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Sonja and Gunter on their horses on the trailA Wild Horse Adventure Becomes a Lifestyle 

The adventure started in 1994 in Ushuaia, Argentina, when Gunter Wamser of Germany set a goal to ride wild horses from the tip of Argentina to Alaska. On September 4, 2013, nearly two decades later, Gunter arrived at his destination in Healy, Alaska with his partner Sonja Endlweber on four horses adopted from the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program. I was fortunate enough to meet up with Gunter and Sonja during the final stages of this adventure. So, of course I asked, “How does it feel to be nearing the end of a two-decade long journey?” Gunter simply smiled and replied, “Healy is not the end of the journey. I have discovered, this is my way of life.”

Gunter starting out in Argentina with 2 creole horses.
Gunter Starts his journey in Ushuaia, Argentina on adopted creole horses.

Gunter started out in South America and rode adopted native creole horses to the United States border. He was unable to bring the creole horses into the United States, at which point he almost quit his goal. This is when he met Sonja and together they adopted four mustangs from the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program in Canon City, Colorado and set out to finish the journey.

Shaking hands after adopting horsesGunter crossing the Nebesna River on horseback.
Gunter and Sonja adopt Dino, Mac, Tennessee, and Lightfoot in Canon City, Colorado. Gunter renamed Mac "Azabache," which is Spanish for black/brown and Tennessee is now called Rusty.Sonja and Gunter were grateful to local outfitters who kept bringing them supplies and flying over checking on them for several days while they tried to cross the Nabesna River.

“They have a good program in Canon City with the prison, where the horses are socialized,” explains Gunter. “Sonja and I were both amazed by what the horses knew when we adopted them.” Sonja added, “With the horses being from the wild, they are perfect for backcountry expeditions because they are already comfortable with the wilderness. They are not afraid of water or muddy areas or rivers. They have grown up in a wild herd and know how to communicate to one another about what they experience in the wild.”
For seven seasons since that time, Gunter and Sonja have been riding through the United States and Canada with the adopted horses and their dog, Leni. As adventures often go, this last season of their journey posed some challenges. After leaving the Canadian border and making it almost 100 miles into Alaska, they couldn’t cross the Nabesna River. Gunter summarized the hardship, “We made it to the Nabesna River and for several days we tried to cross it under different conditions and water levels. We even went upstream and tried to cross the Nabesna Glacier. In the end, we had to back track all the way to the Canadian border and truck the horses around to pick up where we left off.”

Gunter, Sonja and CorySonja loading up the horse
Gunter and Sonja consulted several times with BLM Glennallen Field Office Outdoor Planner, Cory Larson (pictured right), on trails and routes from the Richardson Highway over to Cantwell under the Alaska Range and along the Denali Highway.Gunter and Sonja make certain the food is distributed evenly between two packs, one for each side of the horse.

I watched Sonja and Gunter pack and repack for the next leg of the journey. They had worked out a plan with the help of BLM Glennallen Field Office Outdoor Recreation Planner, Cory Larson, to cross the Gulkana Wild and Scenic River and ride about 7 days on a network of trails to pick up their next food drop near the Delta Wild and Scenic River. From there they would ride south of the Denali Highway and cross under the Alaska Range to Cantwell, then ride through Denali National Park, ending in Healy. Exasperated, Sonja explained, “Pack and repack. It’s all I do! It’s difficult. You never know how much food we will need. It’s never the exact amount of days you think. Rivers and creeks swell six times their size and you have to wait for them to go down.”

Gunter and Sonja on the trail with their horses
Gunter and Sonja’s way of life
Once the horses are packed, the journey begins again. Sonja and Gunter offer that they are in no hurry. I’m given all the time I need to take photos, readjust lenses, and stage myself in various locations along the trail for a better photo. Suddenly I realize I’m on this expedition! I’m part of this journey. I can feel the peaceful, persistent, plodding and meandering pace of the adventure. The hustle and bustle of life is behind us. The blue sky is above us. The occasional fly attacks, and every few steps a horse is allowed to take a bite of grass as it trails along. We stop several times in the first half mile to make adjustments, take photos, and to give horses a drink and a chance to eat wherever there is abundant grass. Gunter and Sonja are delighted to be on such a good trail. Sonja explains, “I enjoy walking as much as riding. It’s nice to be on a trail again where we can walk with the horses whenever we choose.”

As we meander along, I ask about their future plans. Gunter states, “We plan to take a three year break to be with family and to be in my home country in the summer. We want to find a place in British Columbia where the horses can roam freely on a large piece of land. We have found this place. It costs money but we will find a way to pay it and return each year to ride with the horses. We thought of bringing them home, but it’s not the right place for them. They would have to be in a stable.” Sonja adds, “Now we will raise funds for what we do next and work on telling the story of what we have done.”

Before I know it, we have walked and rode a little over a mile and I realize I need to say goodbye and turn back. I have known Gunter and Sonja for such a short time, that I am surprised to find myself a little choked up and reluctant to leave them and this great adventure. We stop at a good spot for the horses to graze, take a few pictures, and exchange some last minute conversations, hugs, and well wishes. 

As I hike back to the trailhead, I glance back several times. Once to wave a hardy goodbye and then several times to watch them slowly meander out of sight. While I hike back to the car I reflect on how grateful and fortunate I feel to have been a small part of this great adventure and to have had a glimpse into Gunter and Sonja’s way of life.

— Marnie Graham, BLM Glennallen Field Office Public Affairs Specialist

Last updated: 07-22-2016