Rocky Mountain High

Part I

The wind was merely a soft breeze after we’d gone to bed in our tent next to the river. The gurgling sound of the stream was loud enough to hear without my hearing aids and had almost immediately lolled me to sleep. Later, a wind came up, and the noisy ruffling of the tent walls and snapping of the rainfly overpowered the water’s song. The commotion woke us and kept us awake for most of the night. As dawn approached, the wind became stronger yet, and the tent walls were reaching inward, slapping us, making sure we were awake. 

There was no point in staying on our cots inside the tent, so we got dressed and went outside where others were waiting, watching their own tents sway back and forth while drinking the predawn coffee. No sooner than we had our cups filled when we saw our tent collapse as the storm broke two of the support ribs.

This was the beginning of the third day of our pack trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a protected area south of Glacier National Park. It extends 60 miles across the Continental Divide, is over a million acres and has mountains with peaks over nine thousand feet with broad valleys at four thousand feet. No motorized vehicles are allowed in “the Bob.” Not even chainsaws are permitted. Downed  trees that fall across trails, pushed over by frequent high winds, are cut with hand saws. The only way to enter the Bob is by foot, on horseback or on a mule.

It was over a year ago, before the corona virus pandemic, when masks weren’t part of our everyday attire and people could have conversations without using Zoom, we were invited to attend a gala that supported the Montana Natural History Center here in Missoula. We were members, and I occasionally volunteered by sitting at a desk at the museum, answering the phone, and pretending that I knew something. There was wine served at the dinner, and I got carried away with the bidding at the auction. Sheila, upon whom I depend to keep me in check in such circumstances seemed also affected by the wine and kept prodding me to bid higher. When the bidding stopped, I found that I had purchased a six-night, seven-day pack ride into the Bob in August while not even knowing if, at my age, I could get on a horse.

Later, we realized that the purchase was for just one person. Sheila had to get her own package which almost doubled the price of our trip. 

We met our riding companions at an orientation meal in a back room of a small restaurant in Choteau, Montana, which is roughly sixty miles from the staging area for pack trips into the Bob. They were an interesting, mixed lot: a middle-aged rancher from Dillon, MT; an older woman from Arizona who had built up her own highway construction company; her cousin, middle sixties, from the Los Angles area, a retired school teacher, an army veteran and a champion body builder; a sixty year old farmer and his young daughter from Nebraska; a retired hematologist/oncologist, seventy-nine; and a retired veterinarian, also seventy-nine, who raised Japanese beef and had, as he explained, multiple midlife crises; and last was a 29 year old fellow who really wanted to work as an outfitter, but had a girlfriend who did not want him to be gone from late May to November.    

Even though our company left the motel by 7:30 the next morning, we didn’t arrive at the staging area a mile or so from the entrance to the wilderness area until almost noon. The long drive from Choteau was interrupted by a stop at the General Store in Augusta so that the members of our party who wanted to fish could get licenses. At the same time, on the advice of the outfitters, Sheila picked up a pair of long johns, an item which I thought might be a bit superfluous since it was yet early August. It was an action that I would live to regret.

The road out of Augusta was for a mile paved, but then it turned into loose gravel for 15 miles.  The vehicles in our caravan spread out from one another as the wheels turned up plumes of choking dust. The National Forest road that we turned onto was mostly dirt with rough washboard ripples that slowed our progress, but we had to slow down even more as large washed out ruts and deep pot holes became frequent on this really shitty road.

The caravan arrived at the corals late morning. The outfitter crew had canvas tarps lying next to the paddock where the horses and mules were waiting for us. The guests hauled their bags down from the parking area and put them next to the tarps and stood aside so that the crew could work on packing up.

Chris, who wears Teddy Roosevelt glasses, appeared to be a real cowboy with leather vest, bandana and chaps was in charge of the loading; it was obvious that he was impatient to get started. Irritated about the late start, he muttered and cursed under his breath as he weighed the bags carefully so that the packs would not be unbalanced on the pack animals. 

As Chris fumed and fussed, the rest of the wranglers ignored his foul mood as they helped Will, the cook, load his kitchen and cooking gear with the same care for balance. The heaviest load was for Crackerjack, a huge mule that contained a mixture of Percheron and Appaloosa in his genetic makeup. It took four men to heave Will’s heavy and bulky equipment on to the back of the giant animal.

