Riding Off Into The Wilderness

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Despite the lengthy preparation time of driving far back into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, unloading the horses and pack mules, all the equipment needed for setting up camps, sorting through gear, food, supplies, saddling up the horses and then actually packing everything else on the mules with balanced loads on each, we finally set off from a clearing and into a thick pine forest.

Terry Search, owner of Yellowstone Mountain Guides, with just a part of the gear taken on the trip.


As we followed along on the trail in this wilderness, we climbed and descended over rugged terrain. Good thing it was a horse I was riding or I’d have been huffing and puffing and resting for much of the ride if I were hiking. (Hikers do use these trails also). In this dense forest, were little brooks and streams to cross, many fallen trees, sometimes with the trail skirting around the obstacles and at other times the logs were cut away allowing the trail to pass through the openings. 

Beginning the ride was clear with gathering clouds and it looked ominous.  After a couple of hours on the trail, as we passed through a meadow, we stopped for our packed lunches. With the horses tied up in a stand of pines, we dismounted and sat in the nearby meadow, amidst a beautiful array of blooming wildflowers. As we finished eating, a steady drizzle of rain began to fall but not really a need for rain gear.  


However, before mounting up again, we donned a warmer outer layer as the wind had picked up and it was now a bit chilly. As we continued on, the sun broke through and it became warmer again. Off came outer layers and on we went.  

The views were becoming ever more impressive the further back into the wilderness we rode. Tall mountains, pine forests, meadows sloping down the mountain sides. Green and lush growth from an unusual amount of summer rain and a vast array of wildflowers greeted us continually along the trails. The views were becoming better and better, and Terry would say it gets better. That was hard to imagine, but it was true, as the deeper we went, the depth of beauty also increased.

Late in the afternoon, paralleling a high, rugged mountain range, the tops barren of trees with 

patches of snow laying undisturbed high up on the slopes, I noticed their height and seemingly insurmountable passage to the other side. Stopping briefly, Terry told us we were about to climb up and over a pass and to our camp on the other side. And so, we traversed, zig zagging upward, upward, upward and crested the ridge to see a magnificent basin below. Now descending down in like manner, traversing back ad forth down the slopes we saw the first glimpse of our camp.

 In the green meadow near Ha Hand lake was a white tent structure, that was our cooking tent. (Yellowstone Mountain Guides has permanent permits from the Forestry Service at several locations in the wilderness and where the outfit takes tours and guests, including during hunting seasons after the summer pack trips. All the camps are disassembled, packed up and removed at summer’s end. In the early summer, pack mules again return with the equipment and the camp cook tent is again assembled for the next season. Sleeping tents are brought in with each trip according to the number of people on a pack trip). 

By this time, I was ready to get off my horse, Dakota, and stretch my legs, and, as you might imagine, give my butt a break. Horses were rode into a small grove of trees, tied up and the mules taken down to the camp area and unloaded of all their heavy loads. Those loads consisted of our personal items, tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, wool bag liners, the food, cooking utensils, hatchets, saws, fuel, etc. After the pack mules were unburdened, they and the horses were rode or led around the lake and up a high ridge above and behind our camp. There the horses were relieved of their saddles and bridles, the mules of their harness, and, of all things, to my amazement, set loose. As previously mentioned the mules, and Dakota, my horse, strode down the slope and rolled on the ground, thankful, I’m sure of being free of their burdens. The horses and mules were not tethered to any hitching posts or in the trees. They were literally set free to roam and eat grass at will. There was no enclosure or any form of restriction to contain the livestock. This surprised me. While, in immediate view the grassy area was in a bowl, sloping down from where the saddles and harness were removed and stacked in the trees and on the other three sides by steep, grass and rocky slopes.  The only restrictions upon the horses were hobbles, tied to their front legs. The mules were not restricted at all (from previous experience, mules, with horses present are not likely to wander off on their own). Now with the horses front legs hobbled, they had to jump with front legs and still, quite easily moved about as they grazed on the abundant grasses. It seemed the hobbles would prevent them from any distant travel and that they would probably just stay in the bowl shaped area and munch to their delight. Still they were far out of sight of our eyes in camp, which had me wondering about bears attacking them. It seemed that, being hobbled, they would be easy prey for a hungry grizzly or black bear. Terry and Christine were not bothered about that in the least. Walking back to camp along the trail it still concerned me that those animals were left to fend for themselves for two nights, but guessed this was how things were done, and that we’d simply return to them the second day and they would come up and be ready to be saddled up and ready to ride on to our second camp. 


