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Copyright 2013 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

Wilderness Reunion

By Taylor Orr, Big Timber, MT

 

January 2013 issue

 

      Before becoming a rancher, I spent fourteen years working as a wilderness ranger for the U. S. Forest Service in Oregon , Idaho, and Montana. During that time, I traveled countless miles horseback leading a pack string in some of the most spectacular backcountry in the West.

      I miss those times. My ranch work includes an annual fall bull and heifer sale, calving in February and March, then fencing and harrowing, weed spraying, haying and stacking, then moving cows to summer pasture.

      Come late August, there is a window of opportunity, but I don’t usually take it. This year the mountains called louder than ever and I could not ignore them.

      Our home, Whitney Creek Ranch, lies on the Northern Plains in rolling prairie terrain. But just fifty miles south of us is the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.  

 

      This vast wild area includes all the mountains and rivers just north of Yellowstone National Park , and has colorful place names like Buffalo Plateau, Hummingbird Basin, and Hellroaring Creek.

      The area also includes all the wildlife found in the park such as mountain goat, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, cougar, wolverine, black bear and a few species frequently in the news, wolf and grizzly bear.

               

      In the past, I have taken my quarter horses or crossbred horses on my wilderness trips, but since both of my saddle horses were lame, I was in need of an alternative. Kenzie is a ten-year-old, purebred Scottish Highland mare. She is actually my daughter’s horse given to her by her Grandfather as a birthday present when she was three years old. Kenzie is also the main horse my wife, Sally, rides for cow work.

      Danny is Kenzie’s first-born foal, and at four years old has just undergone extensive (and expensive) training over in Bozeman (90 miles away) entailing numerous trips by Sally to take him over and to visit him during training.

      So, it took some smooth-talking on my part to get permission to take a couple of our Highlands to the mountain high country for a ten-day pack trip. Needless to say, these ponies needed to return home in perfect condition, no rub marks or rope burns, to say nothing of actual injuries.

      I began planning my trip. I wanted to see some country I hadn’t seen before and I didn’t want to travel the same trail twice, so the challenge was to come up with a big loop. I needed horse camps that had good grass and adequate water, and that were spaced eight to fourteen miles apart.

      After a little map study, the trip came together, and I began gathering and dusting off my pack equipment and camping supplies. Low-impact camping is the new norm of wilderness living and when I had all my personal stuff, food, camping equipment, horse supplies and supplemental feed collected, it weighed in at under 150 pounds. Not bad for a ten-day hitch.

      I began the trip at an end-of-the-road trailhead and was packed up and on the trail by mid-morning. It felt good to be back in the saddle again. This first day was an easy eight miles and a perfect way to learn how the ponies would take to it.  

 

      Kenzie has been packed many times and is nonchalant about the whole affair, however, her easy-going nature transfers into the annoying habit of occasionally bumping her pack into trees along the trail. Most horses learn to step away from trees to avoid being jarred, but not her.

      If she doesn’t care, why should I? Danny, as my saddle horse, was calm and confident leading Kenzie up the trail on his first day in the mountains.

      Traveling in grizzly bear country presents a few challenges. The Forest Service requires that all foodstuffs and horse feed be unavailable in camp and hung high in trees to prevent bears from becoming habituated to camp fare. Hanging food is a tiresome chore but is worth the peace of mind knowing you are making your camp less appealing to a night visitor.

      On this trip I saw more bear sign than in my entire life; bear tracks, piles of poop everywhere, some fresh and steaming, but fortunately, no actual sightings.

      Have you ever had the feeling you are being watched? On a few occasions, I wished I was hanging in the tree with my food.

      An encounter with a bear is unlikely, but as the grizzly bear population continues to recover in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, chance meetings are becoming more commonplace with unfortunate results.

      In addition to proper food storage, the Forest Service suggests visitors carry bear spray (think “Mace” for bears) and know how to use it. I found myself practicing my John Wayne impression over and over with a can of bear spray instead of a six-gun.

      One morning as we were packing out of a willow bottom, Kenzie kept nervously sniffing the wind and running over me and Danny. For a couple of minutes, I thought I may have to learn if practice actually makes perfect. Statistically, and thankfully, bears generally respect people on horseback.

            

      I love solitude, crave it actually, and I surely had that need fulfilled on this trip. But my aloneness was changed, for a brief time, by an uncontrolled wildfire.

      One evening I camped in a high basin overlooking Hellroaring Creek. After supper I took a stroll to a prominent point overlooking the vast drainage and saw a smoke column several miles away near where I would be traveling the next day. There had been a number of thunderstorms on my trip and I assumed the fire was caused by a recent lightning strike. Conditions were dry and breezy, so I was concerned how the fire may affect my route.

      The next morning I awoke early and observed the fire had lain down nicely overnight so I decided to proceed with my planned itinerary. I packed up quickly to get an early start before the heat of the day increased the fire activity.  

 

      The trail led to a Forest Service patrol cabin along the main trail and as I approached the smoke became thick and caustic. Next to a trail bridge on the cabin approach was a pile of fire tools and a couple of backpacks. I stopped and tied the horses, and as I continued walking toward the cabin I saw several fire fighters making preparations to protect the structure in the event the fire made a run toward the historic building.

      I believe they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. The fire had actually started weeks before and had been smoldering, but as conditions continued to dry out the fire was becoming more active. After a nice chat with the fire crew and a tour of the cabin, I didn’t dilly dally any longer as I wanted to put some miles between me and the fire by the time I made camp.

      I’ve never been much of a fisherman but I thought it might be fun to take along my rod and reel in case I wanted to try and improve my meager diet. About midway through the trip I had a layover day planned in an area that I thought might offer good fishing.

      A layover day would also be a good opportunity to take a day ride and switch mounts, giving Danny a shot at being a pack horse. He didn’t have much to pack — just a lunch and my fishing tackle — but it was at least an introduction and he did fine.

      Our destination was a mountain lake that showed on the map about five miles above the camp. It was a beautiful ride and the lake was on a plateau above the main creek. Wild fires have burned much of the area in the last twenty years and the lake had a surreal feel to it with stately tree skeletons along its bank.

      I didn’t know what to expect in the fishing department, but after a quick lunch, I assembled by rod and headed to the shoreline. I cast my line and as soon as it hit the water, wham, I hooked a fish, or, should I say, it hooked me! And then again, and again, and again. Every cast brought in a fish. It was incredible. As I said, I’m no fisherman, and all I can figure was they were awfully hungry.

      Due to all the bear activity, I elected to not smell up my camp with fresh fried trout so I practiced catch and release until I got bored with reeling in one after the other.

            

      At the upper end of Buffalo Fork, I passed three mountain goat hunters. They were headed up the East Fork of Buffalo Creek to a high basin to look for goats.

      One hunter asked, “What kind of mare is that?”

      I replied, “A Scottish Highland.”

      He said, “She is really nice looking.”  

 

      And Kenzie did look great. Highlands tend toward corpulence, but after ten days in the mountains, my two were legged up, muscular and fit. They looked better than ever. Furthermore, they maintained this sleek look for several months after our return home.

      But all good things come to an end and so it was with my pack trip. My trip to the wilderness was truly like coming home. It felt good to be in the mountains and I hope to make it a yearly tradition.

      The only thing that had changed, it seemed, was that the ground had gotten a little harder.

      The Highlands were excellent mountain horses and proved to be steady and surefooted on steep and rocky trails. They took everything in stride, all the new sights and smells, and the hard work, and were wonderful companions.

 

Copyright 2013 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

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