Cutthroat, Crabcakes, and Horses: A Week in Wild Montana
Eating fresh crab cakes in the Montana wilderness, twenty miles from the nearest motor vehicle is not for everyone. First of all, you can’t even see the ocean from here. Secondly, some people are allergic to shell fish. But that didn’t stop us from taking a picture when our pal Brian commenced to puking his dinner.
“Take a picture, take a picture!” shouted Mark.
I’d been snapping photos of Brian passed out upright in his camp chair by the fire for a half hour, so when he started blowing his cookies (or crab cakes), the camera was handy.
Of course there could have been other causes of the retching, we figured. There was the half dozen Rainiers. Or, perhaps, the vigorous slurps of Fireball. We figured if Brian was not swelling in any extremities or having trouble breathing, then he wasn’t allergic and if none of us started heaving, then it wasn’t a case of bad crab miles from the Pacific.
We were in the heart of the Absaroka Wilderness, just above Gardiner. Four of us, all seasoned middle-aged children with miles of wilderness experience under our belts, and a herd of good mountain horses to pack our gear on a 10-day, 95 mile circle into Yellowstone National Park, then out to our trucks and trailers.
Laughing at your over-served buddy on the first night in and taking pictures of his misfortune just reaffirms the maxim that some men never really get out of junior high. It also asserts the man motto: if it’s funny once, it’s funny five thousand times.
The next morning, poor Brian was having trouble on the other end, if you know what I mean. Nasty. But funny. Only to guys, probably. But the rest of us were in top condition, except for a minor headache or two. Or three.
We loaded the pack horses kind of slowly that day, throwing basket hitches and sweating out last night’s libations. Each year for the past four years, a group of us, all long-time friends with a connection to wild country, good horses, and great fishing, find ourselves in a new place in either Wyoming or Montana. We alternate every other year between the two states. The trip is last part of July and the first part of August and we plan a route that carries us over U.S. Forest Service trails into some of the wildest country on the Lower 48. Fishing, drinking, camp fires, practical jokes, and good times. It’s a tradition among us, and one that we envision lasting until we are tottering old men.
This year, it was my turn to plan the route. We would go east into the wilderness out of the town of Gardiner, then over into the Hellroaring Creek drainage, up and over into the Buffalo Creek drainage, down into Yellowstone National Park, up Slough Creek, back over into Buffalo and Hellroaring, then out.
Dave and Brian came up from their hometown in Lander, Wyoming. Mark came out from his home in Port Townsend, Washington, and I drove over from my place outside Pony, Montana.
The ride in that first day had been outstanding, with the horses stepping out and into the bits, necks bowed, ready to go. Another buddy, our pal Jason who is a nurse in Bozeman, had joined us the night before when we camped at the trailhead. He’d gone on the trip in past years, but this year he couldn’t go. But he came over and shared the first night with us, cooked great beefsteaks for dinner, and a breakfast heavy on bacon the next morning. He watched us ride off into the woods with a “Good luck. Have a good time. Lucky bastards.” That’s one heck of a friend.
That first night we all enjoyed the crab cakes that Mark had packed in on dry ice in a small cooler all the way from the Pacific. He and his teenage boys had caught the crab near their home and it was kind of a surreal experience to be eating such fare a long way from civilization. It also portrays the beauty of horsepacking. Like river rafting, you can take a lot of good food, beer, and other comforts like roll-a-tables, camp chairs, etcetera with you.
Back in the day, the U.S. Forest Service built a chain of backcountry cabins deep in the wilderness. In those days of different priorities, backcountry rangers would maintain and build trails, report fires, and patrol for poachers on the north end of Yellowstone. They would summer up high in those cabins. Those historic stations, built one hundred years ago, are still in great shape and occasionally used by today’s men and women in green. We were fortunate enough to see three of them in our travels.
The first was Hellroaring and by mid-morning, we’d passed that old station and headed up out of the drainage, far from civilization. We rode beneath the spangled shade of aspen trees, and weaved our way over deadfall from the legendary fires of 1988, up and over into the Buffalo Creek drainage. There, after a long day of saddle time, we pitched our tents, picketed the dominant horses, hobbled the rest, and grabbed fly rods.