In addition to Chris, who was the also chief of stock handling, there were three other members of very capable and hard-working crew who took care of us during the pack trip: Will, the cook, who also led the string of guests on their mounts and was a wealth of information about fishing, mules, history and politics; Brenden was the crew member that was going back to the University of Montana after the end of the trip; and Trent, fishing instructor, stock expert and a fellow that was ready to help all of us stay on our mounts.

Of the ten guests, we all rode horses except for the young man who wanted to be a crew member. He rode a mule. There were seventeen pack animals of which only four were horses. The rest were mules. It turned out that all four of the crew members preferred mules to horses. They all opined that mules are smarter, stronger, more sure footed and more comfortable to ride.

“You either hate mules or you love them,” claimed Chris. Then he continued, “And, even if you hate the mules, you work with them long enough, you will love eventually love them.”

In spite of the strong preference by the crew for the hybrid animals, the guests were assigned horses for the trip, except for the young fellow who asked for a mule.

Sheila’s mount was named Rango, a name that sounded like it would belong to a wild and jumpy horse, but, as it turned out, Rango was a bit slow and lazy. No matter how much Sheila kicked with her heels, he mostly just plodded along. After a good distance opened up between Rango and the horse in front, he would break into a rough trot to catch up.

My horse was named Ben, a coppery chestnut with a blaze of white on his face that ran from his forelock down to his nose. A quarter horse in his early teens, he was extremely well trained and responsive to reigns as well as little taps from my heel.

Ben was much different from Paint, the big horse that I had when I was growing up on a small farm in Iowa. Ben would back up with the slightest pull on the reigns and would stand still when the reigns were loose. Paint would take advantage of anyone who let the reigns a bit slack and run off at a gallop without the constant pressure pulling his head back. Once he started to run, it took a quick and strong effort to get him stopped before the ride turned into a run away. With an unfamiliar rider he would race back toward the barn, jumping fences and gates on the way to his stall. My father and I were the only ones who could control him.

Meanwhile, the other guests were introduced to their rides. The woman from Arizona, who dressed like a rodeo queen, was given an older horse named Bart who immediately showed his disinterest in the trip by lying down just after being saddled. This act of rebellion was, apparently, something new in Bart’s repertoire, but with a little prodding and a hand full of hay, he reluctantly got up and accepted a bridle.

The biggest concern that most of us older guests had was related to mounting our rides as many of us had not been on a horse in decades. The problem was solved, at least at the trailhead, by leading the horse next to a three step, black, fiberglass stairs where the rider could climb up and merely slip a leg over the saddle to mount. The unasked question was: would the stairs come along on the trip?

Once all the guests were on their animals, we all stood around, the horses somewhat impatiently, waiting for another half hour while the pack animals were loaded. The horses finally settled down after their riders realized that their mounts would stop pacing around if they were allowed to graze while waiting. At the same time, a mule suddenly realized that it was not going to go along on the trip and voiced its displeasure repeatedly as we waited.

It was almost 12:30 by the time the packs were loaded, and the train was lead by Will on a mule named Charley. Our company was not yet in the actual , but we traveled through a couple of National Forest Campgrounds and noticed that there were about forty stock trailers parked close to the staging area. Although no motorized vehicles are allowed in the Bob, it was pretty obvious that we would not be the only folks that would be riding along the many trails.

The campers outside the Bob area stopped whatever they were doing to watch us as we rode by. It felt a bit uncomfortable before I thought about what a sight we must have made with fourteen riders and seventeen pack animals in a long parade. We must have looked like we were going to be on an expedition lasting months instead of a week.

The troop continued along a trail through the tall evergreens for about a mile, stopping for a short period while one of the guests had his stirrups shortened and a few packs were adjusted. We moved on, walking our animals down a hill where we could see a wooden bridge that was the gateway to the Bob Marshall .

to be continued.

4 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain High

  1. Jan,Thanks so much for sharing this with me.  What a storyteller you are! This just took me right to this wild place… and of course makes me want to go into the Bob. Thanks for sending – and thanks again for your generous support of MNHC!Hope to see you before the holidays,Kelley P.S. love the photos too


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