Soaring Through the Back Country...
What to do in Montana...
William Shakespeare said of riding a horse, “When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk.” But ask the average Montanan about horse pack trips and you’re unlikely to hear such flowery language. Memories of giant pack strings with riders and mounts crammed nose to haunch on jam-packed trails have taken the luster away. You might say it’s hard to feel like a hawk when you’re being led around like a sheep.
Luckily, the next generation of pack trips bears no resemblance to that stereotype. Small groups, uncrowded and unspoiled trails, gourmet Western cuisine, and personal service make today’s horse pack trips—at least in the hands of the right operators—one of the best vacations around.
To help you find those perfect rides, Distinctly Montana has scoured the state for the most spectacular, most unusual, and all-around most dazzling trips. In Montana state parks from Yellowstone to Glacier to the Bob, the horses are waiting.
THE BEST OF THE BOB
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and state park is the classic pack trip destination. Covering more than a million and a half acres, the Bob boasts unmatched solitude—fewer than one person for every thousand acres—and a landscape that still looks remarkably similar to what Lewis and Clark would have seen when they traveled through on their Corps of Discovery.
Today’s visitors to the Bob can still make new discoveries, thanks in part to the many experienced tour operators guiding pack trips into the wild. For a real link with the history of the Bob, start with Chuck Blixrud of the 7 Lazy P Deep Creek Canyon Guest Ranch in Choteau. For nearly 50 years, Chuck, wife Sharon, and their expert staff have been leading people into the Bob on routes that they have spent nearly half a century perfecting.
“All of our trips are based on how we can have the best trips at the best time of year,” Blixrud explains. “Honestly, I don’t think we can improve on them.”
The Blixruds’ premiere 10-day trip takes riders to the Chinese Wall, an unmistakable rock formation that towers more than 1,000 feet over the landscape, stretching 22 miles. Mountain goats, mountain sheep, and eagles make their home in the Chinese Wall.
“What makes this scenery so spectacular to me is that it’s still wild,” Blixrud says. “It’s a totally different feeling of solitude, as wild as anything we know today and can experience.”
Riders who want a little book learning with their solitude can take part in another unique Bob excursion, this one offered by WTR Outfitters of Ovando. Karen and Jack Hooker’s exclusive Nature Observation Trips combine a traditional Bob pack trip with a hands-on ecology workshop. Guided by a professional naturalist, WTR’s “eco-trips” teach not only the ecology of the high country—including flora, fauna, and geology—but also delve into the history.
The base camp is located in the drainage of the South Fork of the Flathead River, an area renowned for its abundance of animals and—of course—scenic majesty. Deer, elk, bears, coyotes, moose, beavers and otter, and even wolves have been spotted in the area, and WTR’s naturalist can explain how such a wide variety of animals can survive within a high-altitude wilderness.
YELLOWSTONE’S BACK COUNTRY
Mike Thompson, owner and operator of the Livingston-based Wilderness Pack Trips, is not a professional naturalist. Still, when Yellowstone rangers want to know something about the national park’s back country, Thompson often gets the call.
Along with his camp cook wife Erin—and, increasingly, their three young sons—Mike Thompson has been leading trips into Yellowstone since 1992. And he very rarely goes the same way twice.
“We lead each and every pack trip ourselves,” Mike says. “That gives us the ability to do a different trip every time and to get to a lot of places with low accessibility.”
Erin explains that their pack trip philosophy has also given them an advantage for getting to places that most groups can’t.
“Some of our back-country camp ethics are a little more extreme than they would have to be, but our goal is to have as little impact on the land as possible,” Erin says. “We don’t picket or tie up our horses in any way, for example. They can be a mile off, but when we yell, ‘Come, boys!’ they just come running.”
That value on low-impact travel and stewardship of Yellowstone has earned the Thompsons the respect of Yellowstone officials, the chance to guide everyone from NASA scientists to documentary film crews—and the occasional brush with fame. After Mike and Erin found, photographed, and relayed the GPS coordinates of the remains of the last surviving original wolf from the Yellowstone reintroduction packs, they received phone calls and interview requests from around the world.
“We got quite a following,” Erin laughs.
Cindy De Prater, who has traveled several times with the Thompsons, says that following—whether for wolves or just for the kind of special service they provide—is entirely deserved.
“They are just great people. They will treat you like family,” De Prater enthuses. “Mike can talk about every flower, animal, and mountain range out there, and they both teach you how to take care of the environment because they treat the back country with such respect.”
“And the food is great,” she says of Erin’s cooking.
GLACIER BY HORSE AND HELICOPTER
Great food is also part of the equation for Dr. Jorge Simental, the owner of Summit Station, a restored 1906 lodge built by the Great Northern Railway on the top of Marias Pass overlooking Glacier National Park. Simental and his staff can arrange everything from gourmet trail food to wine tastings for their rides.
An emergency medicine physician and trauma specialist, Simental climbed Mount Everest as part of a joint National Geographic/NASA/MIT mission in 1999 and has conquered a number of other famous peaks. He also understands that not everyone has the time to spend 10 days in the wilderness, as much as they may want to. To allow those who cannot devote more than a few days to back country retreats, Summit Station offers combination helicopter/horse trips into Glacier Park that can be experienced in just a few days.
“We send the horses up to the camp the day before, and then we drop off our clients by helicopter,” Simental explains. “By the time they get to the camp, the horses are there and they are already in pristine, untouched territory and can then ride farther into the back country.”