Buffalo Creek winds its way through a series of meadows. In the dwindling light, we caught a few small rainbows, then made our way back to camp for a tri-tip roast grilled over spruce and pine coals (that horsepacking weight thing again).
Our crew spent a lay-over day on Buffalo Creek, having a few beers, relaxing, fishing. We have known each other for years; three of us are old buddies from the days when we used to teach backpacking for the National Outdoor Leadership School down in Lander, Wyoming, and the fourth is just as steady and dependable an outdoorsman as you can find. Kindred souls.
The next day, we loaded up and headed to the Park. I had gotten a permit for two nights of horse camping on famed Slough Creek and it was the goal of the trip. We soon found out it was the highlight.
After a modest ride on good trails with a few laughs when Brian got bucked off his horse when it ring-tailed in front of a pack of agape tourists, we made camp. (Ring-tail, by the way, is when the rope from your pack horse you are leading gets under the tail of your saddle horse. Some horses can deal with it and are mellow. Brian’s horse, inappropriately named Sunny, bucks like a son-of-a-gun when it happens. He has been renamed Cloudy for such behavior).
I’ve heard some horsepackers whine about horse camping in Yellowstone, claiming that the regulations are overly restrictive or punitive. But we found that we did all the things the National Park Service wanted us to do anyway, so the horse camping was actually excellent. The fishing was even better.
The first evening, Mark and I slipped down to the water and cast to rising cutthroat that were feeding on a current line in the fading light. We were having trouble catching them, though, for they were very selective and, like all cutthroat, took the offering very, very slowly. Those who are used to setting the hook fairly quickly on a rainbow had better do a One-Mississippi when fishing for cutthroat. Eventually, I landed a dandy fish of about twenty inches.
The next day was more of the same. Don’t expect to go to Slough Creek and not see any people. For one thing, there’s a deluxe lodge at the top of the park on Slough Creek and you’ll see the lodge guests riding up and down the trail and fishing the creek. For another, it’s a popular place that has been written about in nearly every publication in every language. But the fishing is still good. It’s not lights-out-every-cast. It is good enough for a competent fisherman to think about hatches and catches and it makes you work a bit. We caught nice Yellowstone cutts on hoppers, PMDs and caddis. The action was steady and challenging. That’s my definition of good fishing.
Soon we’d harassed enough trout and had worked up a thirst so we made our way back to the camp where the horses grazed peacefully between the sagebrush and lodgepole. That last afternoon at our Slough Creek camp, we played a great game of combat bocci ball (another horsepacking weight advantage for these old backpackers), and got into a spirited debate about the difference between a railroad cap and a Scotch cap. Important, life-altering matters are resolved in wild country.
Somewhere in an extended trip, you begin to start talking about the logistics of the final days, of where you want to camp and where you want to be so you can get back to your truck at the right time of day to get home. I hate it when you reach that point, when you start thinking about responsibilities and work goals instead of the trip at your feet. We did that as we rode out of Yellowstone, out of Wyoming, and back into Montana.
But we choked those thoughts down and focused back on the trip.
Go anywhere deep in the wilderness on a horse and eventually you’ll come to a trail that hasn’t been maintained since Teddy Roosevelt was in diapers. This is not a knock against the federal agency. Quite the contrary. It’s just that with miles and miles of backcountry trail and a budget that mostly goes to fighting fire, the agency has little left over for trails. So, if you are a horseman, you carry a saw. Or three.
Two years prior, we’d had this reinforced upon us when it took us two whole days to cover about four miles of trail that had been completely covered with deadfall from the ’88 fires, and also featured a blow-down from a micro-burst that stacked trees like Pick Up Stix twenty feet high for a half mile.
So we pack saws. As we rode up out of Frenchy’s Meadow, we hit our first significant deadfall, and we cut our way through it with the efficiency of guys who had done it all before. A sharp saw is a must in the wilderness. By the time we’d cut our way over into the Buffalo Creek drainage, we were tired and ready for camp. We’d done about twenty miles that day and that was enough. We also sawed a lot of logs to get there. Below us, as we dropped into the drainage, was the historic Buffalo Creek ranger station.
