Julia O'Malley: Somewhere in the Chugach, a horse named Windy

Julia O'Malley
Photo courtesy of Christene Gravley

A lone horse is lost in the mountain range that surrounds Anchorage. She has been on her own in Chugach State Park since Saturday when she disappeared from a sheep hunting camp. Her name is Windy.

Her owners, B.J. and Christene Gravley of Wasilla, are praying that she's still alive, but with each passing day, the 1,000-pound mare's chances grow slimmer.

The couple has had her for 13 years, since she was a foal, B.J. told me Wednesday. Losing her, they say, would be devastating, especially for their little boys, Dakota, 7, and Paxton, 3.

B.J. Gravley and two friends took Windy sheep hunting out of Indian on Friday afternoon, as they had done a number of times before.

The hunting party trekked 8 miles into Chugach State Park toward Arctic Valley and then made camp east of Ship Lake, he said. The next day they set off in search of sheep and left Windy tied to a stake. The place where they were hunting was about a mile up from the campsite, Gravley said. He kept an eye on the horse through his binoculars throughout the day. The last time he saw her shape in his sights was 7 p.m. on Saturday night.

"I could see camp and she was there," he said.

They returned to camp in the rainy dark around 9 p.m. Windy had vanished. The stake she'd been tied to was gone as well.

"We had headlamps and we were calling her name," Gravley said. "There was no answer, no anything."

Windy is half American Quarter Horse half Belgian. She's brown with black legs and a white star on her forehead. She's a small horse, standing about 5 feet from shoulder to foot and she's friendly. Gravley could call her name and she'd come, he said.

When morning came at the camp, Gravley and his friends hiked up and down the valley, looking for Windy. There were no clues. She left no tracks or signs that she was injured or bleeding.

They climbed up to a viewpoint to look over miles of brushy terrain with patches of tall grass. No horse. They packed out everything Windy was carrying and got to their vehicles at nightfall. A storm had blown in. Heavy clouds swallowed the range.

Gravley informed the Alaska State Troopers and state park officials, but those agencies are geared for searching for lost people, not animals. Finding Windy was up to them.

The weather didn't clear for four days. Finally, on Thursday, a pilot friend took them up to search, but they found no sign. A group of riders from Rockin' B Riding Club were gearing up to ride in search of Windy Thursday afternoon

I talked with Rider Rose Brigmon who was going lead the horseback search. Horses can survive weather conditions like we've had, she said. Predators and injuries are a bigger concern. Being alone is hard for a horse. It's easy for them to get spooked. Brigmon suspects that's what caused Windy to pull out her stake. A predator -- a bear, a wolf or a lynx, even -- could have scared her.

If she's not injured, Brigmon hopes bringing horses up the valley will coax her out of the brush. Horses prefer to be among other horses, she said. They plan to separate the horses they're riding so the animals will call to each other.

"She may hear them whinny and want to be in the company of her kind," Brigmon said.

Horses can often outrun predators. If they're cornered they can kick, rear-up and bite, she said. But if a horse is injured, all bets are off.

Tom Harrison, superintendent of the Chugach State Park, told me it wasn't the first time a horse had been lost in the park. Most often they aren't used to acting as pack animals, they become fatigued and they stray, he said. It's not just large predators the horse has to avoid, he said

"The reality is, if it's injured and laying there, there's other things, too," he said

If she has minor injuries and is found soon, there is a chance she could be flown out by helicopter in a sling. But that is costly.

"You got to ask yourself: what's the horse worth?" he said.

Harrison counted up the days the horse had been missing. Sunday. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. It doesn't look good, he said.

"I would look for birds, a congregation of birds," he said. "Might lead you to it."

Gravley said the best case is that Windy might be tangled up somewhere, alive. Maybe she'll get free and run into hikers or hunters. Maybe the Rockin' B riders will draw her out. He keeps hoping, thinking of his boys.

"They are really sad. It's like our pet, you know?" he said. "The boys have really grown to love her."

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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