Chronicles of Rider Dave, Part III

My invitation for the pack trip arrives months in advance. It’s a backcountry birthday celebration for one of my kin. There’s talk of a long ride into no-man’s land, of grizzly bears and sidearms—warnings meant, I can only assume, to humor some and frighten others. While I consider myself a relatively seasoned Montanan—I’ve survived the requisite three winters to obtain full citizenship—I can’t help but wonder where I put my can of pepper spray.

The invited guests are mostly married couples from all points in the U.S. Few in the group have horseback riding experience and many question the wisdom in putting a leg over a 1,200-pound beast. Premonitions of the trip prompted one couple to create a final will and testament. Another pair tossed the invitation aside, thinking, "this sounds great, but we can't possibly fit it in.” Then in a moment of clarity, they realized this was something that couldn’t be missed, and giddily began making arrangements.

Into the Wilderness
The trip begins at the 320 Ranch in Big Sky, a stone’s throw from the Gallatin River. Our outfitter, Wapiti Basin Outfitters, appears well-organized but I wonder how they’re going to handle 26 greenhorns. They’ve had to hire on extra hands and bring in surplus horses for our bulky group.

Our first assignment is to select a horse. Perusing the herd, I soon discover that not all horses are created equal. I size up the burly beasts to see which looks the most sturdy and agreeable. Found one! A beauty. It's one of the few painted horses in the herd. I clamber atop the saddled creature. With one hand on the horn, I proudly look around and notice a pair of bad-tempered Shetland ponies—I wonder who will get stuck with them.

After each of us has a mount, the train finally gets moving up Buffalo Horn trail. A ragtag bunch, we’re stretched out for nearly a quarter mile. We pass a “Bear Warning” sign early on, causing a sudden squeal from behind: “I thought they were kidding about the bears!” This caution feeds that old, naive fear of being mauled; I unconsciously feel for the pepper spray attached to my hip.

Onward and Upward
By mid-morning the day is bright and I'm settling in to my saddle. The trail is sketchy, with mud-covered rocks and narrow, wet bridges, but my horse is sure-footed. A collapsed bridge forces us off-trail and through a creek. I ponder the possible fall of horse and rider, but we all make it across and continue on up the trail. A few minutes later I hear commotion behind me. Looking back, I see a horse with an empty saddle, bucking and gyrating. From my vantage point, I can’t tell if the rider is being dragged behind or has been deposited a safe distance from those menacing hooves. Todd, the fallen rider, emerges from the grass, mad as hell but unhurt. I see that his horse is one of those surly-looking ponies—undersized, but strong and ornery. After another scrape between Todd and his mount, a more experienced rider volunteers to swap. Todd is most grateful.

We enter the forest. Trees crowd the single-track. While navigating a more technical section, I get brushed hard against the trees. It becomes evident to me that backcountry horsemen must be in constant danger of puncture wounds—the horse could drive the rider’s leg right into a broken tree branch. One of the cowboys sees the potential for disaster and instructs us to put a firm hand on the tree and push away—a simple yet effective technique for preventing trailside impalement.

Base Camp & Ramshorn Lake
After a couple hours, we enter a sub-alpine meadow and see base camp in the distance. A welcome sight. Within a few minutes the group has dismounted and is scoping out the site like curious scouts. I check the mess tent first and then the sleeping accommodations. The cowboy boss, Mike Belderrain, gives us a choice of a cozy cot and woodstove-heated wall tent, or throwing down a sleeping pad in a pup tent. Some eschew both luxuries and declare their intent to sleep under the stars.

Next, I see that the toilet tent is outfitted with double latrines—I wonder who's going to ride shotgun next to me. I know that our city friends aren’t going to want to buddy up in this bathroom. Their idea of camping is a stocked hotel suite with steam showers and room service. For my part, I’d rather stroll into the woods when it’s time to go.

I’m famished so I return to the mess area to see if lunch is ready. While waiting, I admire the iron cook stove, stocked open shelving, and well-seasoned picnic table. The hungry travelers scarf down sandwiches and chocolate treats, then most remount for a late-afternoon trip to Ramshorn Lake for fishing and sightseeing. Some of us choose to hike this leg for exercise and a change of pace.

Arriving at the lake is a captivating experience. A sea of wildflowers meets emerald green, mirror-like water with a backdrop of dramatic mountains. Like a pearl inside a shell. I'm fascinated by the towering rock battlements to the east, and I grab the binos to scan the mountainside for wildlife. I spot a few bighorn sheep, but they’re blended in so well that I wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me. Patches of snow glisten in the setting sun. Two of the guests change into some curious-looking waders and waddle into the lake with rods in hand.