This trip of 5 days included only two camps where we stayed for two nights each. The fifth day was the day to return to our beginning trailhead. Returning to the campsite, we followed the same procedures for backcountry camping as on the hike the week before. Food, toiletries, scented items stayed near the cooking area and were suspended on a bear hang every night, or when away from camp. Tents were set up a distance from the camp cook area. In this case we chose spots near a fast flowing little stream that fell down from a narrow waterfall a short distance from our tents. It was a very pleasant site, amidst some pine trees, the rushing waters, rippling upon and over the rocks created a soothing sound promoting a quick and peaceful fall into deep slumber.

Our water source was from a spring nearby, that ran ice cold. Needs to purify or filter it were unnecessary since we took it directly from the source as it flowed out from underground. It was refreshing and delightful to taste.


Chrstine started dinner as soon as the other livestock chores were done. We ate very well. Using both a propane gas stove and the campfire, she created delicious and varied fare, including fresh green salads with tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and other fresh ingredients. This night we were treated to salmon, cooked over the campfire, with roasted red skin potatoes and fresh vegetable. Each day, the meals were delicious and plentiful.

By the time we were served dinner, the darkness had already been upon us and eating around the glowing and flickering campfire was just the touch one would expect for a wild-land expedition. Unfortunately, drizzling rain was trying to spoil the atmosphere, but we prevailed despite that minor inconvenience. The long day caught up with us and we were soon off to our tents for a much appreciated rest. During the night the wind blew strongly accompanied by a steady downpour, the sounds of both actually helping me to fall into a deep sleep. 

The night time temperatures drop very quickly in the mountains. The sleeping bags with the wool liner were perfect for helping keep warm during the night. But, in addition. we were asked to bring sleeping clothes for additional layers of warmth. While I normally have not had such cold sleeping experiences, this additional night attire was a necessity if one were not to suffer from the cold throughout the nights. When I felt overheated, I would open up the sleeping bag slightly and ventilate with the cold air, moderating my body temperature until I had to close it up and return to sleep. Waking in the early morning cold meant a hasty retreat from the warm bag, disrobing the night clothes and quickly redressing in my daytime clothes, but in several layers - a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, fleece shirt, parka, a fleece vest and stocking cap. It was still raining when we awoke, which made the start of the the day questionable. Terry was up and had started making cowboy coffee in a very large, campfire blackened coffee pot, just as a person could imagine for a true cowboy experience. 

As this second full day dawned brighter, the clouds began to disperse, blue skies peeked out and, finally, the sunlight broke through promising us a day to go hiking and exploring in the area. A hearty, healthy breakfast prepared us for a day of venturing out of camp and to explore and discover some truly magnificent scenery. Hiking up along the narrow waterfall near our tent, with all but Christine,  we slowly ascended to a ridge and then into a basin that beset my eyes with such views that were outstanding. As we progressed, over rolling knolls, small lakes, high peaks, green meadows adorned with colorful wildflowers, remaining snow packs, billowing white clouds and vast vistas greeted our sights. As before, with each turn of the head, the scenery and landscape was constantly offering beauty that filled my senses. I felt like my eyes were filled to overflowing at such immense views and intense natural beauty.


Topping the ridge behind our camp, we walked along and over to where we had left the horses and mules the previous night. 

They were nowhere in sight! Oh boy, what happened to them and how in the world could they have possibly traveled very far being hobbled? Terry was not concerned as he said they make their way effectively as far as they care to roam, grazing throughout the vast basin. As we hiked over knolls and small hills, around small lakes, over several miles, we saw nary one of the animals. Evidence of their passing this way, however, were obvious with dung piles scattered about the hillsides. Still no matter where we hiked, or at what heights we hiked, the horses nor mules were nowhere to be seen. 


We went about the morning, Terry pointing out points of interest, history and information about what we could see, and enjoyed a remarkable day with  perfect cloud cover, cool temperatures, and vast vistas far into the distance. At Expedition Pass we lunched and sat upon a ridge looking down into the basins on either side. Along the way, we came upon a snow pack that had a snow tunnel running beneath it, hollowed out by a very small, trickling stream. It was another amazing discovering along our hike.

As Laura and Conner wanted to learn fly fishing, we continued to another small lake (still no livestock in sight) where Terry instructed them in the art of fly fishing. I was very content to watch and took photos of Laura’s many catches (which were released). As the day was quickly proceeding into mid afternoon, and the weather looked sketchy, we continued along our merry way and proceeded back to camp (and still no livestock).


Conner, casting a line into a lake.


Arriving back in camp, Cristine had kept busy and prettied up the place with a bouquet of flowers. An unlikely, yet thoughtful, touch  making our camp feel very homey. After dinner, looking heavenward, stars filled the cold, clear night sky. A perfect ending to our day. 

But what about those mules and horses….?






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