WISE — A pleasant day of horseback riding turned suddenly tragic when one of the riders, and his horse drowned in Bark Camp Lake on Saturday.
Jane Hall of Gate City was one of a group of five people riding horses in the Jefferson National Forest's Clinch Ranger District. She said the group of equestrians left the High Knob area at around noon and by about 4:30 p.m. arrived at the lake, located along the border of Wise and Scott counties, where they took advantage of the otherwise placid waters to wade and cool their mounts.
All five guided their horses down a concrete boat ramp into the water, Hall said Monday, and "five went in, and four came out."
Steve Burke, 55 of Nickelsville, and his horse Boots, drowned. The others in the group struggled for about 10 minutes to free Burke from the submerged animal before pulling the rider to shore and performing CPR, but to no avail, Hall said.
"We wanted to cool off because it was hot. We rode in and all the rest of the horses came out. His didn't. I think his horse freaked out," she said. "It was a total accident. His horse got scared, got spooked, and we think (the horse) probably threw his head back and hit Steve (in the head) and that might have knocked Steve out."
Hall said at least one of Burke's feet was caught in the stirrups, but the frustrating part of the incident for his fellow riders was just getting to the spot where Burke and his horse went under.
"Even me, a strong swimmer, couldn't get out to him. We were wearing our riding gear, had on our cowboy boots and things. It was just very tragic, very tragic," she said. "We did everything in our power (to save Burke)."
Hall said she was acquainted with Burke but Saturday was the first time she rode with the group that included him. Hall, 49, has been riding since she was 10 years old and worked at a livery farm as a teen. She currently owns two horses.
"All of us are seasoned horse people, and they are all good horses. Steve was a very seasoned rider. It's not like he was having difficulties with the animal (prior to entering the water)," she said.
Hall hadn't ridden to Bark Camp prior to Saturday but believed Burke and the others were familiar with the area and the lake.
"It wasn't their first time there. I don't know if it was common for them (to ride their mounts into the water) but I know (when she lived in Florida) we used to take our horses swimming all the time," she said.
There is a drop off where the concrete boat ramp ends under the water, Hall said, and she believes Burke's horse may have spooked when it suddenly stepped off into deeper water, panicked from a momentary sense of lost footing "and again, it was just a freak accident. Realistically it wouldn't happen to any other horse at any other time, and wouldn't be an issue."
Clinch District Ranger Jorge Hersel on Monday said horseback riders aren't supposed to be in developed recreation areas like Bark Camp, but are supposed to stay on gated roads or trails developed for riding.
"Technically they're not supposed to be in a developed recreation area, mostly for the health and safety of the (other) users there," he said. "We're looking to see if we have any (signage) that it's prohibited, but that's not a factor in the investigation right now."
Hersel said the Forest Service has considered ways to accommodate horseback riders in developed recreation areas like Bark Camp, "but we're not developed or set up for watering and handling of horses in those facilities right now. We've been looking into that, but we've not developed it."
His office and staff aren't focusing only on the rules or other technicalities at the moment, Hersel said.
"Our hearts go out to the family in something like this," he said. "We don't want to see anyone hurt at any of our recreation facilities."
Bark Camp Lake is a 61-acre impoundment located about four miles south of Coeburn, managed cooperatively by the U.S. Forest Service and the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. The lake is a favorite area for picnicking and fishing