Arriving back at camp, we’re greeted by the aroma of campfire cooking. Our cook has proven himself a worthy backcountry chef: we devour scrumptious cutthroat trout appetizers and delicious T-bones cooked over a wood fire. I’ve eaten in lots of restaurants, but I don’t think any place I’ve been can match this atmosphere.

Fireside Festivities
Later on we gather around the campfire. A dusty cowboy settles into a camp chair with guitar in hand and belts out a lively Western ballad. The campers surrounding the flames are thrilled and the empty seats fill quickly. We soon find out that there is another entertainer in our midst—Leon, a city slicker, steps in to play his colorful rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes.” After this success, Leon’s next gig is lecturing a few cowboys and guests on religion and culture… all in all, an entertaining show.

Steeped in smoke and vibrant humor, most of the crowd retires to the tents. Impressed by the Montana night sky, one of the ladies decides to move her cot out under the stars. Fading in and out of sleep, she hears an animal’s labored breathing and heavy footsteps. Feeling alone and vulnerable in this vast wilderness, she screams out, "It's coming! Something’s coming for me!" She fumbles for her flashlight and points it in the direction of the sound. Instead of a snarling, fur-covered predator, she finds the sleepy-eyed figure of a cowhand sitting up in his bag. He sighs and utters an explanation: “them’s mules.”

Another Day’s Ride
Saturday morning brings sunshine and the promise of more adventure. After breakfast and coffee, we mount our steeds and hit the trail. Our goal is a high ridge, several miles distant, that divides the Gallatin Range into two distinct watersheds. Riding along, I look down and notice mounds of volcanic rock. It looks like a cement truck deposited a slurry of concrete and aggregate. Later we discover petrified wood chunks, some as large as an engine block. Eventually our parade of riders arrives at an overlook. We tie the horses in a stand of trees and proceed on foot up a steep, rocky goat trail until cresting a frozen avalanche of boulders. From this perch, we enjoy an unobstructed view of the Spanish Peaks and the entire Madison Range. After a long, silent pause, all of us marveling at nature’s splendor, we continue on horseback up to the divide. Paradise Valley and the Absaroka Range have now come into view. From here, it’s easy to see how all the water on the east side of the divide flows to the Yellowstone River, while that on the west side tumbles down to the Gallatin.

On the return trip, we let the horses run through an open meadow. As we reach an all-out gallop, I’m thrilled but getting a bit nervous—there’s no stopping my painted beauty. Alongside is my sister with a panicked look on her face as her mount also hits full stride. Seeing her with a death-grip on the horn reminds me of a rag doll flailing in the wind.

After the meadow we move off-trail and bushwhack through the dense woods. Moving down an embankment and into a marshy drainage, my horse brushes against a tree. This seemingly harmless contact triggers my bear spray and releases a blast. Rita takes a direct hit and the cosmic orange cloud settles over all the riders in an instant. The paralyzing effect is immediate. One gal’s horse steps into the deepest part of the mud and lunges wildly to free itself. Seeing such chaos among the team, Mike commands everyone off their horses. Order is finally restored amid the persistent bouts of coughing and wheezing. Our eyes still stinging, we ride back to camp and make for the cooler of beer and margaritas. Once again, we enjoy a hearty meal and gather around the campfire for another night of revelry. Before drifting off to sleep, I muse on the day’s events and remind myself, “Dave, you’re definitely not in Illinois anymore.”

Over Too Soon
Our last day of riding is along the edge of Yellowstone Park. It’s an epic five-hour journey, a roundabout route back to the Buffalo Horn trailhead. The views are spectacular with virtually no sign of civilization. As we move into the forest, the sky darkens and rain follows. Thunder and lightning from above make me think of The Man From Snowy River. I suppose these conditions are misery for some, but I’m living in a moment of joy and wonderment. Later, a silent moose appears across a ravine. We wind through a heavily timbered landscape with no trail to follow. The forest floor is laced with deadfall, forcing us to weave and hop trees for what seems like hours. There are whispers in the ranks that we’re lost, but our capable leader proves the skeptics wrong—we emerge at the trailhead without incident.

Dismounted and gathered around at the 320, our backsides are sore and we’re soaked through—but we’re glowing from the experience. As we’re moving around reminiscing on the weekend’s events and saying our fond farewells, I sense a common feeling: everyone wants more of this. And the unspoken thought that moves from one person to the next is, “how do we get back to this alpine wonderland as soon as possible?”