Horse packing into Montana wilderness
Story and photos by Amy Grisak/Montana Living
If taking a trip in Montana's spectacular backcountry is your dream, it's time to make that dream come true.
Wilderness travel isn't just for the young, rugged adventure-seekers who own their own horse pack string and equipment. With Montana's world-class outfitters even the most urbanized dreamers can enjoy a memorable trip into the high country. Many consider a back country adventure too daunting to tackle on their own.
Before I ever took my own horses into the wilderness, I joined Karen and Jack Hooker of WTR Outfitters in Ovando on a seven-day trip across the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
I had far more questions than experience and jumped at the opportunity to learn from folks who've been traveling in the backcountry for over 40 years. Even though every trip is different, I've compiled a few notes on what to expect on your own back country vacation.
Undeniably, the trip is more enjoyable if you're used to physical activity and can take advantage of lay-over days to hike and explore, but by no means do you have to be in prime condition.
Besides myself and the two wranglers and cook, the youngest traveler on my trip was 55, and at that time, Jack Hooker was a spry 71. I've heard a number of people lament that they don't know how to ride or take care of horses, which is why they don't think they could go on a trip like this. The beauty of joining a knowledgeable outfitter is they will take care of what you lack.
The Hookers spend winter months working with new horses to make them as dude-friendly as possible. They patiently accustom them to everything the horse might encounter, from a flapping rain coat to the hollow sound of a bridge. They are careful to match your experience with the proper horse. Before we began our trek, Jack Hooker gave a talk on basic horsemanship.
Even though the horses were always saddled for us by the wranglers, he gave us the nuts and bolts on the equipment, how to approach the horse, how to get on and how to ride. Throughout the week, he gave us lessons on understanding the horse psyche and working with them on their level. If you know nothing about horses going in on one of these trips, that won't be the case by the time you're finished.
Pack Smart, Pack Light
Although you don't have to pack your gear on your back, the mules are packing it on theirs, so there is a strict weight limit of 35-pounds on what you can bring. This might seem like a lot until you figure out you're planning for any conceivable weather condition, plus your sleeping bag and pad.
Not a Weight-Loss Program
The beauty of traveling with an outfitter is the food. There is never an excuse to be hungry. During our first lunch break when I was with the Hookers I pulled out two sandwiches, a piece of fruit, two candy bars and juice. I thought we were supposed to share with someone.
This was typical when Karen Hooker packed our lunches because food is love and Karen loves her guests. Meal planning is an integral part of preparing for a trip where you can't run down the road to the nearest grocery. We never lacked for anything.
Dinners ranged from barbecue chicken with corn on the cob to a pot roast with potatoes and carrots. The aroma was heavenly. When we started all of the meat was frozen and packed in a special insulated box, which was constantly kept in the shade. By our last night, we enjoyed steaks that were just thawing.
In the morning, you wake up to the sound of the fire and the smell of coffee on the cook stove. Everyone wanders over to pour their first cup while waiting for their breakfast of eggs or pancakes, bacon or sausage, or a little bit of everything. Karen gave me the privilege on several mornings of warming the plates near the oven so the hot food isn't served on cold dishes.
She also taught me the nuances of baking in the temperamental little stove. As long as you keep an eye on things, and make sure to turn the pan often, it is possible to bake great cobblers and desserts. It's also just as possible to have one charred side and the other side still gooey. It's a talent that needs practice, but it makes you appreciate it even more.
There are some outfitters who have permanent camps designated in the wilderness, while others prefer to move throughout the week.
When I joined the Hookers we traveled nearly 100 miles westward across the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Some nights we set up for only one evening, others we stayed for two to enjoy the area and to rest the horses.
Once you ride into camp for the evening, the mules are unpacked, everyone's gear is spread out on the manties (canvas clothes used to pack the gear) and the kitchen is set up. You can help if you want to, and it just makes everything go more smoothly. Once the tents are up, everyone unpacks their gear and prepares for the evening before wandering out to explore the area, fish, or relax by the campfire.
Bathing can be a challenge depending on the weather.
Outfitters often bring along solar showers, which provide a few gallons of very warm water for a quick wash up. The drawback is it can take several hours to adequately heat the water so only a few people may use it during one day. Heading for the river is a great way to stay clean, as long as the weather cooperates.
There are plenty of hidden areas to take a quick dip although the initial plunge is always shocking no matter how hot it might be. Bring along baby wipes for quick clean-ups at the end of the day, or during inclement weather.
What to Do
Riding through the changing wilderness terrain is an absolute treat. But on layover days at camp, you have the opportunity to stretch your legs and explore the environment.
The Hookers brought along plenty of reference books to answer questions on plants, birds and animals that members of our group saw during afternoon jaunts. Fly-fishing for cutthroat trout, arctic grayling and our other native species is also a popular activity.
The avid fishermen spent hours wading in the river, and are quick to tell their stories around the campfire in the evening.
Many people are sure a big, bad bear will get them if they venture into the woods. While there are certainly plenty of bears in Montana's backcountry, chances are slim that you'll have a problem with one.
When you're traveling in a large group of horses and people, you're making plenty of noise to reduce any surprise encounters.
A True Vacation
There's nothing like a trip into the backcountry with an experienced outfitter where you feel pampered and rugged at the same time. It's a unique opportunity to see a completely different perspective of our gorgeous state without vehicles, crowds and the unceasing cell phone for a time to truly relax and enjoy every moment.