Country on Horseback
After my first year I knew a lot, but
not as much as I thought. You can be taught some things
- but there's still a lot of trial and error involved."
Chuck Blixrud pauses, his hands still
fashioning what - to an inexperienced flatlander -seemed
to be an incomprehensibly complex hitch on his mule's packsaddle.
One of his guests had brought up the
subject of packing - high country style - and the lean and
leathery Blixrud, who looks to be somewhere in his mid-40s,
is eminently qualified to discuss the topic. As an outfitter
specializing in eight to 12-day backcountry horse trips
for photographers, fly fishermen and curious sightseers,
in addition to guided, traditional-style elk hunts by horseback
in the fall, Blixrud's skills go far beyond running a packtrain.
He's a cook, wrangler and weather forecaster.
He can also field an endless variety of questions concerning
plant and animal life.
Blixruds meteorological advice,
incidentally, is very simple. Never take high-country weather
for granted - it can change radically in an hour or so.
Snow in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness area - Blixrud's
stomping grounds-isn't a winter-only proposition.
Snow can occur in spring and early
fall. During this particular trip, over Labor Day weekend,
the party encountered light snow flurries while crossing
Divide on the Sun River Pass.
It can rain as well, and the only thing
worse than being cold and dry is being cold and wet. Raingear
and warm clothes are recommended - even if they're never
unpacked. You may not need 'em, but if you do, you'll really
Our trip had begun two days earlier
- from Blixrud's Seven Lazy P Ranch. That's a guest ranch
run by Chuck, his wife, Sharon, and their two daughters,
Debra and Laura. While the Seven Lazy P is certainly a recreational
establishment as far as its guests are concerned - with
individual cabins, a hot tub and no end of things to do
- it's no less a working ranch than any of the beef, sheep,
wheat and barley operations in Teton County.
This part of northwestern Montana possesses
possibly the most spectacular chunk of the Rockies to be
seen. The sections that make it up - Glacier National Park,
Flathead National Forest, Lewis and Clark National Forest
and the Lolo National Forest. - are all within a short distance.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area is 90 miles long and 30
miles wide. The area straddles the Continental Divide -
that geological demarcation where streams on the eastern
slope flow toward the Atlantic and streams on the western
slope flow toward the Pacific.
Butted against the million-acre Bob
Marshall Wilderness Area (Montanans call it "The Bob")
is the Seven Lazy P - right on the North Fork of the Teton
River. The nearest town, Choteau (population 1,900), lies
about 30 miles east.
Our expedition was smaller than most.
By the second day, all hands were fairly comfortable
in the saddle. The term "tenderfoot," while not
inappropriate, is rather misleading, since after the first
10 miles, the tender area is due north of the feet by a
leg's length or so.
Everyone was busy taking pictures and
admiring the unbelievable scenery. Horses that were approached
with trepidation back at the corral on day one were by now,
if not old friends, certainly in a state of peaceful coexistence
with their riders.
The first day in the saddle covered
13 miles-which is about average- although longer, more leisurely
trips require less time in the saddle per day. The terrain
is quite steep in places and the trail can be narrow with
many switchbacks, stream crossings and deadfalls. After
the first day everyone was a little sore, but not enough
to slow the trip.
One heartening aspect of being saddle
sore is the knowledge that even old pros - packers, wranglers
elk guides - get Sore, too! It just takes them longer. A
Blixrud's pack teams consist of horses
and mules. The horses are well-trained and gentle, with
names like Oly, Two Dot and Blue. They're exceptionally
surefooted. One good way of warding off butterflies in steep
spots is to remind yourself that your particular horse has
probably been over that stretch of trail hundreds of times.
While the horses pack the people, the
gear (clothes, food, fly rods and other essentials) rides
on mules carrying special packsaddles. Mules are quite strong
but a bit too tempera- mental to ride. Surprisingly, a large
percentage of packers rate mules higher in intelligence
When asked for his opinion, Blixrud
responds diplomatically, "Mules do have a lot of trail
savvy, but you have to know' their individual temperaments
to know what loads they'll do best with."
There's considerably more to running
a packtrain than being first in a single-file line of livestock.
Each animal will respond best in a certain position on the
line. And each will do best with a certain type and weight
of load. Everything has its place and order. Everything
must be balanced and tied down securely using a repertoire
of knots and hitches that would rival a sailor's.
The advantages of exploring the Rocky
Mountain high country on horseback are several. Riding is
unarguably easier than hiking - although many still choose
to explore The Bob by foot. Being on horseback puts you
on an infinitely more intimate perspective with your surroundings
than any form of mechanized transport.
Speaking of machines, internal combustion
engines are forbidden in The Bob. This includes chain saws.
Forest Service crews, who come in to make repairs on log
bridges, use crosscut saws and axes.
Being on horseback has its advantages
when it comes to spotting wildlife, too. Several times we
passed within 50 to 60 feet of mule deer feeding in the
dense stands of pine high on the mountainsides and in the
clumps of quaking aspen lower in the canyons. The Bob is
a world-class big-game area, a fact that was driven home
when we spotted our first band of elk - eight to ten head
about 500 yards above the trail on an open hillside. Even
at that distance, elk are big animals. They seemed to be
running in soundless slow motion - although they were covering
huge distances over rocks, snags and scattered, stunted
spruce trees with every effortless leap. It was a bit like
watching a silent film, until a bull kicked loose a rock
the size of a man's head and it clattered down the slope.
At that distance it made a series of muffled clicks, like
a cue ball caroming around a pool table.
There are also bears in The Bob. Blacks
and grizzlies. The only bear we saw was a good-sized black
(about 250 pounds) near the ranch that had been treed by
one of Blixrud's huskies. Black bears are timid for the
most part, although there certainly are exceptions. As for
the larger, less predictable grizzly . . . well, they're
out there. The chances of seeing a grizzly are, for the
once-a-year visitor, exceedingly slim. That was just fine
Blixrud's extensive experience as a
hunting guide is a valuable commodity when it comes to spotting
animals. Several times he was able to spot game out of the
corner of his eve that would have been missed by his guests.
It's not so much a question of superior eyesight
as it is the ability to simply know what to look for - the
flick of a mule deer's ear or the buckskin-colored flash
of broadside- standing elk on a distant hillside.
Nights were spent in a series of tent
camps Blixrud maintains throughout his various trail "loops."
Cooking is done on a woodburning stove in a main wall tent.
The food is excellent - and there's lots of it. It's a lot
better than it needs to be because, after four or five hours
in the saddle, you're ready to eat anything that doesn't
bite or sting.
The final day's ride brought us back
to the ranch. The effect of the descent to the valley floor
after three days in the high country was curious. The air
got heavier and warmer as we came down the narrow, winding
trail from the Sun River Pass. The variety of trees change.
Lodgepole pine and spruce give way to quaking aspen.
By the time we got to the trailhead,
a few miles up from the Seven Lazy P, it seemed almost tropical.
The undergrowth was dense, damp and green - a far cry from
the silvers, grays and reds of the sage and buck- brush
in the high meadows.
It was an odd, yet pleasant, end to
a beautiful trip. Blixrud, in his quiet, soft-spoken way,
summed it up best when asked facetiously if - after years
of packing in and out of the backcountry - he ever grew
tired of it.
"No, if the day ever comes whesn
you do get tired of it, you may as well call it quits."