When A Whisper is Enough - a series of day rides and an extended pack trip into the Wilderness
By Susan Bates
Cloud Peak Wilderness – Wyoming
We took our time getting to Montana, stopping at Lake Carl Blackwell, Kanopolis State Park in Kansas, HQH Ranch in Big Springs, Nebraska, Ox Bow Equine Service in Buffalo Wyoming and then on to dispersed camping in the Big Horn National Forest, Wyoming.
We had intended to stay at Hunters Camp – a great equine camp in the Big Horns but they were full and reserved for months in advance so we disconnected at Ox Bow and drove out Hwy 16 (The Cloud Peak Highway) to the Cloud Peak Wilderness to see if we could locate a camp site where Dwayne, Rochelle and Lynn, their friend could meet us. On Forest Service Road 20 at Circle Park what a great camp site was awaiting us. It was a large plateau overlooking a valley with miles of mountaintops and we set up camp where everyone would have a view to die for! The elevation was around 6,000’ and the temps were perfect. Dwayne and group showed up at the perfect time, got parked and set up pens for their horses. There were several trails out of the area but we opted for the one that circled several lakes –The 7 Lake Trail- trail number 046. We first came to Sherd Lake and it’s pristine beauty overwhelmed us all. From there we went south on trail 095 crossing Duck Creek and noticing that the rocky footing wasn’t getting any better, in fact the rocks became more frequent and bigger. Dwayne took over teaching Lasier to be a pack horse and to stay behind since he had pulled my shoulder so many times I couldn’t imagine going the full 12 miles with pulling and correcting him. We skirted around taking the worn trail and at Trigger Lake we lost the main trail. We had followed a smaller trail to some lovely campsites but had no sight of the correct trail. I dismounted and found finally found a hiker log crossing the Duck Creek Finger at the base of the lake but it wasn’t something a horse could cross so I followed that to the other side of the lake and eventually found the trail but no easy access to it from the far side of the lake. Dwayne found a somewhat reasonable crossing thru the shallowest part of the lake and I bush-wacked to the main trail. With the first few steps into the lake each horse dropped a foot into the unseen ravine below the water’s surface and Cisco fell onto his side with me watching from the far bank. My heart sank as he scrambled to regain his footing but he gathered himself and was up and thrashing his way to me. Finally, we were all safe and heading down the trail. As we continued around the weather became colder and it started to rain and then the real punishment started…The quarter size hail came with a vengeance and we searched for trees to get under. It was brutal for all of us including the horses. Cisco knew immediately what to do and pulled to the first tree he could find but I had to urge him on since there were so many behind us. Finally, we were all somewhat sheltered and waited it out but the occasional ping still hurt! When it did let up a bit we tried to get further down the trail but the hail hit again. This time we had to contend with a muddy, running trail and the hail. A brief peek at the map told me we still had over 4 and half miles to camp and since the elevation was over 9,000’ I doubted it was going to get any warmer soon. I kept my findings to myself as Dwayne encouraged everyone forward. Somehow we finally got to the intersection of Trail 095 and 046 leaving us just 2 miles to camp. The elevation was dropping and at 8750’ it was finally warm enough to drop my shoulders. We rode into camp as if it was all in a days work!
From Wyoming we traveled to Montana finally stopping at Great Falls where I had made reservations at 406 Arena. We needed a few days to do our laundry, get food and let the horses rest before we got too far from civilization. 406 Arena moved a shed out to a big paddock since I had worried that Lasier would be cold without shelter. The shed was in transit as we arrived and it was funny to see it float effortlessly along the road to the pasture. The horses were ecstatic at having a large paddock, other horses within view and a huge round bale of fresh hay to eat all day. It was a perfect layover spot for all of us to rest, shop and resupply. 406 had a horse show the weekend we arrived and it was interesting to watch the different levels of riders and the colorful attire all the riders sported. My favorite was a “gray haired old lady” who had a quarter/paint who knew everything. The duo cleaned up with ribbons never failing to win first in every event they entered. Go Granny! They were turned out impeccably and for that reason alone they should have gotten first!
