4-H Wagon Train had its start in Washington County

by: COURTESY PHOTO: LEE WIREN - Wagon Train participants often sing while walking the trails. For eight days in July, city dwellers and suburbanites can trade 21st-century comforts for sleeping under the stars.

Since 1980, when Forest Grove farmer Lyle Spiesschaert founded it, the 4-H Wagon Train has motivated 60 to 120 people to switch their sneakers out for trail boots and drop their familiar cars for equines or their own two feet. Instead of city street noises and dining in style, they listen to the clomp of horse hooves and eat sitting in the grass around a campfire.

The wagon train’s 2014 version, dubbed “The Ochoco Odyssey,” will draw adventurers of all ages — in the fourth-grade and older — to embark on a 70-mile journey along a section of the Oregon Trail.

This summer’s trek will explore the Ochoco National Forest near Prineville in eastern Oregon, and organizers are looking for more participants.

“It’s the best combination of things — people, horses and the outdoors,” said Spiesschaert. “It’s of tremendous value. An experience like this is probably a life-altering event.”

Many participants travel via horseback and wagons, but many also walk the distance. It’s open to both 4-H members and non-members, families, individuals, equestrians and hikers — anyone who’s always wanted to experience a slice of the life lived by those who blazed the trail to the place Pacific Northwesterners call home.

The train is divided into four groups: wranglers, who ride mules and horses; walkers; teamsters, who drive wagons; and the support group, whose members cook for those on the train and move the trailers ahead to meet the group at that night’s campsite. Participants are divided into wagon train “families” who rotate chores.

Day four is one of rest for people and animals alike, with planned games, activities and down time.

“You don’t have to have a horse to participate,” Spiesschaert said. “People learn to get along, work together and work toward a common goal.”

“There’s no reason someone couldn’t come out of their fourth-floor suite in the Pearl District and come along,” said Mitch Watson, this year’s wagon master, who hails from Gaston.

Spencer Hardman, 14, was used to life in the suburbs of Beaverton. But attending his first wagon train meeting last year sparked a new lifestyle for the homeschooled teen. In the spring of 2013, Spencer had never ridden a horse before, but by the time the summer event came along, he was driving a team of two Percheron draft horses, which stand more than 5 feet at the withers (shoulders). by: COURTESY PHOTO: HEATHER  HARDMAN - Spencer Hardman drove a team of Percherons on the trails last year and will do so again in July -- with a little more experience under his belt.

Spencer continued to practice and competed in the Oregon State Fair last year.

“You get this sense of freedom — you feel like you’re on top of the world,” said Spencer of driving the wagon. “You’re controlling so much power with so little.”

Heather Hardman, Spencer’s mother, heard about the activity from other parents who homeschool their children.

“At the first meeting, we were pleasantly swarmed with friendly faces welcoming us,” Hardman said. “We were just planning on being walkers, but then my son met Ike.”

Ike Bay, who got involved with the wagon train when it was still fairly new, learned to drive a team with George Spiesschaert, Lyle’s dad. Bay has returned the favor to youth he’s met through the years on the trail, mentoring those who may not have had the chance to drive otherwise.

Now 72, Bay started participating in the wagon trains again after a mid-life hiatus. Driving draft horses owned by Duane VanDyke, who lives in Yamhill, and using Spiesschaert’s wagon, Bay will hit the trail again this year.

“It’s an absolutely incredible experience,” said Bay, who enjoys seeing the young people develop new skills and accomplish new goals the most. “It’s a tremendous amount of fun.”

“It’s given my son a chance to have a mentor who will teach him something valuable, which is rare,” Hardman said. “It teaches kids about heritage, old traditions and leadership, and gets them out of their comfort zone and gets them to do something physically hard.”

Spencer and other wagon train participants are starting to gear up for the ride, getting their horses in shape and dreaming of hard-earned days.

“When you’re passionate about something, you’ll give a lot to it,” Watson said. “It’s a family out there. It’s a sensation you don’t feel too often.”

Watson has no trouble counteracting common concerns with a we’ve-thought-of-that attitude. With more than three decades under the wagon train’s belt, there aren’t many issues that haven’t been worked out. The food is plentiful — prime rib and beef stroganoff are staples. Medical personnel come along, including Watson, who is a paramedic. All 4-H volunteers are background-checked. The crew brings portable toilets.

Still, life on the modern-day trail hearkens back to days gone by.

“You learn first-hand some of what the pioneers went through, and you see what you’re capable of accomplishing,” Hardman said. “You’re sleeping outside, walking long hours and bathing in cool creeks. The rewards far outweigh any fears or trepidation you might have.”by: COURTESY PHOTO: LEE WIREN - A cook travels with the train each year and provides home-cooked meals to campers in the mornings and evenings.

‘The Ochoco Odyssey’

When: July 12 to 19 in eastern Oregon’s Ochoco National Forest.

The next meeting is from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 17, in the Washington Street Conference Center, 225 S. First Ave., in Hillsboro.

There will be a tune-up clinic — like a two-day camping trip — for new members June 21 and 22, when participants test themselves, their animals, the equipment and make a list of things to work on and repair before the week-long trek in July.

It costs $200 to participate, which includes meals. Hay is an extra $35. There are 15 scholarships, each worth $100, available for youth.

Visit for more information.

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Next year’s trip will start at Reeher’s Camp near Banks and will wind through the coastal range.

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