High Life in the High Country: the Resort at Paws Up
Posted on 07 March 2016
We rode slowly down the steep mountain trail, letting our horses find their footing in the soft dirt. Our horses stepped gingerly over large rocks and tree roots, and the dense underbrush scratched at our boots and stirrups. The aroma of lush, rich vegetation, piqued by summer heat, filled the air. We rode out of the densely covered trail into an opening, where avalanche chutes were covered with bright yellow flowers of arrowleaf balsamroot.
The horses smelled the grizzlies before we even saw them.
We dismounted quickly, sensing that something was amiss. Just across the valley, in an open hillside, four large grizzly bears grazed in the dense brush.
Camping at Paws Up, David Reese photo
We scrambled for cameras and binoculars in our backpacks, and one of our guides nervously rubbed his thumb over the steely gray hammer of his revolver, although firearms were not needed here - only an interest in observing one of America's largest land mammals and the symbol of Montana wildness.
The grizzlies eyed us momentarily then continued with their feeding. One particularly large grizzly had a silver, deep-dish face with dark, somber eyes that almost seemed sad. After an hour watching the magnificent, silver-tipped animals, we rode back to camp in silence and in awe of what we'd just witnessed. The sun shone like a shiny penny through the haze of wildfire smoke that lingered in late summer. Throughout the night's conversation, we often turned back to the subject of the bears; how one big black bear - at over 350 pounds - grazing with the grizzlies, probably could be the state record for black bear. THIS WAS the second night at our camp in the backcountry near the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We had ridden out of Monture Creek near Ovando, with guides from the Resort at Paws Up, a former cattle ranch that's been converted to a high-end luxury resort. We rode through the aftermath of a wildfire that had ripped through here in 2000. The blackened trees had, by now, shed most of their bark, leaving stark, grey sticks poking up out of the lush vegetation. Fireweed - brilliant stalks of green with magenta flowers - grew everywhere, and bees buzzed along the trail as we rode the 12 miles into camp. We rode along Monture Creek, which twinkled in the dappled sunlight and coursed through rocky crevasses.
Packing out of camp, David Reese photo
We arrived in camp, saddle sore like a bunch of greenhorns. A wrangler unloaded the string of pack mules and like a good valet, left our respective backpacks in front of our wall tents. Cowhide rugs felt awesome under our bare feet, and I collapsed onto the feather bed in my personal wall tent. With my senses calmed from the long ride, I felt I could have been in any luxury hotel, but I was in a luxury backcountry camp - a bit of an oxymoron for someone who has lugged heavy backpacks and lived on dried food for days in the Montana backcountry. "Backcountry" and "luxury" were two words I'd never used in the same sentence before.
But this was truly living.
A ride out of camp at Monture Creek, David Reese photo
Now owned by a Las Vegas family, the Resort at Paws Up has taken a decades-old cattle ranch in the upper Blackfoot Valley and transformed it into a base camp and luxury retreat. The resort offers a wide variety of activities, from sporting clays, to nature hikes and fly fishing on the Blackfoot River - waters made famous by Norman Maclean's book "A River Runs Through It."
The backcountry camp is just one of the activities the resort offers. Just a 30-minute drive from the Resort at Paws Up is Monture Creek, a deep mountain valley that sprawls out into the Blackfoot River Valley. It's here we made our foray into the backcountry.
The three-day adventures give guests a taste of wilderness with a smidgeon of luxury thrown in. "This is a way to tame down the wilderness trips for the resort market," says John Way of Paws Up Outfitters. "This gives people a little taste of what outfitting is like in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the three days is just enough to get you to slow down."
We arrived at the Monture Creek camp after a long trail ride, eager to be in the middle of nowhere. Upon arrival, we swung out of the saddles and stirrups to a delectable appetizer of huckleberry compote served with elk meat and wild boar. One of the often-missed necessities of backcountry living is hot water, but the guides had that figured out, too. They'd run hundreds of feet of hose up a nearby stream, letting gravity feed the shower they'd built out of hewn logs. A portable RV water heater gave several in our party a welcome shower, while I chose to wear the dust and sweat of the trail like a badge of honor.
For packer Shawn Polen, the work day is long and hard, but rewarding. He'll spend at least eight hours a day tending to the mule train that hauls the guests' gear into camp. The seclusion, he says, "gives you a different perspective on life. I can go six or eight weeks without my feet ever hitting pavement."
His job sometimes entails danger. "If a mule falls over a cliff or a horse gets stuck in a creek, you learn to count on yourself," he says. A satellite phone can sometimes provide a link from camp to the outside world, but the connection is spotty. "If something happens out here, you end up taking care of it yourself," Polen says. "The mountains make you tough."
In the morning we rode high out of camp, toward a mountain lake that sat cupped among meadows and tall peaks. We cast our fly lines to rising cutthroat trout and at lunch time napped in the cool shadows of alpine fir. The horses beckoned with their pawing at the ground, so we rode higher, along serrated rocky ridges to some unknown place, and gazed down at the lake. Our horses drank of the glacial snowmelt at a small lake we discovered.
We also found the remains of a cabin, where a hermit once lived for two years before succumbing to the brutal high-country Montana weather. (He'd obviously not had the amenities offered to us.) That night's dinner back at camp featured some of the trout we'd caught earlier - a tasty reminder of a day well spent in the Montana wilderness. We admired the night sky while sipping cognac and enjoying cigars, but since a campfire ban was in place because of wildfire danger, we sat around a lantern instead of the bright embers of a campfire.
The next morning, a light rain pecked at our wall tents. Birds twittered in the trees, and the creek gurgled nearby. The smell of coffee and bacon arrived at my doorstep next, and I threw on my boots to join the others already at breakfast.
Today we'd ride home, back down the dusty trail in the hot afternoon sun. Nearing the trailhead, 12 miles from where we'd started that morning, a light rain began to fall; it dampened the dusty trail, but not our spirits, after having just spent three incredible days in the Montana backcountry.
The backcountry camp at Monture Creek is a far cry from the luxury offerings at the Resort at Paws Up - except for the fact that it's really not that far away. The two worlds co-exist next to each other, one of refined sensuality and another of rugged backcountry.
At the Resort at Paws Up, you are transported to another level of luxury, one of fine linens and crystal, of world-class chefs and fine wine. It's here at Pomp, in the lodge's grand dining hall, that that the Resort offers its annual Montana Master Chefs event. Last year's inaugural event brought in top chefs and winemakers from around the country, including Lee Hefter, executive chef of Spago in Beverly Hills. The event was attended by people from around the world, and it was just a week earlier that a very famous rock group - the Rolling Stones - stayed here during their visit to Missoula.
Sea bass at the Resort at Paws Up
The resort offers 20 custom homes for their guests, who enjoy sprawling views of the Potomac Valley. And then there is the silence. Only the sound of crickets and birds fills the air, and you're left to your sense of wonder of this magical place in Montana.
The Resort at Paws Up is refining the art of taking two very incongruous elements - rugged Montana and new-world luxury - and combing them into memorable vacations. The mix is astounding.
On the Web: www.pawsup.com