We opted to try to ride the first few sections of the Continental Divide from 406 using it as a base camp. Rogers Pass was an hour away and we scouted the trailhead before we had horses with us. The pass was accessible from the main road Hwy 200 by just a pull off. Log trucks whizzed by us as we pulled over so I knew we had to be saddled and ready to go once we unloaded the horses tomorrow. I was so anxious to be mounted and heading into the back country I hardly slept thinking about our adventure starting the next day. The plan was to day ride as many days as possible that way Brett could pick us up and the horses could rest at 406 each night. We left the next morning around 6:30 with horses and dog (Bo) and arrived at Rogers Pass at 8:30. There still was lots of traffic even at that time so we rushed the horses up the hill to gain the trail away from the highway. I had to call out to Linette to slow down since this old lady was getting winded trying to keep up with her. Finally, we were far enough from the traffic that we could mount and let the horses do the walking! The ride was only to be about 9 miles and with the elevation of over 7,400’ I was glad to just have Cisco and not to have to try to deal with Lasier. We headed up from Rogers Pass to Cadotte Pass on a good trail with little dead fall or obstacles. We followed along the edge of Green Mountain where we came up to a Yurt above the tree line. Peeking in the windows we could see that it was a winter shelter with a fireplace and views to die for! We travelled on to Lewis and Clark Pass where we found a sign stating that Lewis and Clark had crossed at this very spot. From Lewis and Clark Pass we just had a few more miles to Alice Creek Trailhead where Brett was to pick us up. It was all downhill but very enjoyable with Alice Creek to water the horses and lots of graze for them. The trail was sheltered between two mountains and in a canyon – Alice Mountain and Red Mountain. We had an extended view of Wildcat Gulch as we approached the main trailhead and finally saw the trailer with Brett waiting. I hated that we were done for the day – my heart wanted to stay right there and continue on tomorrow….
If we went back to Alice Creek we would have a 26 mile day and I wasn’t up to that this soon. I had to watch Bo’s feet as historically the first 2 or 3 days would wear his pads and he would be sore without his boots, I opted to trailer to the Dearborn Trailhead and then decide to do either a 14 mile loop or a 17.3 loop including the Continental Divide. Just getting to Dearborn was delightful; the eastern front of the Rockies had so many land formations that visually it was stunning. As we drove up we could see Table Mountain with Joslin Basin at it’s foothills. Then we crossed Dearborn River and it was so clear that the rocks on the river bed looked like you could pick them up but the bottom was out of reach! I could hardly wait to saddle up and see what was along Falls Creek, our trail to the Divide. The landscape was and is additive, making me yearn for the solitude and vastness even as I write. Falls Creek was splendid and held my attention, drawing my heart right down the small gorge all the way to Bear Den Mountain and Blowout Mountain. I was quite sure this was what heaven looked like as peace and tranquility overcame me and I felt even Cisco express a relaxing sigh. Thinking now, I would and will go back, camp and explore the area allowing many days to absorb the serenity. I would want those who were in the area to not miss this special trail which didn’t receive much acclaim in my research. I am going to find a way to go back. We crossed several creeks, each had it’s own meandering and style that differentiated them: Lone Pine Creek was bluish in color and sandy bottomed, Camp Creek was log strewn and harbored many hidden basin like holes that had fish and then Middle Fork Falls Creek had the energy and depth to make us very cautious crossing it. Small, quick challenges just made Falls Creek Trail even more special. As I studied the map I realized that the loop I had chosen might not go thru since a tiny speck of private land was between the forest trail marking and the access road. It was hardly visible at Joslin Basin so I took out my magnifying glass and sure enough there was a gap from the trail to Joslin Creek Road. It was a little disappointing to miss Cuniff Basin which was in the southern front of Table Mountain but little could get me upset with such a spectacular ride under our belts. The trail in reverse was almost as scenic and knowing the creeks made it easier on the horses. Bo was staying close which was my warning that his feet might be hurting because he loved to range while keeping us in his sight. He only trailed when he was exhausted or sore….so it turned out perfect that our ride was but 11 miles and we scurried down Twin Buttes where Brett was waiting with the trailer.
