest.
andquot;He can shoot all the rattlesnakes, scare off the Indians,andquot; she said with a smile.
Ward and her daughter, Hannah, 12, wore bonnets and dresses patterned after garments from the 1840s.
andquot;We're studying American History for home school,andquot; Ann Ward said.
The pair live in Elgin, and were only able to join the Old Oregon Trail Ride for one day.
andquot;Even in preparing to come, we wondered what they'd be thinking about,andquot; Ann said, referring to the pioneers of the 1840s. andquot;And I wonder what they talked about, mile after mile?andquot;
The pioneers didn't talk much, Petterson said, because chatting wasted energy better preserved for putting one foot in front of the other.
andquot;They walked. And after a couple weeks you'd run out of things to say,andquot; Petterson said.
The children on this ride may have come the closest to simulating the Oregon Trail experience.
Though they'd never met before, Hannah Ward and Johanna Suess, 13, chatted constantly as they walked and even devised their own game of kicking a pine cone down the road.
They didn't despair when the cone flew off the road and rolled down a hill.
andquot;Oh, we can find another,andquot; Ward said with a giggle.
Returnees and first-timers
Though many of the participants are returnees, a few were on the ride for their first time.
andquot;I finally talked her into it,andquot; Kathy Aust said of her friend, Jackie Ahrens.
Both are from Mossy Rock, Wash., and Aust was on her eighth Old Oregon Trail Ride.
Werner Suess, 63, and his two daughters, Johanna, 13, and Christine, 16, have joined the ride for the last three years.
The evening activities are the girls' favorite part.
andquot;When we all sit around the campfire,andquot; Christine said.
andquot;People tell stories, play guitars, sing,andquot; Johanna said.
Their dad, who immigrated from Germany to Tacoma, Wash., in 1996, doesn't have a favorite part of the ride.
He likes it all.
andquot;I was born 100 years too late,andquot; he said with a smile as he hefted a saddle onto his horse's back.
Meet these modern-day pioneers
The Old Oregon Trail Ride will finish on Saturday with a parade through Sumpter at about 2 p.m. Everyone will then congregate at the fairgrounds and the public is welcome to meet the modern-day pioneers, see the wagons and join a steak feed that night. The dinner costs $12.95 RSVP to the Sumpter Nugget, 894-2366, if planning to attend.
Bob Hendricksen is the president of this organization that puts on the Old Oregon Trail Ride. For information about next year's ride, call 523-5161.