A Trip Through Paradise (Part 1)

Yellowstone Country is like a magical bag of delights. The more you pull out, the more it runs over with treats to be enjoyed. So, when I call this a "Trip Through Paradise", that is no exaggeration. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is loaded with mini Shangri-Las, sometimes it seems a new one is tucked in every hidden canyon and over every tree-studded hillside.
However, this is no soft-palmed, easy-chair country. More often it abounds in aspects of the white-knuckled, strapped-to-a-rocket type of adventure. Certainly this was true of the horse packing trip I took this time last year. While many aspects were heaven-on-earth, every once in awhile I wondered if I'd morphed into some wild version of hell!
The trip began beautifully. Soon we were heading down the road - perhaps 'up' would be more appropriate as our route took us deeper and further into the mountains. From Hwy 191 north we turned west to follow Taylor Creek toward its source. The views of the Taylor Hilgards in the distance added a dramatic backdrop to our drive. Fresh snow sprinkled like powdered sugar on their peaks reminded us cooler weather had already descended in the high country.
The truck bed was full of packs and tack. A stock trailer loaded to its gills followed behind. The horses and mules knew the routine. They had taken this route before. I am certain, the sights and sounds we traversed that morning were familiar to them. However, to my unenlightened eyes, breath-taking new vistas seemed to magically appear before my eyes.
My host was well versed in this country having traveled much of it on horseback and snowmobile. Thus, without doubt, I have forgotten more imparted knowledge than I have retained. Nonetheless I relished the beauty and the dialogue as we traveled past such beautiful valleys as this one which, if traveled, would eventually drop me back down on the shores of Hebgen Lake. After about 30 minutes following Taylor Creek, we turned onto a spur road and climbed a steep and bumpy road toward the Cache Creek Trailhead.
Traveling Montana's mountain back roads with a trailer is often a time-consuming experience. While I learned the road to our destination had seen much improvement, it still took nearly an hour to cover the several miles of gravel from the highway to our trailhead. Once there, however, the real work began - for us and our stock. Unloading finished; loading commenced. Chance, the yellow mule in the foreground (the photogenic clown of the group) was the young pup. True to age, he acted the part. Thus it took awhile to get him loaded! Once his pack was securely fastened, we tackled the rest of the crew. Soon everything was strapped on.
After a quick lunch which gave our stock time to settle into their gear, we hit the trail. We were headed for Circle Creek via Indian Crossing. Thus our journey began with a long, steady climb from our trailhead to a beautiful plateau. A steady climb is a blessing when one is dealing with fresh stock who have spent far too few days under saddle recently. Thus, as we switchbacked our way up the side of the mountain, our stock (and their riders) worked out some of their kinks.
As we neared the top (of the ridge which divides the Madison and Gallatin drainages), we had a great view of the valley we had traversed to reach our launching point. With sunshine on our shoulders, a warm breeze in our faces, and beautiful vistas in every direction, our trip could not have begun on a better note.
Once at the top, I became the groups unofficial leader (a position I would retain throughout the trip's remainder). Our trail now worked its way down a mild draw which dumped us into the headwaters of Indian Creek. Here, along the creek's beautiful upper regions, we picked up the day-old (ish) tracks of a large grizzly. We followed these 'local resident' reminders all the way to Circle Creek and our new home-away-from-home for the next two nights.
As we set up camp, my generous host regaled me with stories of the big Grizzly who charged their camp repeatedly the prior hunting season. I set up my tent a discreet distance from the 'guy's quarters' pondering whether I was, perhaps, closer to the potential Grizzly path into camp or further. I decided it mattered little if the Griz was intent on a few human sandwiches!
Night comes quickly to the high mountains. By the time we reached our campsight, we had consumed much of the afternoon. Thus once our tents were erected, we went right to work setting up the rest of the camp. The official 'campfire builder' worked his magic. I helped our host care for the stock (which we allowed to graze until they started looking back down the trail - at which time we secured them to the highline for the evening).
After supper we strolled up Circle Creek a few hundred yards to the next little meadow and enjoyed a few more wild stories by the campfire to fuel my dreams. I even had time to journal my day's experience before I crawled into my cozy bed - bear spray by my side and ear plugs in my ears (I certainly did not want to jump at every sound all night long!). I must admit, I slept like a baby.
Before I continue, I need to introduce you to the key players in this 'over-the-top' adventure. This is Gale, my host, our guide and the owner of the stock which took this journey from an idea to a reality. Gale has spent many many hours in this country - hunting and recreating. Thus he not only knows the area, he has a plethora of stories to share (some, perhaps, I could have done without hearing)!
Burt, the second member of our party, is an admitted greenhorn who hails from New York but spends several months each winter in West Yellowstone. More at home on a snowmobile (when it comes to backcountry winter excursions I don't know anyone I'd rather have in the lead) than a horse's back, Burt was a good sport who never complained - regardless of the long days and narrow trails. Since horse's weren't his 'thing', he took the role of official fire-starter / tender - a job at which he excelled.
I have already introduced Chance, the resident 'teenager'. Two more mules and two horses rounded out our transportation. Silky can be packed or ridden. According to Gale, she offers a smoother ride than any horse he's ridden. I can't speak from experience, but I can say she still acts like a mule. If Silky doesn't want to go there - you ain't going! Nonetheless, I never saw her take a false step, nor did she act ruffled (well, except for one time which, compared to everything else, really didn't matter) regardless of what came our way.
Chief was 'horse extra-ordinare'! Granted, he had to learn I was the boss - but once we'd worked out that little detail, he carried me over many miles and through a few hair-raising experiences. He made a fine lead horse willing to move ahead into the unknown - even when I wondered whether the better course of action might have been to forego this section of trail.
Then there was Molly, the third mule in our string. From our introduction in her home field, through the balance of our time together, I came to respect Molly as a dependable, sturdy, fuss-free creature who would work without complaint ONCE SHE WAS CAUGHT! Knowing this particular foible in her otherwise perfect character, I kept a tight hold on her lead whenever she was in my care (which turned out to be most of the trip).
Red rounded out the crew. The 'old man' of the group, Red was steady and patient with only one quirk - one which I learned about at a fairly inopportune time (see the next post). However, he caused no rucus, created no problem, and took his rider, Burt, safely from beginning to end. One just couldn't help but like ole' Red.
The adventure has just begun. Now that I've introduced you to everyone and interspersed a few hints of things to come, I hope you'll come back to read the rest of this wonderful adventure - truly a major highlight in my life here at Elk Lake Resort!
Lady of the Lake

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