Benchmark was our next starting point and we opted to drive out and camp the night before. All of the organized camping areas were filled. We found this to be the case for this entire trip. The Ranger said it was one of the busiest seasons he had ever seen. My guess was that Covid had given people time to enjoy the forest, but this did hamper my “wilderness experience.” We did find a lovely dispersed camping spot about a mile south of the main horse staging area. There was plenty of graze and lovely tall pines to put up a high line. Since we had the little trailer we were able to give the horses hay and have shelter if we needed it. Of course Linette opted for her tent and I decided to sleep in the trailer! Just as we were about to move under the pines Linette saw we had a flat tire and I worried that we wouldn’t be able to break the lugs but with much perseverance and a little female cussing we got it done…. I dug a cat hole, put up an electric pen so the horses could graze and Linette set up the rest of camp high-lines and all! It wasn’t long before the horses alerted and then Bo gave one of his “intruder alerts.” I worried that bears would come to investigate but it was cattle, calves and all! This was very reassuring as the cows wouldn’t rest if bears were in the area so I had confidence that we were fairly safe from grizzlies, at least as long as the cattle were in the area. The next morning we got up, Linette took down her tent and saddled up. We rode along Wood Creek to the Fairview Trail but veered off to join the Straight Creek Trail which went to the Divide. We passed the packers commercial area, a huge equestrian parking area with several trailers and then past the South Fork Sun Camp which was full. We hit Straight Creek which was lovely with nice wide footing, we crossed and went up to 202 the Divide Trail and followed it for several miles. It pulled us down along the South Fork Sun River but kept us 50’ or more above it along a ledge. I loved the views and Cisco was very animated and pulling to get moving until I turned him around at noon. He hates to go back: usually it means I’m lost (or temporarily confused) and many times he had to go back and forth until I found the trail. Often it was where he pulled off and I resisted his opinion! But, not this time we had planned to go back to camp and ride out again the next day. We headed back with Cisco getting with the agenda and trying to take charge….he pulled forward and once when I asked him to take a left he was very insistent that it was a right. I let him lead and sure enough I saw our Cavello Boot tracks and we were shortly back at camp. Well, our bovine friends had torn up the camp, emptying the manure bucket, destroying the electric pen but luckily, Linette had put away her tent or it would have been in shreds. Cattle were everywhere and didn’t seem the least concerned that we wanted them to leave so I knew it would be a long night there and asked Linette if we shouldn’t just head in and get to base camp. Since she was already packed we just had to clean up our site and head down the road. A quick note about Benchmark Road….it was the road from hell! It had pot holes every foot or so for 24 miles and one could not veer to miss one pot hole without hitting another. I was so grateful that we hadn’t taken our big rigs as everything would have been on the floor or destroyed. It is a real shame since many mountains lined the route and there was great dispersed camping throughout. The elevation went from over 8,000’ on both sides to less than 5,000’ at the road level - Cyanide Mountain to Wood Canyon along Wood Creek. It was astounding and breath taking.
We moved from 406 Arena in Great Falls to Muddy Creek Ranch just outside of Choteau where we were treated like family. Since we needed to get ready for our remote pack trip I hurriedly jumped out of bed, got dressed and went to see if anyone at the Choteau feed store knew anything about the Continental Divide Trail. As luck would have it the owner had worked for the forest service and was full of information. It was interesting to learn about the different access trails and those a rider should avoid but I was constantly distracted by my zip front bra that was warning a full blown Grand Teton exposure was about to happen. I could feel it slowly prepare for the biggest tourist attraction that that feed store had ever had…I was missing the valuable information that Curt was imparting…..finally he mentioned his prior use of pack horses and I immediately said I think I have a picture of my neophyte pack horse in the truck…not…..I ran to the truck, pulled up my shirt and zipped that g…d…zipper and this time I made sure it was locked in place. The girls got squished but I was certain I was being watched and didn’t want to make the upward, thrusting movement that got both of them in a respectable position. So back I went into the feed store telling Curt that I forgot my camera and I swear that he took a double take at my breast! I said breast because they did indeed seem to be a single entity! Loaded with good trail information I went back to Muddy Creek to plan the 7 day remote trip.
Looking at the map and calculating the mileage from possible camps I realized that there was no way Lasier, our little pack horse could carry 7 or more days of supplies for all 3 horses and both Linette and me. Back to the feed store I hurried to see if they knew of anyone who might be able to make a drop in the wilderness for us. I swear that he was looking at my now respectable boobs neatly separated but maybe it was my imagination as he was quickly forthcoming with the dismal answer that this was the busiest time of year for everyone with the packers already booked up and others were trying to get their crops in before the first snow. But, Kayla the gal at the counter had been listening and she offered to call her Indian father who had years of experience in the backcountry. Since the Blackfeet Indians had closed their side of Glacier Park because of Covid 19 he might be interested in making the drop. His summer business was dependent on the Glacier tourists and his ranch work just might be adjustable to fit in a pack trip to Beaver Lake. I called Chuck DeBoo and he agreed to meet in Dupuyer at the bar/restaurant called Buffalo Joe’s that evening at 7….