When we made camp that night, we chose the nice meadow right by the cabin. No one had used the cabin all summer, it looked like, so we decided, heck, let’s sit on the porch, set up our kitchen there, and enjoy an nice flat spot to drink a cold beer. So we unloaded the pack horses, set up the tents, turned the horses out.
Along about dark, we saw a rider and a pack mule coming up the trail. He got closer and closer, and we had a sinking feeling.
“You staying here?”
“Yep, I’m packing for a trail crew.”
Damn. We somehow picked the one night of all nights all summer long to set up on the Buffalo Creek cabin porch when it was actually being used by legitimate users instead of just porch poachers like us. It was embarrassing, but it turned out to be a positive experience.
A crew of young men and women soon showed up, the kind of honed-hard young people it’s good to see out in the woods instead of at some rock concert or shopping mall. We laughed at our brazenness, then relocated camp. The crew leader encouraged us not to go too far and they came over for a visit. They had been clearing trail, working hard, and we were impressed. The Gallatin National Forest, with one of the biggest wilderness areas in Montana, still puts a significant amount of effort into keeping the trails clear. It was refreshing.
The next day, we let the crew get out in front of us as we took our time loading and packing. By the time we made it up out of the drainage, they had cleared a major portion of the trail out. We thanked them, and rode off toward our next destination.
On our last night, we camped high were we could see the sun tipping to the west. We drank the last of our beers, ate a dinner highlighted by fresh boletus mushrooms we’d gathered on the trail, and talked about what a good trip we’d had. We’d caught some fish, laughed at our teenage behavior, camped under wide skies and seen very few people. We’d met some hard-working young people that gave us hope for our outdoors heritage, and we’d enjoyed some fine mountain horses.
You know you have a good friend when you haven’t seen them for a year or years, and yet you can pick up right where you left off. You can get on a horse and ride into wild country and you can laugh just like you’ve always laughed. And so another trip came to an end. There will be another. I can’t wait.
A frequent contributor to Outside Bozeman, Tom Reed is the author of four books. He lives outside Pony, Montana. For more information visit www.tomreedbooks.com
Man vs. Wolf
I hiked 23 miles one Sunday this summer through the back country of Yellowstone by myself. The last 3/4 of a mile I was exhausted, blistered, and limping. Feeling I was close enough to the car, I let my mind wander to what culinary delights I should partake for dinner and where I should purchase them. Suddenly, there was a loud snap of a branch to my left flank that brought me back to the wilderness. I spun around to see a grey wolf 15 yards away creeping towards me. We both had the same expression on our face which said, "How could I have been so careless?"
It froze as we locked eyes. Hand on my bear spray, I stared it down intently for what felt like minutes, but was not more than 20 seconds. It looked away first, turned and began climbing back up the hillside it had stalked down. Proclaiming victory and to deter any possible pack mates in the area I snarled, growled, clapped, and clawed the earth with my feet sending gravel and dirt flying behind me. Despite my momentary lapse in concentration, I was not easy prey.
Suddenly I was not tired and my feet didn't hurt. Bear spray in hand I hauled ass back to the car, with the wolf trailing me from the ridge line above. Lesson learned. When you are in the back country, you are in the back country no matter how close to the car you are. Taking leave or your surroundings and allowing your mind to drift is fine in line at Starbucks but not in the wilderness of Montana or in this case Wyoming.
I’m not sure how much of a secret Potosi really is, but it is one of only a few undeveloped hot springs on Montana’s public lands. The trail isn’t particularly challenging; the view is no more spectacular than the average Bozeman view. But Potosi is tiny and the water is hot. It’s quiet; cattle graze in the pasture. Rain falls on trail and dirt – not in a parking lot between street lights. It feels like somebody’s secret place. And the combination of a secret hot pool and a Montana night is enough magic to supercede the inevitable cliché. It’s the perfect outdoor date.
