Friday, July 31, 2009

Exploring Yellowstone, Part Two: Horsing Around in the Backcountry

Day One, Monday Five miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs is an area called Swan Lake Flats, where we began our four-day horse pack trip into the Yellowstone Backcountry. We rode about five miles west into the Gallatin range, to a campsite beside the Gardiner River, with a spectacular view of Electric Peak. Traveling with our family was a lawyer and his twelve-year-old daughter from Charlotte, North Carolina, and a father and son from New Jersey and their good friend, Jack. (It turned out that our lawyer friend was a former Eagle Scout, and his skills were much appreciated in the arts of tent-erecting and fire building.) As the guides loaded mules with equipment, our head guide, Jett, explained to us the ins and outs of riding horses, dealing with grizzly bears, and what to do with your used toilet paper when you're in the middle of nowhere. After a picnic lunch we mounted our horses and were on our way.

Jett and Carrie, a wildlife biologist and Jett's second-in-command, headed our caravan, leading about six mules loaded down with camping gear and cooking equipment; we tourists followed single file on our horses. Bringing up the rear was the third guide, Caitlin, who served as cook, guide, and wrangler. There had been thunderstorms during the night and in the early morning, and the weather was windy and cool. After riding through the open countryside for about a mile, we rounded a corner and saw two hikers heading in the opposite direction. They stopped to wait for us to pass, but as soon as the line of horses and mules were abreast of them, one of the hikers raised his walking stick in greeting.

The next thing I knew there were two mules running back the way we had come at full gallop, and the other horses abruptly turned and started to follow them. I have never ridden on a running horse before, and I will tell you right now I never want to again. I was scared to death. I didn't know what had happened to my husband or children; all I knew was my horse was running as fast as it could, and I was doing all I could to try not to fall off. After my horse finally slowed down, I looked back and saw that two of my kids were still on their horses, and they seemed to be standing still near where the horses first bolted. Finally I saw my husband and oldest son on their horses coming toward me with Caitlin the wrangler. Their horses had run farther than mine. Finally we got everybody back together, hats were retrieved, and the mules re-packed; although I don't think my legs stopped shaking.

The rest of the ride was uneventful until we got about a mile from camp and Jack's horse was spooked or something; it took off running again and poor Jack fell off. By this time Jett and the other guides were getting pretty nervous, and remarked that the weather was making the horses and the mules quite skittish. Finally we reached the camp and set up our tents. The wind made this quite challenging, but we managed, thanks in part to our new Eagle Scout friend. After a delicious dinner of brisket, the wind picked up again and it started to rain and hail. The storm was short-lived, though, and we were able to retire to dry tents and warm sleeping bags. I will admit I didn't sleep well that night, wondering what other excitement was in store for us (no more, please!) but I was thankful to have reached camp safely and grateful to be in such a beautiful place.

The horses rest after a stressful ride. Electric Peak is in the background.

Our campsite offered beautiful views!

After our little evening rain and hail, there was fresh snow on Electric Peak.

Someone put this elk skull on a stump to greet hikers and riders when they arrive at camp.

Days Two and Three: Tuesday and Wednesday When I emerged from our tent the next morning, my husband and several other people were sipping coffee by the fire and looking off into the distance. "Tell the boys to get up," my husband said. "There's a grizzly bear just across the river." I had spent an entire summer in Yellowstone during college, and I had never seen one. While in Mammoth we had decided to purchase an inexpensive set of binoculars, and I was glad we did!

If you look REALLY carefully you can see the grizzly bear. It's just above the gray line of the river, a little left of center. Luckily it was far away from us!

As we were preparing to eat breakfast, our middle son announced, "I don't feel so good..." and promptly threw up. It was clear he wasn't going to be riding any horses that day. We're pretty sure it was altitude sickness, because the same thing happened a few years ago when we traveled to Colorado. So, hubby stayed back at camp with Altitude Boy, as well as our friend Jack, who wanted to give his sixty-something body a rest after his fall from the horse. We rode a few miles through fields and woods, crossing creeks and rivers, stopped for lunch, and headed back to camp to check up on everyone who had stayed behind. After a brief rest, Caitlin took the group out again; this time I stayed behind with the sick one. A short time later they all came back, and my youngest announced that they had seen the bear again. (At least, we think it was probably the same one.) Hubby said that they went over a ridge and our eight-year-old said excitedly, "Look! That bear is RIGHT THERE!" That's when everyone decided to quietly turn around and come back.