I had my fingers crossed about the meeting at Buffalo Joe’s, hoping that Chuck might be able to bring our resupply and that I could afford the cost. I walked up to the restaurant door and immediately was astounded to see several suspender laden, bearded fellows all gathered around a few tables….it looked like a Mormon assembly. And I got the single woman coming into a bar look, from my shoes all the way to the top of my head: I am sure this gray haired old lady got quickly dismissed. I focused my tunnel vision on the important issue – to hopefully get a resupply drop in the Bob…..ignoring the “wiser than thou” looks I located a table that wasn’t too dark and started to pull out my maps. I was deep in mileage calculating when my phone rang…..please don’t cancel….we really need this drop to make it thru the last 60 miles of a very remote trail. I hesitantly answered the phone and Cary (Chuck’s wife) told me he was running late….much relieved I was more than happy to wait, recalculate my numbers and slyly watch the goings on of the suspender crowd. A nice young waiter, who seemed to feel sorry for me refilled my tea and asked if I still wanted to wait to order – I told him I would wait for the rest of my party and he lulled around to chat making me feel more comfortable. Chuck DeBoo and wife Cary showed up not long after and what a delightful couple they were! You could immediately feel the warmth and love they had for each other and with this I soon realized how lucky I was to have made their acquaintance. My first question to Chuck was who were the stoic bearded whisperers? He immediately answered “Hutterites” (Hutterites (German: Hutterer), also called Hutterian Brethren (German: Hutterische Brüder), are an ethnoreligious group that is a communal branch of Anabaptists who, like the Amish and Mennonites, trace their roots to the Radical Reformation of the early 16th century.) Chuck was certain they were negotiating for supplies or equipment on something along those lines. Chuck went on the tell how the men felt far superior to the women who couldn’t sit at the same table with the men and had to eat with the children after the men finished….oh, yeah that would work in my world……Back to the real issue of the night….could he, would he make the drop for us? I offered a few locations and Chuck said he needed a back country fix so “Yes” he could do it. He threw out a cost and I offered a few more bucks if he would cook dinner and then breakfast the following morning…”can you cook, Chuck” – Cary smiled so I knew I was good….We ordered and when Chuck’s order came I swear that he had the whole hind quarter of a cow on his plate which he promptly consumed. I left them with a check and some cash feeling very confident that our resupply would arrive at Beaver Lake as we agreed.
Having scouted out the trailhead at Cave Mountain the day before we knew that we could camp but had to make two trips to get all 3 horses at the trailhead. My son dropped Cisco, Lasier, Linette and me at the trailhead and hurried back to get Apollo. Linette and I set up camp and the high lines, we wanted an early start to get over Route Creek Pass at over 7,200’ and storms were forecasted. Being above the tree line when lightning was striking was an experience I didn’t relish repeating so we agreed to get up early and hit the trail. Apollo arrived by 6:30 and we enjoyed Brett’s salmon he cooked for us and he and Burton returned to base camp in the ¾ ton that Burton had driven up behind Brett. This left us with the 2 horse trailer in case we couldn’t get thru because of dead fall or whatever reason. This little trailer is actually a 3 horse but we had dry goods in the first stall so that left only the back 2 for horses. We settled in early as the 6,000’ elevation was taking a toll on all of us. Up and at it by 6:30 the day didn’t look good….the clouds were already gathering and I could sense a real storm. We had to cover over 6 miles to get up and over Route Creek Pass and it was already sprinkling and threatening. Then the lightning started and it struck all around us. The only shelter was the vault toilet and the 2 horse trailer. Since Linette and I had already saddled the horses and packed Lasier we were hesitant to quit but the lightning strikes became more and more frequent and they were very close. We then knew we wanted to get the heck off the mountain but we only had room for the 2 horses…who was going to stay in the storm and with which horse…..it would take an hour and half to get back to pick up that unlucky person and horse…I guessed it would be best for me since I knew I could get Cisco in the vault toilet if I had to and after all I am the old lady trail rider….but the horses were very anxious and getting more nervous with every lightning strike. We threw off the packs and saddles as quickly as we could and I told Linette let’s try to see if there is any way we could get all 3 horses in the trailer but since we had tried once before we knew this was probably futile. I loaded up Cisco on the long side of the slant haul, then Apollo and just as we were sure there was no room for Lasier….Lasier jumped up between Apollo and Cisco pushing his way into the trailer. 3 horse loaded and I would never have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it myself! There still was a slight problem since I was in front of all 3 and the escape door was behind the dry goods section….Sweat was forming and I realized that if anyone made a bad move I would be in grave trouble. I’m an old lady and climbing over the backs of these guys was not going to happen…Linette was shouting solutions but my nerves were freaking out, knowing how serious it was for me…..Sit tight Linette, I need to think. I refused to back anyone out….so I inched between Cisco and Lasier. Cisco gave an inch and hugged the wall but Lasier resisted my urging and pushed into me….he collapsed my chest and the air left my lungs but my feet were still moving towards the rear. Linette held the door and presto….I was out. I had to take a few seconds to try to get air back into my lungs and sat on the trailer running board, grateful that air was finally passing in and out….Load up Linette, we were getting the heck out of Dodge! As we drove off the mountain the storm became more and more violent and chased us for over an hour. We pulled in to base camp much to Brett’s surprise with relief was written all over his face since the storm hit base camp with a ferocity that made us grateful to be there. We’ll try tomorrow – weather permitting….
