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Montana Ride


By Peggy Hart, Riding Instructor
Dressage/Jumping/Eventing/Fox Hunting
You know those pictures of riders crossing the mountains with a string of pack mules behind them?  The Big Sky country! The awesome sunsets! The breath taking mountains!   All this is pretty cool, so your friend who loves to take these treks and has invited you along. She says, “Hey, I found a great one to ride in Montana.  But we have to make reservations in January.”

 “What?” I reply.  “We are in the middle of a pandemic.” 

“Yes, I know; but we can’t go to Canada and they have two openings left in this one. They only take ten people and the rest of the rides are full.”

“Fine, but you do all the organizing.”

Once the reservations were made – a year in advance – we decided to drive to Montana because we are cheap and scared of getting on a plane with sick people. Also, because my sister lives in Kansas and we can bum a bed and meals from her on the way up. So we rented the car, which is also cheaper then flying, but we get lost trying to figure out the GPS. Perryville, Missouri is a nice town to spend the night.  The Flint Hills of Kansas are lovely; Nebraska really is flat; Wyoming has horses on the buttes, along with a cowboy with his horse and dog and a Jackalope – all in metal cutouts that look real until you get up close.

Then we got to Montana and the mountains. Augusta, Montana – to be exact – with one hotel and a wake up time of 3:30 a.m. to load up your kit and set out for the trailhead.

A nice horse named Two Face looked at me with absolutely no enthusiasm as I loaded up my saddle bags and climbed on – only to immediately climb off.  Now I am an English saddle rider and I knew I was going to get sore riding in a western saddle. But even I couldn't have ridden in that saddle more than 100 feet before getting off and going back home. The stirrups were too long, but I got them adjusted, almost good enough. Mountains here we come. 

Did I tell you I am scared of heights? Did I tell my friend I am scared of heights? Did she talk to the lady who led the sting of riders that I am scared of heights?  Okay, good, because I am scared of heights, but was told that there were only two places that would be hard. Liar, liar, pants on fire! 

Mountain trails with ferns, wildflowers, Douglas Fir, Larch, Lodge Pole Pine, and running streams with moss are beautiful.  It is when you leave the mountain meadows and beautiful trails through these forests and step out onto trails around the spurs of the mountains, with a slope from the top of the mountain all the way down to the river at the bottom of the mountain with only a 12-inch tread that your calm horse likes to walk on the outer edge and whose head hangs over the turn as you navigate the switch backs up the mountain and then down the mountain for 26 miles and 11 hours; that kind of gets to you! While your brain is calmly telling your body that all is well, that the horse does this all the time, that this outfitter wouldn't be in business if they lost a lot of customers from falling off, that the mountains have stood there for eons, your guts or wherever your fear lives is screaming it’s head off!  I now know why western saddles have saddle horns and it is not to dally a rope around.  My saddle horn had finger prints in it!

Day two was a rest day for the horses. Thank goodness! I knew exactly how they felt. Two of the riders from Texas went fly fishing in the White River that ran by the camp.  Not only does the river contain rainbow and brown trout, it also contains a trout called a Bull trout.  It is indigenous to this area only and is the only trout that eats other trout.  John and his wife Pam from Texas took the rest day to see if they could catch one.  John said they won't strike at the fly.  He had to catch some small trout, then set up a hook so that the bull trout got caught going after the other trout.  Because this is in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, all fishing is catch and release, especially the Bull trout which has special protection. Other members of the ride took the opoportunity to hike around the camp, check out the wildflowers, and read or talk to the wranglers. The wranglers would get up at 3:00 a.m. to ride up the mountain to get the herd of horses that were grazing and bring them back to camp for us the next morning.

The next morning after eating a hearty breakfast we headed up the mountain.  And up the mountain… and up the mountain.  Until at the top of Haystack Mountain we came to a straight drop off where we stopped and had lunch and looked at a huge bluff across the valley called China Wall.  It was at this point that I decided that mountains, buttes, and walls look just as good from an airplane or a car.

One of our crew named Tommy from Georgia, a photographer, even had his backpack carried up by a mule and spent two nights on the top of the mountain getting photographs of the Milky Way.

Then we started walking down the mountain to give the horses a break, which was great except that it was all on loose rock and, being a flat-lander type person, I spent a lot of time stumbling, falling over, and generally making my horse very nervous as he walked along with me. He finally decided I was incompetent at walking and tried to pass me, at which point the trail boss suggested I get back on. Very embarrassing, but I could have kissed her!

