Story last updated at 4:10 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 2002

Guided horse trips keep man in saddle

Cowboy rides high with dream business

by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: business
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Mark Marette, owner of Trails End Horse Adventures, adjusts the cinch on his horse's saddle during a trip to the head of Kachemak Bay earlier this month. Marette said his horse-riding business is lots of hard work, but a dream come true for the suburbia-raised cowboy.  
From the way Mark Marette wears his hat, you'd think he's been a cowboy forever.

Instead, his horse-riding business, Trails End Horse Adventures, is the product of a suburban boy's daydream.

"When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, all I wanted was to have a horse," Marette said during a rare moment standing still Friday evening.

But unlike most people who outgrow their childhood fantasy of what their lives will be like when they grow up, Marette moved to Colorado when he came of age and bought his first horse, Thunder, a horse he still has today.

Soon, the road to Alaska beckoned, and Marette found himself in Homer. After several years working for local homesteaders, Marette began to acquire quite a pack of horses. One day around 17 years ago, he pulled a few of those horses to the Homer Spit and hung out a sign advertising horse rides.

Changing demographics on the Spit caused Marette to move his rides out of town and closer to the East End Road location of his farm. But while rides in the high country near McNeil Canyon work fine, Marette said, customers were still looking for the beach ride along a wide open space away from people.

That's where Fox River Valley came in.

Virtually every day from May through October, Marette saddles up his horses and hauls them to the true end of the road, where the switchbacks lead down to the salty flats of the head of Kachemak Bay.

Riders of all experience levels climb on Marette's horses and together they slowly ride down the steep gravel road to the beach. Marette said even experienced riders can be skeptical of the initial trail, and that's where his unique variety of boisterous banter comes in.

"You've got to get them to be comfortable and relaxed, and sometimes that can be difficult," Marette said. "I usually tease some people along the trail, especially if they are unsure and lack confidence. It gets them to relax a little."

A horse ride with Marette isn't just a scenic ride, there's entertainment, too. Marette tells the history of the bay, the Russian villages that riders pass, and the history of Homer. He talks about the animals in the area, and once in a while, he even rattles off a poem. Marette said he also spends much of the ride answering questions about how he came to be here, selling horse-riding trips through this unique countryside.

"You tell your life story over and over again," he said.

Far from being the quiet cowboy type, Marette said he doesn't mind the chit-chat.

"I'm a people-oriented person," he said. "A lot of cowboys couldn't do what I do."

Marette typically takes his riders six miles up the Fox River Valley to Fox River. In the early spring and fall, when the river is low, the group will sometimes cross the river, Marette said.

Along the way, riders cross some truly wide-open spaces, spaces many locals aren't even familiar with.

The sparse mud flats that stretch out from the bluff toward the head of the bay offer plenty of room for horses and riders to stretch out. Best of all, there's an unrivaled view of the bay, glaciers and the Kenai Mountains that's unquestionably stunning.

Riders are also sometimes treated to glimpses of wildlife, including black bears, coyotes, seals pulled up by the river and eagles.

Marette said he strives to offer a safe but fun ride, usually with around seven riders in a group. In addition to his half-day rides, Marette offers longer pack trips up the valley.

His rides, Marette said, are one of the few land-based activities offered in Homer, and seem to appeal to Alaskans and tourists alike.

"There are lots of people who are not looking to go halibut fishing every day," he said. "This seems to appeal to a lot of younger people, or families with kids."

He said he invests much of his profits back into his horses, 18 in all, which he said are well cared for.

"I believe my animals are happy," he said. "When people come into my yard, they see that I care. That's a personal reward."

While the work pace is manic, Marette said, he wouldn't have it any other way. On slower days in the fall, there's a good chance you'll find Marette riding solo over the same terrain he covers with his tours.

"I love it. You can really feel the magic of the land," he said.

Marette's horse-riding adventures are $65 for half-day trips up Fox River Valley, $110 for all-day trips, and $20 per hour for the shorter rides around the East End Road area.

Prices for multiple-day trips are determined individually. For more details, call 235-6393.