So the second time was the charm…we drove up to Cave Mountain Trailhead and hurried to get on the trail. A small group of riders started along the path and that gave me some comfort knowing that they would have to handle any dead fall leaving the trail clear for us. But, within 30 minutes the small group was stopped and dismounted….they did say they were going for a “short” ride! We rode along the high side of the Middle Fork of the North Fork of the Teton River with lovely views of the rushing water. The trail was wide although ascending rather rapidly. Within 6 miles we were at the base of Route Creek Pass and the clouds were starting to form. My worst fear was to get caught above tree line in a storm so I pressed Cisco and pulled Lasier to move at a greater pace. We climbed and switch backed, rarely stopping for the horses to catch their breaths. The rain had started and the clouds were black but we gained the pass just as the storm rolled over our heads. Going down was a breeze since the horses wanted to get lower as much as we did. We passed thru a fairy tale grove of Aspens and then found a lovely creek – Nesbit Creek. Soon we came to Nine mile Park which was a wonderful camping area where there was plenty of graze, several good highline trees and northwest mountain protection. It was early afternoon but finding an ideal camping spot made us want to stay the night. As I dismounted I was greeted by an older, very interested buck with a few does in his company. He faced me as if to say “I was here first” he held his ground for several seconds and I worried that he would challenge us but he finally turned his head and climbed the hill directly behind the camp encouraging his herd to follow. They lingered on the hillside, grazing and watching us but ultimately they moved further into the forest. A group of hikers came down the trail remarking that they had seen many bear signs and this spurred me to invite them to camp with us. After a rather long conversation they decided that they would indeed stay and related the fact that one of them was very allergic to horses, something that is not thought possible in my world. I was relieved to have the company as the buck seemed conditioned to people and the bears might just have the same attitude and not be as easy to persuade to leave. The horses enjoyed a small electric pen we built and grazed happily for a couple of hours. One of the hikers put our food and other bear enticers up a tree in the standard “12 foot up 4 foot out” on a big tree limb hanging like a big bean bag. Linette built a nice campfire and we enjoyed dinner chatting about how the hikers came to be hiking. It was a sad story that one of the young fellow’s dad had fallen to his death while they were all hiking and they were taking his ashes on a memorial hike to be dispersed. This exceptional group of young men most likely included a doctor, a veteran and maybe a teacher. They each were impressive and well -spoken and a delight to interact with. Their company allowed me to sleep like a baby.
Packed up and riding out from camp Lasier’s pack started to roll. Since we had a big send off by the hikers with picture taking and salutes I really didn’t want to stop and reweigh his pack but it became inevitable as I barely got to him in time. The footing was muddy and slippery and nowhere was there a place to put the packs as I took them off. I opted to just try to rearrange the lower packs and try to get to some dry ground to completely rework it. I stepped over a good size bear track but had my hands too full to take a picture: that was a good warning since it had rained last night making the print fresh this morning. Our goal was Round Park but Lasier was getting harder and harder to keep focused and follow Cisco. He pulled and laid back frequently and often I wasn’t prepared forcing me to extend my arm and almost get dismounted. He is a great little horse with a lot of courage but I had overestimated his condition and ability. Both Cisco and Apollo were gaited and wanted to move out and poor little Lasier took short pony steps. The very reason I thought to use him was his size, giving no thought to his stride and the effort he would have to put forth to try to stay with the two gaited horses. My hand was becoming blistered and raw and I could only imagine what Lasier’s neck and head felt like from all the tugging. I hated myself for not thinking through all the scenarios. His body condition was slipping and he just wasn’t getting enough to eat for the amount of energy he was expending. He was trying to compensate with every reachable blade of grass and it broke my heart. I doubled his food (cutting Cisco’s allotment) but Lasier was insatiable ….I could have kicked myself….I was miserable, having to mistreat this little guy…but he was all heart and tried the best he could. The result was me tugging on Lasier’s head and pulling Cisco’s nose with almost every stride. Of the whole group, Apollo was the only one who was left to walk at his own pace so I had little sympathy for him if he wanted to crowd Cisco or got pushy with Lasier. My whole focus was on them and the scenery was like an afterthought…..darn it….and we were miles from any relief. At one point I did happen to look up when Bo barked and took off. Immediately a small deer ran across the trail followed by a black panther….I looked at that long black tail as it crouched and slipped away upon seeing us horseback knowing that I witnessed a once in a lifetime sighting. I was so appreciative of the sighting but I had to read the map, be sure we were on the correct trail and try to limit the amount of drag on Lasier that I was still miserable…I just wanted to get to a good campsite and relax. I decided to bypass the renown Lake Levale and take the most direct trail to that night’s site. I regretted that as I had read about Lake Levale many times in my research but I just couldn’t ask Lasier to try for a 25 mile day. So we took the most direct trail to Round Park. This turned out to be a great decision: we passed Wrong Creek Cabin where the packers had a great remote camp complete with a shower, pens and even hay for the horses! But, we didn’t stay…I had no idea whose camp it was and didn’t have permission to camp so we left crossing Fools Creek, Wrong Creek and finally one that made me feel slightly better – the North Fork Sun River. Round Park was perfect with lots of graze, making the horses very happy and an excellent camping area. Ah, a bit of relief for everyone.
