Two days in the Yellowstone backcountry with Sunrise Pack Station.
The ground passes by beneath my feet. The strange smell of leather, horse sweat, dust, and pine fills the air. The saddles rhythmically creak. I'm taking my first horse ride with a group of eight dudes, three guides, and 20 mules and horses through the Bechler drainage in Yellowstone National Park, and it's quite an experience.
It takes a while to get used to the cadenced motion of my horse, Thunder. One can control bicycles, hang gliders, even parachutes—but as I'm learning, a horse has a mind of its own. I must learn to rely on its intuition and skill to carry me safely.
Our camp is nestled in an idyllic river bend. We help our guides set up the tents and kitchen area, swapping stories and sipping wine while waiting for dinner to cook. Our outfitter Shane, owner of Sunrise Pack Station, tells stories of Blackfeet, trappers, and explorers like Jim Bridger and John Colter. We are transported instantly to a time not so long ago, when rough characters in buckskin explored the Yellowstone backcountry. We drift off dreaming of old-West adventures in this rugged, pristine landscape.
Shane works constantly to minimize the signs of our stay. In the clear morning air I see him walking between the horses, kicking and spreading the manure with his boots so it will quickly disintegrate. In the Park, it's more important than ever to leave no trace.
The Bechler River forms just below the Yellowstone plateau. It works its way down the narrow canyon in a series of cascades and waterfalls. Farther down, the canyon opens to large valley meadows and islands of willows and conifers. The jagged peaks of Grand Tetons rise in the distance.
Over the millennia, water carved innumerable meanders and formed this valley. It's a perfect environment for grizzly bears, rainbow trout, and river otters. We try our luck fishing and soon pull some magnificent specimens out of the clear water.
We take the horses for a daytrip through the narrow canyon. I marvel at the surefootedness of the horses as they ford creeks and follow a narrow path along the steep cliffs. I become more comfortable with Thunder and take many photos from horseback.
Suddenly I hear neighing, and the horse in front of me backs into the river. A group of llamas, like aliens from another world, have surprised our horses. For the next couple miles I have trouble controlling Thunder. He didn't like those strange-looking creatures one bit.
The hot springs of the Yellowstone Caldera are the only place in the Park where it's legal to swim in a thermal feature. The pool we've stopped at is fed by two creeks—one hot, one cold—and a hot spring in the middle forms a natural jacuzzi. Each of us swim along, trying to find a comfortable temperature balance.
Later, as we approach the Bechler Ranger station and the end of our trip, I feel sad to say goodbye to Thunder. My equine companion for two days patiently carried me over 40 miles of a magnificent country, guided me to beautiful scenery and refreshing hot springs, and taught me to have confidence in his skills. That's a lesson I won't soon forget.
For more information about pack trips into the Yellowstone backcountry, call 388-2236 or visit sunrisepackstation.com.