Eugene Buchanan: A ride with Ray
Steamboat Springs — I might as well have been riding with Jeremiah Johnson.
If ever there was a stand-in for the famed mountain man, who actually trapped just north of here, it’s fourth-generation Steamboater Ray Heid, who runs Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch outside of Clark.
I’m here with my daughter, Casey, for our first-ever winter horseback ride, and Ray, saddling horses in a hand-sewn, knee-length elk skin coat with beaver pelt collar, is our guide. Topping its furry collar are a balaclava and cowboy hat to ward off cold that cripples us but doesn’t phase Ray. A cocoon of cheeks, nose and eyes is all we can see.
At 77, he’s still as active as ever, as evidenced by three sets of perfect figure-eight ski tracks etched into the hillside above the horse corral. They’re as obvious as they are aesthetic, and he’s as proud of them as he is his ranching operation, which he’s been running since 1985.
Hopping on his saddle, he says they now attract about as many guests in the winter as they do in the summer. It’s easy to see why as soon as our horses — Casey’s a docile mare named Tia and mine a gelding named Bodie — step out of the corral and into the surrounding winter wonderland.
There’s not a whisper of wind, and all is tranquil, silent and white. It’s as peaceful a setting as you could script. Weasel tracks pitter-patter this way and that, snowy cottonballs cling to scrub oak and a piercing blue sky whitens the winter white.
It doesn’t take long for Ray to interrupt the serenity. The plod of his horse, Stormy, kicks his story synapses into gear.
“One year we named all the horses by the weather,” he begins. “Stormy, Breezy, Windy, Sunny and Chinook. Another year we named them all after spices.” Behind us, other guests straddle Cinnamon, Wasabi and Ginger.
If his horses are an integral part of his ranch and ski lifestyle, so is his family.
His mother, Ruby, was the sister of Steamboat icon Hazie Werner. Brother Corkey qualified for the 1956 Cortina Olympics and headed the Steamboat Ski Patrol, while brother Del ran the resort’s lift department. His son Rowan “Perk,” 43, works on the ranch, as does Perk’s wife, Becky. Grandkids Justin, 11, and Jason, 8, are carrying on the Heid heritage as well, living at the ranch and helping with chores, as are Sawyer, 16, and Bailey, 13, making six generations of Heids leaving their mark in Ski Town USA.
While Ray can’t put his finger on how many horses they have or how many guests they take riding each year, it’s a lot. Today, there are 13 of us, most visitors taking a break from Steamboat’s slopes.
Ray’s out there with them most every day, rain, snow or shine.
“We had to cancel our first trip in years earlier this week,” he says as we saunter up the hill, our horses’ breath the only wisps of clouds in the sky. “It was 27 below. We’ll go out in pretty much anything.”
Eventually, his tales turn to his other love, skiing. He’s been at it 75 years, since leather straps served as bindings. This year, he wants to ski 77 days to match his age. He also monitors the inches of fresh snow he skis. Every time he tracks up a new storm, it adds to the tally. So far he’s over 100.
It helps that he finally gave up his teles for a pair of Dynafit AT bindings. No longer can pal Billy Kidd, his nemesis at CU while he was coaching at Wyoming, joke about him “not being able to afford the other ‘heel’ half of his binding.”
Most of Ray’s stories center around skiing or riding, or some whacko combination thereof.
Like how he first donned skis at age 3 to ride the boat tow up Howelsen Hill; how he’d ski from his uncle’s ranch down to Twentymile Road to catch a ride into town; how he grew up skiing with his cousins the Werners; and how he became a four-way skier in downhill, slalom, jumping and cross country for the University of Wyoming before making the 1960 Olympic ski jumping team. Or how he ran New Mexico’s Sierra Blanca ski area before returning to Steamboat to run the ranch in 1985.
The combo tales would hold court at any saloon, mostly revolving around horsebacking up to ski Sand Mountain every spring. One time a freak lightning storm chased them off.
“There were five flashes before I could even count to one,” he says, the memories coming as easily as his sway in the saddle. “My theory is that you’re better off staying on your horse — they’re always lifting two feet so you have less contact with the ground.”
Or the time Warren Miller visited to film horses galloping through the snow, only to have Ray’s ride stumble and somersault, catapulting Ray through the air.
“What do you make of that?” he asks. “He’s the best ski filmmaker in the world, and he didn’t even get the shot.”
As we crest an aspen-filled ridge and see the snow-clad Zirkel range come into view, his stories take a turn to the olden days, of how his grandmother rode 70 miles in a blizzard from Wolcott to Stagecoach to tend to a sick child, or the Frenchman he met in Brown’s Park who holds the Guinness Record for longest horse ride, from the Straits of Magellan to Fairbanks, Alaska. He still gets cards from him every year.
Before we begin our loop back, he hops off his saddle like someone half his age, landing in a two-foot-deep snowbank. He then postholes down the line checking guests’ saddles. Returning, he stretches his leg up into the stirrup and pulls himself back in the saddle.
“Sometimes it’s tough because the horse is a few feet higher up on the packed trail and you’re down in the powder,” he says.
With that he’s back on, leading both the conversation and equines behind him. Soon, we make our way off the ranch’s 260 acres and onto BLM land.
“You can ride from here all the way to Wyoming, all on public land,” he says. “Not a bad backyard.”
At a downed log harboring a two-foot-high stripe of powder, he’s off his mount again, this time post-holing through the snow with horse in tow, packing out the route. It’s a chore he’s accustomed to. Often, he’ll go out on solo rides to pack the trail, prodding ahead with a ski pole to find the wind-blown way.
Soon, his figure-eight ribbons above the corral come into view again, basking in the alpenglow as the sun nudges the far ridge. It’s as if he timed it this way, the orange aura highlighting their every curve.
As he hops off Stormy and helps guests out of their saddles, I can’t help but think perhaps he was born a century too late. But then he wouldn’t have those Dynafits to reach his 77 ski days.
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It was a love story that brought Jason Erwin to Steamboat Springs from Nashville, Tennessee.