The compacted nature of the trip makes it perfect for busy executives and others with limited leisure time, but it does present a challenge for Simental and his staff.
“We recognize that not everyone can ride 12 or 14 hours a day to get to the back country, but in the brief time that we have, we have to make our guests feel as relaxed as if they had been out there a week,” he says.
DRIVING CATTLE IN THE FLATHEAD
Guests who come to the Laughing Water Ranch about 50 miles northwest of Kalispell are those eager and able to spend an actual week living the ranch life, and the most popular events of the year are the cattle drives.
Dee Gibbs, Laughing Water’s operations manager, calls the cattle drives and their attendant activities—rounding up, branding, and sorting—“the most fun you can have on horseback.”
“We are either pushing the cows into the Kootenai National Forest to graze on open range for the summer or back down the mountain into the valley for the winter,” Gibbs explains. “We are working a herd of 150 to 200 head of cattle, depending on when we do it.”
After a day gitting the little dogies along, participants ride into camp for songs, stories, and branding—boots and bags only, naturally—around the campfire.
“We like to joke that we brand the cows during the day and the guests at night,” Gibbs deadpans.
Camp food is another draw. “Our food is out of this world,” she says. “We have everything from prime rib to barbecue to fish fries. And all of our desserts are homemade. It’s not easy to be on a diet here!”
The Laughing Water Ranch is owned and operated by a Ted and Lacretia Mikita, a couple who met at the ranch. Ted Mikita’s family bought the ranch in 1972, but they didn’t open the guest facilities until 1988. Gibbs says the whole operation feels like extended family.
The family aspect is in fact one key aspect to what makes these trips stand out in a crowded field. (Do a search for Montana horse pack trips on the Internet to see just how crowded.) From the Blixruds in Choteau to the Mikitas in tiny Fortine, the family that packs together seems to put a spectacular trip together as well.
“The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit, and fire,” horse expert Sharon Ralls Lemon writes in the introduction to the first edition of The Encyclopedia of the Horse.
The same can be said of time in the Montana wilderness. Erin Thompson, whose hundreds—if not thousands—of trips into Yellowstone could have dulled her to its grandeur, holds that each time offers something new and exciting. “To see it through someone else’s eyes is to see it fresh,” she says. “It just gets better and better.”
~ Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter is a freelance writer and editor with deep Montana roots. After nearly a decade away, she returned to Montana in 2004 and now resides in Livingston with her family.
Spirit Horse Journeys and Retreats
Any journey into the wilderness on horseback—given the solitude, slowed pace, and awesome natural beauty—brings with it some measure of spiritual quest. But those who want to focus more intensely on guided growth have a number of outstanding choices, all in the wilds of Montana.
Bozeman psychotherapist Connie Myslik-McFadden describes her annual summer “Gathering the Soul in the Wilderness” retreats as an opportunity to “encounter inner and outer wilderness” through meditation, dreamwork, journaling, and “lots of horseback riding.” Based on the Blacktail Ranch in Wolf Creek—an 8,000-acre guest ranch at the base of the Continental Divide about 75 miles southwest of Great Falls—participants in Gathering the Soul spend three of their seven days in a remote ranch camp, deep within the wilderness surrounding Blacktail. Another day is devoted to a horse ride to the rim of the Continental Divide. One of the final activities is a hike to a sacred Native American cave, part of a cavern system first discovered in the 1946 by Blacktail owner Tag Rittel, whose grandfather homesteaded the land on which the ranch now sits.
Women seeking a short break for self-examination and stress release in the company of other women can look to Horse Medicine’s Women’s Circle Personal Growth Retreat. The founders of the Livingston-based nonprofit organization, licensed counselor Diane Nash Boehm and horse professional Nanette Van Horn, use the principles of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) to guide women through a weekend of exercises, sharing, and reflection.
While no riding takes place during the weekend on Van Horn’s family ranch outside of Livingston, participants work with the horses extensively. Through grooming, observation, and guiding exercises, the women learn to read the horses’ behaviors—and through that, learn more about themselves. “We cannot disguise our feelings from the horse—our body language conveys our true state of being,” Horse Medicine’s website explains. “The horse acts as a mirror to what is underneath the surface of our behaviors thereby creating a pathway for growth and learning.”
Those looking to learn more about horse behavior itself can spend a week at the 7 Lazy P Deep Canyon Guest Ranch (described above) learning about the philosophy of “horse whispering.” According to the Blixruds, while horse whispering in the past was believed to be magic or even witchcraft, today it has been shown that such unique “power” over horses can be taught.
The instructor for the week is veterinarian Doug “Doc” Hamill. Through lectures, demonstrations, and exercises, Dr. Hamill “reveals the complex nature, logic, and language of horses,” offering “gentle but effective ways of getting horses to choose to work cooperatively with [humans] as partners.” Participants get to put the lessons into practice on guided horseback rides into the Rocky Mountain Front.
Exceptional Outfitters and Ranches
Seven Lazy P Deep Canyon Guest Ranch
Deep Canyon’s signature 10-day pack trip to the Chinese Wall is $2,400. Shorter rides are available at a cost of $260 per day. Horse Whisperer Week is scheduled for May 22-26, 2006 and will cost $1,216.
Nature observation trips go out throughout the summer at a cost of $250 per day. Trips can run from three to 10 days.