The first time I ended up in Pony it was dark and cold and I rolled out of the back of some punk kid’s smelly hunting vehicle. I’d spent an hour wedged in the back of an SUV between two foreign exchange students and a vaguely familiar college tennis player wondering where we were going. My date was quiet; it wasn’t the first time he’d drug unsuspecting co-eds into the mountains. He liked to keep us guessing. His subterfuge might as well have included a blindfold and noise canceling headphones – for sixty miles I’d seen only dark highway and heard only French.
The second time I went to Pony with a plan. I’d promised my punk friend not to ruin his secret spot, but it didn’t take me long to make my own clandestine trip back. I figured I’d impress my new out-of-state boyfriend with a late night hike in the Tobacco Roots.
I picked my guy up from the airport early in the day – we had lunch downtown and bought beer at Albertsons as the sun slid down behind the mountains. We would drive to Pony in the dark. My boyfriend worked in D.C., but he’d grown up in the mountains of Wyoming. He hunted and fished in the Owl Creeks and the Bighorns. He was training to be a military pilot, so he read charts and maps every day. He wasn’t excited about letting me lead him down a trail - without a map - in the dark.
The campground in Pony is usually quiet, and when we pulled in there was only one other vehicle in the lot. It was slick with rain and its muddy tracks were black puddles. I clamped my headlamp over my beanie and stuffed four bottles of beer between the beach towels rolled in the top of my pack. I glanced sideways at my beau and smiled as I climbed out of the car and headed toward the creek crossing. He followed me, but I knew his no-nonsense military bearing was on high alert.
The hike was short – not much more than a mile – but I lost my way twice, veering up into the trees and finally drifting back down toward the creek. Rain sputtered down and seemed to make the sleepy trail even quieter. I hid my confusion with more silence and my boyfriend asked only once if I knew where we were going. Forty-five minutes later, we were both glad to see the bob of another headlamp headed in our direction. We passed the other couple without a word – they nodded to us, their heads wet and steamy under wool caps. I knew then that we would have the place to ourselves.
My guy was sufficiently surprised when we left the trail and climbed through a lodge pole pine fence to the hot pool. I stripped down and jumped in to soak – he stood looking back toward the trail and up at the rainy sky. I watched as his shoulders relaxed, his pack dropped, and a smile spread across his face. I got him.
We sat in the springs for a long time. The water was hot enough to temper the cool air, but we never felt too warm. Our fingers and toes pruned and our bare legs took on the shape of the rocks at the sandy bottom of the pool. I laid my head in the damp grass at the edge of the water. The rain cleared and we were treated to Montana’s unrivaled starry sky. We drug over selves out of the water only because we couldn’t sleep in the springs without drowning. We hiked back to the car in a daze.
Ten months after hiking out of the Tobacco Roots I married the helo pilot from Wyoming. Our first Montana date was pivotal. It may have been my sense of adventure or my promise to relinquish any rights to future navigation, but I think that a secret hot springs and walk in the dark sealed the deal.
September Ouzel (Yellow Mule) to Buck Ridge Adventure
Evening light makes nice photos, but then you’ve got to get back to your car…
The twilight deepened while I frantically clawed and swore at my tire’s Kevlar bead as it clung obstinately to my rear wheel, preventing me from getting at the inner tube to patch the second pinch flat so that I could finish the seven mile decent to the Ousel Falls parking lot. When I started the ride up the Yellow Mule trail at around 4:00 pm on a beautiful mid-September afternoon, I had I reminded myself there was limited time before sunset, resolving that my goal was just to stretch my legs and check out a new trail after a two-day conference at Big Sky.
Riding all the way to Buck Ridge was not part of the plan. But as I climbed higher and higher on the beautiful single track, the scenery kept getting better and the warm glow of the evening sun enticed me onwards. I’d never ridden Yellow Mule, and for years I’d been hearing about the incredible views of the Sphinx from Buck Ridge, so when I realized I could see the ridge up ahead, it seemed it would be a travesty not to continue.
