Bliss Creek Outfitters Cody Wyoming Wyoming Horse Trips Pack Trips

World Traveler Magazine
Exploring Wyoming's majestic high country on horseback

by Kevin F. McMurray

Twenty-seven years. Yep, I told myself after doing a little mental addition, it had been 27 long years since I had been atop a horse. Philmont Scout Ranch, Cimmaron, New Mexico, 1964 - to be exact.

Yet here I was on a horse getting progressively deeper in the Absaroka Range's Washakie Wilderness in northwestern Wyoming. Why? To fish for trout, a sport which, unlike horseback riding, I had never tried. This was to be a real adventure.

The Washakie Wilderness, located in the heart of Shoshone National Forest, can only be entered on foot or by horse. The Forest Service, in an effort to preserve its wild state, prohibits any motorized vehicles in the area. Even chain saws are forbidden. Because of the rugged terrain and the fact that it is a National Forest, there are no airstrips or settlements of any kind. The land has changed little since the time when John Colter, famed mountain man and meat hunter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, roamed these trails.

Consequently, only a few hardy souls make the trek into this pristine area. Those few are rewarded with an undisturbed wilderness area that harbors a wide spectrum of wildlife that has virtually disappeared from most areas in the Lower 48, At Cabin Creek, where the South Fork road ends and the South Fork Trail begins, a sign that simply states "Grizzly Country" says it all.

Undeniably nervous prior to mounting up, I mentioned to Tim Doud, my outfitter, how back East, horseback riding was considered by many to be a "girl's sport." "Well out here," the bearded cowboy laconically related. "it is just the opposite." "Out here" several thousand feet above sea level, I was a rough and tumble 50 miles from civilization and at the mercy of a gray appaloosa by the name of Streaker.

I had arrived in Cody, Wyoming, a day prior to the pack trip into the mountains. While gearing up for the trip, I was tempted to buy a pair of cowboy boots, but being a bit self-conscious about such a touristy purchase, I nixed the idea. On the trail, I cursed my inhibitive pride. My heelless boot gave me no control of the stirrup. As a result, my legs were continually tensed hard against the bottom of the stirrup. Within a couple of hours, my knees and calf area ached miserably.

The South Fork Trail followed the South Fork of the Shoshone River high into its headwaters in the Continental Divide. In the eight-and-a-half-hour ride, I was to cross the river 35 times, traverse 22 rock slides, and marvel at scenery that defies description. There were few respites from the saddle. Lunch was taken astride our horses. My only chances to dismount came when one of the pack mules lost his burden on a narrow path several hundred feet above the river and required repacking, and once again to remove a fallen tree from the trail.

To relieve some of the pain I was enduring, Doud advised me to let my legs hang free from the stirrups, thereby reducing the tightness in my lower extremities. But by doing so, I had to give up the security of steadfastness in the saddle. It was a practice in which I did not care to indulge while fording the swift running South Fork or while staring down a precipitous rock slide several hundred feet above the river gorge.

The closer we got to our destination, the more picturesque the high country became. Lush meadows, freckled with blue, yellow and white wildflowers and surrounded by tall pines, appeared one after another. As the sun began to drop slowly behind the Rocky Mountains, we arrived at Bliss Creek. Six miles long and half a mile wide, Bliss creek Meadow was truly a sight for sore eyes. Ambling into the cap, we surprised a moose and her young calf. Eyeing us curiously, they sauntered off to the willows that stood between the camp and the river.

Standing on my own two feet, stretching my leg and back muscles and attending to a world-class blister on my gluteus maximus were all pleasures I had dreamed of for the last several hours. Getting situated in my tent and exploring the camp surroundings kept me on my feet. I didn't feel much like sitting for the next few hours.

The incredibly green meadow was to by my home for the next five days. The meadow was also home to a famous horse thief named Jack Bliss who ran a thriving business at the site of our camp back in 1902. Unfortunately for Bliss, range detectives hired by ranchers in Cody put an end to his enterprise. He was shot to death outside his cabin and buried there just before the snowfall made the trails impassable. When the range detectives returned to retrieve his body for identification purposes, they found the grave area washed out by the spring runoff. His body was never found.

Up at the crack of dawn with a belly full of breakfast I thought a climb up the Bliss Creek Canyon would be a fine introduction to the area. A splitting headache brought on by not being acclimated to the 8,400 foot elevation forced me to quit the hike not a mile into the trail. After a recuperative hour's nap and a couple of aspirin, I resolved from then on to leave all the strenuous activity to the horses.

That afternoon was my introduction to the subtle art of trout fishing. Doud handed me a spinning rod and reel; he was armed with a fly rod.

The winding South Fork was a mere stone's throw from camp. Once past a beaver pond and a clump of willows, I was standing beside one of the most bountiful and beautiful trout streams in America.

Doud gave me a quick lesson on handeling the fishing tackle. A soft flick of the wrist and my silver spinner looped gracefully through the air 20 feet or so to a still water bend in the stream. It could not have been more than a few minutes before I got my first bite. The small fish gave a short but spirited fight. Ice-cold from the melted snows of the Absarokas, the brilliantly colored fish squirmed in my hand. It was a brook trout, or a "brookie" as Doud called it. Up to that moment, I had always thought that saltwater fish monopolized nature's gift of color to aquatic creatures. I was wrong.

Doud and I worked both sides downstream of the river. We continually leapfrogged past each other once we had fished out the holes where the brookies lurked. Within half an hour, I was covered with mud and soaking wet up to my thighs. But the mercury had climbed up to the low 70's and the golden hue cast by the sun, the crystal-clear water of the South Fork and wide-open azure skies proved to be too much of a diversion for me to sulk because of being a little wet.