From Round Park we travelled up the east side of Fool Creek and I worried about conquering Sun River Pass but it came and went with little fanfare and we hardly noticed the elevation gain and loss down into Grizzly Park. We had packed up Lasier with a good bit lighter load, my guess was he was only carrying 60 pounds so I felt like he would have an easier time for today’s long trip to midway up Strawberry Creek. There were no signs of life – neither ground critters nor any animals or birds of any size. Dead trees were our landscape and I had been on edge for the past few days knowing that I opted to leave my good hand saw and it’s scabbard in the trailer. I was carrying only my fold out saw which had very limited use. I even left my chain hand saw that could have tackled most downed trees. We were covering some remote country and dead fall in this area was rarely logged out. The whole forest was just burnt skeletons of trees with hardly any green on the ground; there was nothing showing any signs of trying to recover from what looked like a very hot fire. The stick forest creaked with the slightest wind and I expected charcoaled trees to fall at any time. We passed thru the worst that was visible without delay and as we searched the horizon we saw nothing but miles more of erect, black statues hovering and whistling their doom. I wondered how long it would take for the scorched world to recover and come back to life….It was dismal. From Grizzly Park we turned onto Bowl Creek and found snippets of green alongside of the creek and then we started to climb the west edge of Mount May and we welcomed the green as we turned off Bowl Creek at Gooseberry Park onto Strawberry Creek. Finally the view was green and much healthier. We ascended a good trail with a few trees down but easily walked over them and then came the game changer….Cisco tried to take the down slope side of a big tree hanging thigh high over the trail and almost lost his footing, his tremendous strength was the only thing that saved us from a long downhill fall. Lasier saw his heroic efforts and decided that it wasn’t for him and he refused to even try to go over the tree. Lasier was a child’s show pony hunter so I knew he was more than capable to jump it but he looked scared. He just hadn’t had enough time being a pack horse to know how to handle himself with his pack. My first instinct was to unpack him and ask him again but I agreed with Linette that we could probably saw the tree with less effort. It was a precarious spot with little room for his packs and then we would have to try to repack him with little footing to move around. So we sawed and we sawed and took turns when there was no more energy. Finally, Linette got thru and we had a heavy portion of the tree to move but it was so cumbersome that I took the lead from Lasier and tried to help lift it…if we could just get a bit of movement the trail was steep enough that it would probably continue to move. Lasier stood for a moment and then jerked out of my hand with my other hand holding the lead that was wrapped around the tree. He was loose! Little did I know how traumatized he was until he failed to respond to my calls and took off running back down the mountain at full speed. He stopped a couple of times and looked at me but then took off again, screaming all the way. My guess was that he had finally had enough of being pulled, jerked and forced to try to stay with the other horses and seeing Cisco almost fall down the mountain was the last bit of stress he could take. I ran after him and felt I was going to have to go all the way back to Round Park where all 3 horses were happy. At this point, we were probably 11 miles from there so I called up the mountain to Linette to bring the other horses….just then Cisco came thundering down the narrow trail responding to Lasier as he went. I had one chance to catch Cisco who had his reins on his saddle and if I missed it was going to be a long walk to Round Park, if they even stopped at Round Park. (I had been left afoot in the Sierras several years ago and Issy and his buddy went all the way back to the previous night’s camp which was miles away) I reached out and luck was with me as my hand clasped the right rein….Cisco immediately stopped and I turned to continue down the trail and here came Lasier…full gallop, trying to get to his buddy. I had them both……I was exhausted both from the stress and the 2 mile run (remember…old lady here…) I called to Linette asking if she was okay and she responded yes and that she had Apollo. I hollered back that we 3 were all fine. Now we still had that tree to try to conquer and I ran thru several scenarios with nothing standing out as the best course of action. The good thing was that it had dropped a bit so it was somewhat easier for the horses to get over. This time we unpacked Lasier and I lead Cisco over the log and Lasier pulled loose. Cisco obediently followed me over the log but Lasier balked even with no saddle or pack on him. I couldn’t catch the lead so I moved Cisco further up the trail…..Lasier got hysterical again…sized up the tree and decided to go up the almost straight/vertical cliff to the top of the fallen tree and try to get around the root base sticking up 4 feet from the ground….He thrashed and slid above us but finally got around it and went immediately to Cisco….Apollo dutifully jumped the tree and we were left with just repacking Lasier…I was running on my last bit of adrenalin and it was waning fast. Thank goodness Linette had the energy to move the pack over the log and up to Lasier while I rested. Repacked Lasier seemed to have graduated into a bit more compliant pack horse as I guess it was enough trauma for him (and all of us.) We hurried on and finally got a very nice section of trail although the whole area was scorched and burnt. We crossed Strawberry Creek and I knew we had covered enough ground that we could still make our rendezvous tomorrow with our resupply. We stopped right at the first “almost level” spot at the creek and threw up the high-lines getting ash all over everything. I didn’t care…I was done for the day and just to have everyone settled would be another hour or so. The creek water was good but the ground was like walking on those exploding mushrooms that puffed up into the air as you stepped on them. Every foot fall stirred up ash which in turn covered anything close. Setting up our tents in this condition was against my judgement but there was no going on….this was to be our camp…..