Another beautiful view from our camp site

On Wednesday, Altitude Boy woke up feeling much better, but wasn't too excited about the idea of riding around on horses all day, so he and hubby stayed behind and did some fishing. Jett and Caitlin took us seven miles to the northwest (I think) toward Fawn Pass. It was a long ride, and we didn't quite make it to the top because the horses and riders were getting tired. It was a beautiful ride, though, and I am happy to say my legs and my behind were starting to get used to being on a horse for hours at a time. On the way back, about two miles from camp, I was admiring the beautiful wilderness when I suddenly heard the sound of my youngest son crying. When I looked up I saw his horse, and he wasn't sitting on it; he was on the ground rubbing his head. Turns out that his horse either kicked the one behind him or was kicking at a pesky insect and the kid just wasn't holding on tightly enough. He was fine though, and got back on his horse and rode the rest of the way back--holding on tightly to the reins and the saddle horn.

At the end of the day we had yet another DELICIOUS dinner by the fire, and the kids roasted marshmallows and ate s'mores. It was a clear night, and we spent some time looking at the stars before going to bed. This was the first time they had seen so many stars in the sky, and I'm not sure they had ever seen the Milky Way.

The riders head off on another adventure

Fawn Lake, one of many beautiful sights on our rides.

Near Fawn Pass. We didn't quite make it, but what a beautiful view!

Hubby and Son had a good day fishing

What's camping without roasting marshmallows?

Day Four, Thursday By this time we hadn't showered since Monday, and we were pretty darn grubby. We had a leisurely breakfast, packed up the tents and all our stuff, and headed back toward the trail head and the road. The plan was for the mules to go back the way we came, and for Caitlin to take the horses and riders a different route so we could enjoy more of Yellowstone we hadn't yet seen. At the top of a hill we came across another group of riders on a day trip. Their guide told us that a large tree had fallen across the trail where we were planning to go, and it was difficult and dangerous to try to take horses through there. So, we stopped for lunch, enjoyed the view, and decided to go back to the road the way we came. Later we were glad we did, because some of the horses were skittish again that day (I think they were anxious to be home again), and poor Jack fell off of his horse a second time. He lay on the ground for several minutes before Jack's friends and Cailtin were able to help him up again. (This time, he rode a different horse.) We were so relieved when we finally reached the two horse trailers parked on the side of the road! Jack had to be helped off of his horse, and he said his shoulder was stiff and sore, but thankfully nothing seemed to be broken.

Needless to say, this was a more exciting adventure than we thought it would be. Would I do it again? Absolutely!! (That reminds me--it's time to start saving up for the next one.) Our guides were fabulous, the food was delicious, and we made some new friends. Other trail rides I had been on were only hour-long rides; I realize now that if I'm going to ride a horse for four days, there is bound to be a little bit of excitement. (Jett told us that this trip was more eventful than usual, too.) And now I know I can ride on a galloping horse without falling off. As long as there is a saddle horn for me to hang on to.

View of Bunsen Peak on the way back

The end is in sight! Swan Lake, Swan Lake Flat, and just beyond that, the road.

COMING SOON: The exciting conclusion of our Yellowstone saga! (although, it might not be exciting as this one, but I'll post some great pictures! )

1 comment:

  1. Awesome photos and post! We're so excited to be going to Yellowstone this summer. I'm also excited to have found this new iPhone app: GeoRoamer Yellowstone. Our kids really love to learn about history and this will be a great way that we can hear about the different sites from the audio tour that match up to waypoints on the map as well as journaling the trip on our iPhone. Here's the link to check out the Audio Tour iPhone App GeoRoamer - It's really a great value for the price!


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