Of course when I reached the ridge the view was so spectacular it seduced me into continuing for another mile or two before I finally forced myself to turn around, feeling amply rewarded and deeply satisfied, and troubled only by the nagging concern that I had completely used up any margin of error for mechanical problems on the seven-mile decent. The sun had dropped behind some clouds, but about halfway back to the top of Yellow Mule I could see it was about to pop out at any moment, so I stopped and pulled out the camera.
As moments turned to minutes, my nagging concern about the time built into anxious urgency, then finally the golden sunlight flooded over the high alpine meadow. I drank it in for one last minute, got my photo, then jumped on the bike and started riding hard – neglecting to take an extra minute to check my tire pressure and unaware that in my rush to get on the trail back at Ousel Falls I had forgotten to throw in a spare inner tube.
A few minutes later, bombing down a rocky patch in the first mile of the descent, the grin on my face evaporated as I felt a woozy, drunken sensation emanating from my rear wheel. Denial kicked in just long enough to carry me over another rocky section, where my rapidly deflating tire was easy prey for the sharp stones which presumably took this opportunity to inflict the second wound in my inner tube. With a moderate amount of light remaining, my first patching session was only mildly frantic.
I didn’t experience a true flash of panic until I got back on the bike, made it about 20 feet and again felt the back tire go woozy. It was now getting cold as well as dark and I realized I hadn’t brought a headlamp. Semi-numb fingers and surging adrenaline didn’t help with my second struggle to pry the tire off the wheel and patch the tube. But finally I was rolling downhill, gradually gaining some speed as my eyes adjusted to the dim light that remained, and I pondered whether pepper spray (one emergency item I had remembered) would be any use in a head-on collision with a grizzly in the dark. Thankfully, I didn’t find out.
The remainder of the trail was mostly non-technical, with a light-colored, dusty surface. Slowly the worry and adrenaline subsided, replaced by the hypnotic focus of flowing down a seemingly ephemeral ribbon of white that materialized from the murk in front of me as the shadows of trees flitting past. The final roller-coaster section of trail above Ousel Falls, and the climb to the parking lot even had me sweating from exertion rather than adrenaline at the end of the ride.
We decided to attempt the Outside Bozeman Hit List. I mean, come on, we love to get outdoors and it doesn’t seem THAT hard. We can do it! Then, in classic style, we decide to ramp it up a bit – we were going to attempt the Outside Bozeman Hit List with A THREE-YEAR OLD! Gasp! Can she do it?
Our story comes from the pursuit of the “Wild Card” photo and requires a little background. Al is an avid hunter and has been taking Teagen with him since she was 2. She has quickly learned the art of spotting critters for Dad when driving or hiking. Late this summer, Al and Amy were discussing the upcoming hunting season. Teagen, 3 years old, stops the conversation, saying “What’s that clothes called? That you wear when we go hunting?” (Note – you must emphasize the “T’s” in the speech to get the full effect, i.e. hun-Ting).
Al informed her that the clothing is camouflage.
Teagen, very serious, replies “I can only go hunting this year if I get some of those clothes.”
“Which clothes?” asks Amy.
“The can-o-flage,” replies Teagen. “I need some can-o-flage so the deer won’t see me.”
Al and Amy have a chuckle over this conversation and Al is prompted to purchase said “can-o-flage” from Cabela’s.
Over archery opening weekend, Al and Teagen decide to meet up with a friend, Aaron, to try their luck at bow hunting the elk behind Aaron’s house. Aaron led the way, followed by Al and Teagen. Aaron and Al are watching carefully, looking all directions for the herd of elk that frequent the area. After much wandering, the group is beginning to think that dinner is sounding like a better option.
Suddenly, Al hears this quiet whisper behind him. “Daddy.” <pause> “Daddy!” Al turns around but doesn’t immediately see Teagen. Again, more urgent this time, “Daddy!” Al finally spots Teagen, lying on the ground among the grass. She has pointed off to the west and a nice 5-point bull elk silhouetted in the sunset.
Elk tag: $22
Cabela’s hunting clothing for a toddler: $60
Having a three-year-old that loves hunting in her “can-o-flage”, that will whisper and instantly hit the deck when spotting wildlife: Priceless
-Al and Teagen Flint