Now I was injured!  I rubbed two blisters on two toes, so I took the next day off.  I didn’t want to make them worse, now did I?  Turns out, when I got home, I found out I had grabbed my daughter’s boots, which are a half size too big for me.  That’s not so big a problem when riding, but walking down mountains – not recommended. 

 I had a great time on my day off.  I got out the wildflower book and enjoyed a quiet day of finding Snow Berries, Oregon Grape, Elk Thistle, Alpine Paintbrush and Woods Pussy-Toes. I talked to the Wranglers who, after getting up at three to bring in the horses, were cutting and splitting firewood for the winter hunt camps. Because of the drought, we were under a no burn decree. They were also digging a huge hole through rock to move the latrine and, at some point in the evening, would be returning the horses and mules, with bells attached, up to the pastures.  I asked how they kept the horses in the pastures, which looked pretty eaten over due to the drought. They said they placed a pole down across the trail like a gate and the horses would not get off of the trail to go around it. The wranglers also said the horses made the trails on the mountains and the outfitters just repaired and improved them.  Obviously, the horses and mules knew the safest way to get around and stuck to it. 

I also dabbled my feet only into the glacier fed White River and enjoyed the lack of ticks, mosquitoes, and other bugs while listening  to the water as it cascaded over the rocks. This was while the rest of the group of intrepid riders rode up to the Gauntlet, which was straight up and straight down, according to my erstwhile riding companion, and visited the China Wall we had seen in the distance the day before.  Each of these excursions took about ten hours and included packed lunches.

Speaking of food and camp: the food was of generous proportions, filling, and delicious. My favorite meal was the biscuits with cherry and rhubarb jelly made by the cook’s mother. The way they created delicious dishes from what they were able to pack was amazing!  Of course, the steaks served the last night were a great surprise. Since we had no electricity and used rechargeable lights and propane to cook with, they had to use the spring water that flowed down the mountain as a way to keep the food cold.  It was also our drinking and cooking water. Anything with food in it was hung out of the reach of bears (yes, they were seen), or had hotwire around it, including the cook tent, which was fed by solar chargers to keep bears at bay. 

The camp site was straight out of a western movie set with everything built out of Lodge Pole pine, including the corral, the cook tent, the sleeping tents, and the shower and latrines. When they strick camp in November after the hunting camps, everything from the tents to the propane tanks and anything else except for the frame works of pine had to go down the mountain with them to be brought back in March.  Down the mountain isn’t exactly right. Since their headquarters is on the Eastern side of the mountains, they have to go through a pass at 8,300 feet and then down to the camp in the spring and back in the fall.  That was same 26-mile and eleven-hour trip that we had to use to get to and from the camp. 

I did get back on Two Face the next day and we rode along the river and into an area called the jungle because it had not been burned, in the memory of the couple who are the owners of the outfitter company.  It was beautiful with a full complement of ground cover, wild flowers, berries, and ferns. Then we rode into an area which had burned in 2006 with 4-foot Douglas Fir next to it.  We ended up riding through a beautiful valley meadow with tall Ponderosa Pines and we all laughed about looking for the Cartwrights from the TV show “Bonanza.”  What was interesting was that the trees were spaced quite a piece from each other and the ground was covered in bunch grass and no other ground cover, as opposed to the other areas we had seen.  We speculated as to why this area was so different.  Lunch by the river was long and relaxing.

This outfitter, the Mills Wilderness Adventures, offered an extreme trip and I would not say it is for people like me who have never done something like this before or are scared of heights.  Amy and Tucker Mills, their son Turk and Wrangler Sid, along with Mady, Amy’s helper with the cooking, answered all our questions, were interesting to talk to, and gave us lots of information about the area, climate and temperature.  We were visited in camp by small critters and mule deer. Mills Wilderness Adventures of Montana was established in 1977, but the site has been in use for over 100 years with Tucker’s dad purchasing the franchise with the Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness authorities in 1947. The horses are well trained even for a beginner, as several riders were; the scenery is beautiful; and the experience is something I will always remember.  Best of all, I can say that I did it!   

Check out the Mills Wilderness Adventure of Montana website for more pictures and reviews:

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