I spent a good part of the night going through all my things hoping to find my GPS – it was a faithful and assuring item that I never went into the back country without. I knew when I lost it but had hoped that I was wrong. With yesterday’s fiasco, Cisco had galloped down the trail after Lasier and I am sure the GPS broke loose and that it was sitting along the trail 7 miles back. I was very nervous not having it although I had developed pretty good map skills it was always comforting to see that the GPS confirmed my opinion. That little item was a $500 loss…..and I knew that I had to replace it promptly….so the day started with me in a foul mood. My clothes were covered with ash, my tack was covered with ash, my tent was covered with ash but the horses seemed relaxed and rested….Good for them as I was in no mood for equine impatience. I fed the horses in their feed bags and was glad they had them since it kept the feed from getting into the ash. Linette was quiet and I took that to mean she felt the same as I did. We both were filthy, our hands were so black even copious amounts of soap and water couldn’t get rid of the soot. The horse lead ropes held the ash like a magnet and every time they brushed our pants they made a cigar like black mark….what a sight we were. Since we had blanketed the horses we had to try to pull those off and not let them touch the ground as we packed them up, then break camp and pack Lasier all the while trying to stay out of the filth. It was very discouraging but we finally were saddled and heading towards Beaver Lake. We had 8 miles to get to Badger Pass and I couldn’t tell from the map if we had to go over the pass or just skirt the west side of it. If we had to climb the pass it was going to be grueling – I fed everyone a big ration for their morning meal to try to get all the weight down, leaving no back up for Bo or the horses. This was against one of my 10 back country commandments “Thou shalt never feed the last ration before getting the resupply” but I had confidence that Chuck would be at Beaver Lake just sitting there waiting for us. Saddled up and riding lowered my blood pressure enough for me to enjoy the view of Cap Mountain as we moved along Strawberry Creek. I was still worried about having to gain Badger Pass which I am pretty sure was at about 8,000’ (if I had my GPS I could have enlarged the map enough to see if we did indeed go over it) As we climbed up out of the valley I could see that the trail just might veer off to the left and thus we would avoid Badger Pass. This encouraging view gave me time to consider letting Lasier go back with Chuck and the pack horses. Lasier had done all he could and my hands were raw and blistered….I only imagined how he felt. I was happy having a possible out for the little guy and knew that the last 40 miles would be much easier without him. We got to a trail intersection and I was greatly relieved to see the east trail was the pass trail and our trail did go west. We followed along climbing to a ridge and then we could see Beaver Lake far below. The hidden gem had green all around it and the trees stood in healthy contrast to our previous day’s view. I was starting to smile and could feel Cisco anticipate our stop as we switch-backed our way down to the lake. Grass was everywhere and there was several great camping spots but somewhere back in my mind I thought Chuck told me to go the far end and set up camp there. We passed up the first few trails going to small camping areas lake side and continued on expecting to see Chuck already camped at the outlet of the lake. But, Chuck wasn’t there and I was a bit worried. With no feed for Bo and the horses and only had a few nuts for me I had called it too close. My trust was a bit shaky after yesterday and I thought that Chuck should have been there as he only had 10 or 12 miles to travel. If he had left anytime in the morning he would have easily beaten us to the lake. I started to run thru different scenarios in case he didn’t show….go out the trail he was to come in on or continue on the last 40 miles with no food for anyone? Then it occurred to me that maybe he had trouble like there was too much dead fall and he couldn’t get through – that made me consider what other options might be since we only had that farty little folding saw and we weren’t going to get very far with a major dead fall event. It was 5 and although the horses were grazing happily and they would have been fine grazing along the lake for several days…I didn’t even have my emergency fishing kit. Linette had a bit more food and offered me a package of salmon which I took and she gave Bo some oatmeal. I walked to the lake’s edge and called out to Chuck in case we missed him…feeling rather foolish I decided to hang up a flag on a pine so it was visible down the whole length of the lake. He couldn’t miss it if he was looking. It was now almost 6 and I was pretty sure we were on our own so I pulled out my satellite phone and called Brett telling him of my concern, I relayed that we would try to come out the Swift Dam Trail (one that I had marked for him in case of an emergency exit) If we could get out it was only 10 or 12 miles and if not, he could at least try to meet us and help us cut our way out. Ugh! Don’t break the commandments….Don’t break the commandments….Now it was 7 and Cisco and Lasier picked up their heads so I ran to catch them and trying to see what they were concerned about. I hadn’t seen any wildlife but Bo alerted several times so I was sure that the lake was a popular drinking spot. Then Lasier pulled almost out of my hand (again) and I looked up and saw 2 riders and 4 horses making their way to us. Chuck had made it! I was so relieved…I immediately called Brett who answered “Give me some good news” It was 7 but that didn’t matter because within 30 minutes Chuck and Turk had the packs unloaded and horses settled. Dinner would be at 8….fajitas and were they good!
