Chuck & Sharon Blixrud
P. O. Box 178
Choteau, MT 59422
(406) 466-2044

Licensed Outfitter and Guide
Hunting Web Site

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High Country on Horseback
by Payton Miller

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-40’s, 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.

Blixrud’s 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 the Continental

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 need 'em.

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 lot longer.

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 than horses.

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 with us.

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."

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