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.
a few hardy souls make the trek into this pristine area. Those
few are rewarded with
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
Country" says it all.
prior to mounting up, I mentioned to Tim Doud, my outfitter, how
back East, horseback
riding was considered
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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