I woke up at 5 feeling so hand sore that I could hardly close my fingers. My right shoulder just wanted to hang and it was like I was in a different body. Yesterday I was a bit sore but today I felt my 70 years. I boiled some water to make my (“spoil yourself”) coffee – a sleeve of Starbucks Coff`a Mocha and sat in my tent knowing I needed to get up and feed the horses. I gave them a night snack around 3 but the minute Cisco knew I was stirring he was looking for his breakfast. I knew none of them were really hungry since they had grazed for hours last night but for Cisco the routine had been set years ago….You up? You feed me! I rolled over onto all 4 like an old dog and managed to get out of the tent. No one else was stirring but it was interesting to hear the two bed rolls snoring! I filled the feed bags, let them eat and then moved them out to their electric pen to graze….I loved this time of the morning. I sat on a log close to where breakfast was being prepared (Elderberry pancakes) and realized that I would have no fun trying to make the last 40 miles feeling like I did and I doubted Linette was feeling in tiptop shape either. Maybe we should call it finished right here at this lovely lake – Beaver Lake. The Indians had shut the entire east side of Glacier Park and without a 4 hour trailer trip to the other side the trails couldn’t be accessed. I was starting to like the idea of just following Chuck and Turk back to Swift Dam and have Brett pick us up. I still did have the yearning to continue since my back country fix hadn’t been realized yet but my body sure had given up the notion of 40 more miles. A quick chat with Linette and we decided to give Lasier’s entire pack to Chuck and then enjoy the trail out. I had only one reservation and that was Badger Pass. The trail so far was fairly tame and didn’t offer the horses many grade changes or workouts but from my map I could see that the pass was a different story. Following Chuck and Turk my job of navigator was over and Lasier had only a saddle and maybe 5 pounds to carry, relax was the order of the day. Turk took us out and up to the Badger Pass cutoff and I looked up the mountain, seeing switch back after switch back. I never did see the pass until we were right at it. The trail was narrow but with good footing and gaining the pass was a real feeling of accomplishment. Immediately after we crested the wonderful scenery took my breath away. There was a small plateau that we could rest and enjoy the surrounding mountains which seemed to hug the pass as if it was being held in place by those cascading walls. It was Family Peak up close and almost touchable. The other mountains were probably Cap Mountain and then off a bit Bear Peak. Chuck and Turk examined the walls for mountain goats or sheep and kept speculating that a white dot here or there was grazing goats. I never saw them but I just wanted to drink in the surreal fantasy I found myself in. The mountain fingers seemed to converge right there at Badger Pass. My whole trip was waiting for this trail and it only got better. We were off way too soon for me, it was one of those places that I wanted to keep in my mind’s eye forever and I believe I will. The trail down continued to North Fork Birch Creek where we watered the horses and then alongside of North Fork Birch Creek Gorge. Lasier was a perfect gentleman even as my saddle pack slipped off my saddle and hung dangling on his lead ( I must have forgotten to hook it into place) he knew we were heading home. The gorge became more spectacular with every mile, water flowing thru and over waterfalls, cascading around rock swirls made centuries ago, I couldn’t believe the beauty. We would have missed the most impressive trail of the entire trip if we had continued on with the last 40 miles of the Divide. I remember one of the packers describing the Divide Trail as mundane and with this trail I understood why. The real treat was the access trails – remembering Route Creek, Falls Creek and Straight Creek I realized he was right on the money. Of all trails the biggest surprise and delight was right here in front of me…We continued on to Swift Dam, famous for it’s rapid deterioration and taking many lives in minutes (On June 7 and 8,1964, the worst natural disaster in Montana's recorded history occurred as a massive storm dropped heavy rain on late-season mountain snowpack. The resulting flood covered roughly 20 percent of the state, but the Blackfeet Indian Reservation suffered the brunt of the disaster, with thirty lives lost, hundreds of homes and ranches inundated, and the reservation's infrastructure severely damaged.) didn’t hold any clues as to the devastation except for a few concrete piers scattered below the existing dam. There seemed to be a reverence about Chuck as we followed him to the trailhead and I knew the sacred ground we were riding on held a special meaning for him. Brett was parked at the trailhead and I was still trying to take in the beauty even as we loaded up.
While our back country excursion was over our adventure was not. Chuck DeBoo and his wife Cary hosted us for a couple of days at their DeBoo Ranch – DeBoo Ranch Adventures off High Plains Lane in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation outside of Valier, Montana.