Watching Doud fish with the fly rod was almost as much fun as fishing myself. The way he whipped the wispy thin pole, snapping the featherweight line in lazy esses and dropping the artificial lure into the still pockets of water, was poetry in motion. The simple pleasure of watching this little exercise with the majestic Absarokas as a backdrop made me lapse into a state of dreamy contentment. Catching fish was just an added bonus -- but, oh what a bonus. We kept an even dozen. We must have released twice that many.

On my second day, I was eager to tackle the South Fork again. This time we worked upstream from the camp. There were fewer holes, doud had warned, but more beaver ponds to spy and willow clumps where moose could be seen.

Fish-wise, it was a poor day. The bright sunlight conspired to keep the brookies from darting out of the cool shadows of the undercut banks to snap at our lures. Still, we bagged three keepers and made it back to camp for a lunch of trout fried in cornmeal batter.

It had taken me two days to recover from the ride in. Doud thought it was time I saw Bliss Creek Canton by horse. A four-and-a-half-mile climb up to the 10,500 foot elevation would afford me a view that Doud assured would "blow you away."

Wrangler Seldon saddled up Big Red for me. The horse was a massive red gelding that made me feel as if I were on a dinosaur. Retracing the route I had attempted the day before on foot made me glad I had aborted. The trail was steep and easy to stray from. I could have easily gotten lost had I doggedly persevered on foot. Since I had become a believer in the climbing ability of horses and mules, I put my fears on hold and simply took in the scenery.

Waterfalls cascading down hundreds of feet of rock, blue skies with billowy cotton clouds and air so clean and crisp that it seemed to sear my lungs put me in a reverie that I knew I would not soon forget.

At the top of the trail, we made a short climb on foot to a ridge that looked over Bliss Creek Meadow and the gorge that guided the creek to its confluence with the South Fork. Dramatically piercing the heavens was Wall Mountain.

At 11,498 feet, the imposing mountain lorded over an eye-widening landscape. Scanning the massive mountain with a field telescope, Doud spotted a five-point bull elk a good two miles in the distance. The animal chewed his cud peacefully in a meadow just below the summit. I searched the rocky ridges I hope of catching a glimpse of some bighorn sheep or possibly a scavenging grizzly. I had to content myself with an idyllic landscape whose silence was broken only by a gently blowing wind and the chatter of chipmunks and grasshoppers.

If it were not for the chilly mountain air and the fatigue that had me burrowing deep in my down filled sleeping bag each night, thoughts of midnight intrusions by grizzlies most certainly would have kept me awake, Doud had told me he saw only four of the beasts last year on the trail, and that they rarely came into camp. The bear-scratched sheet metal that girded the pines holding aloft the food cache seemed to dispute his claim.

He then told me that I was more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a "grizz." I would have taken solace in that fact had I not remembered that on the average, lightning strikes the USA six billion times during the course of one year. The law of averages, all of a sudden, did not look so good.

Rain pelting my tent awakened me on my fourth day in the Washakie wilderness. Dark clouds laced with lightning bolts, distant thunder, and smoke spiraling from the cook tent's stovepipe had me feeling like I was part of a Frederick Remington western landscape. Sipping coffee, playing cards, and listening to Seldon spin yarns about his life as a cowboy in West Texas pretty much filled my lazy day. Intermittent and quick forays to the spring that supplied us with fresh water for the blackened coffee pot would bring curious glances from the resident moose family. The cow and her calf seemed rather nonplused by my mad dashes to the beaver-damned spring.

The fifth and last day started early. Seldon was up at 4 am to round up the horses in the pasture two miles south of camp. With less to bring out that we brought in, it still took more that four hours to pack and saddle the eight mules and seven horses. While Doud and the wranglers went about the tedious task, I grabbed my camera and wandered off to get some last pictures of moose. I circled the two near the spring and forced them out of the willows and into a small clearing where I managed to get close enough to see the vapor from their breath and hear the munching sound of their morning meal . At first the shutter clicks and whirl of my film advance seemed to amuse them. Then, apparently bored by my presence, they quit eyeing me altogether.

Confident and more experienced, I was still a bit apprehensive about another eight-hour odyssey on horseback. I welcomed the sights, the sounds, and the smells of the trip back, but not the aches and pains that the rough 23-mile trail was sure to inflict.

The day started out sunny, but no sooner had we mounted up than the skies began to turn to a muddled gray. Angry looking purple clouds and bolts of lightning began to crowd the western horizon. I made sure my rain gear was snugly tied behind my saddle where I could quickly get at it.

After three hours in the saddle, I started to shift my weight, searching for some relief from the constant pressure and bouncing. Understanding smiles from one of the wranglers, who was busy guiding three pack horses, was about all the sympathy I got.

The familiar panoramas were just as enjoyable going out as they had been coming in. The verdant greens, the austere rock, the fleeting views of bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and soaring eagles almost had me forgetting that this was my last day in the wilderness.

The storm finally caught up with us at Silver Creek, just six miles shy of the trail's end. The flash of lightning, and the echoing of thunder down the South fork's canyons added to the mystique of the place.

While crossing the South Fork for the last time, I finally convinced myself that the first order of business upon arising from my hotel bed in Cody would be to stride, not a bit self-consciously, into the nearest western clothes outfitter and buy myself a pair of cowboy boots. The way I figured it, it would be a good excuse to come back to this high country and try them out on a horse. Anyway - I earned them."


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