Photographs and text by Jim Harris
It’s a bright summer morning as my wife Mary Pat and I drive east on the I-90 toward Big Timber. Just outside Livingston we watch a man on horseback move cattle across a sprawling pasture, and we suddenly realize it’s been quite a while since either one of us has ridden a horse. Contemplating our imminent, four-hour ride into the rugged Montana wilderness, we begin to wonder if this is such a good idea after all.
But once we meet the experienced and easy-going Cameron Mayo, guide and owner of Absaroka-Beartooth Outfitters, our worries disappear. We pick up a few last-minute goodies at the gas station, throw our gear and fly rods in the truck, and jump in for the ride to the trailhead. We’re headed into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, just north of Yellowstone National Park. This is a pristine place, untouched by human development.
Just driving south from Big Timber along the Boulder River is one of Montana’s treasures: mountains shoot up from the valley floor to over 10,000 feet above. Rustic homesteads and expansive green fields line the canyon floor, while the Boulder rolls and tumbles north to its confluence with the Yellowstone River. After crossing the river several times, we pull to a stop at base camp, load up the pack mules, and we’re ready to go.
As I eagerly hop on Jake, my mount for the next four days, reality sets in… Hmm, maybe it’s closer to a decade since I’ve sat in a saddle? I look at Cameron and ask, “How long is the ride again?” He just smiles, leading the way with a string of mules. We follow the river a ways and then begin our climb up the ridge. Once away from the road, the magnificence of the area strikes home. Rugged peaks and forested slopes rise all around. Looking north, we can see the head of the Boulder River. Flanked by lush vegetation, it flows down the canyon and disappears into the winding countryside below. We ride on, lost in our thoughts and silenced by the enshrouding natural beauty.
As we approach the pass, a sudden hail and lightning storm roars in. It’s fast and furious, with enough wind to blow us off our horses. Mary Pat’s hat is snatched by a gust and shoots off into the brush. Despite our anxiety in the face of nature’s fury, the horses are calm and composed. Later I learn that Cameron has some of the best stock around – something you need when you have inexperienced riders like us in this wild country.
As we head down toward our camp at Bull Moose Meadows, the clouds lift. My pants begin to dry out – except for my bum, which is soaking and adding to the burning of my inner thighs as they rub against the saddle. Just a few hours into the trip and I’m saddle-sore already!
We take a rest and pass around a flask of water. The sun peeks out from behind the dark clouds and minutes later begins warming us to the bone. As the sky clears, we look southward and realize we can see all the way into Yellowstone Park. Though I’ve been in much of Montana’s backcountry, these are some of the best views I’ve ever experienced.
We saddle up and trot down to camp, which sits in a basin near the head of Hellroaring Creek. The tents are within hearing distance of the rippling sounds and an occasional gulp of a feeding cutthroat. Amazingly, the camp has all the amenities: a cook tent, eating tent, and a scattering of comfortable-looking wall tents.
I dismount only to find that my legs aren’t the ones I brought with me. They’re slightly bowed, and as I walk into camp to find a chair, I feel like I’m carrying a medicine ball between them. We rest for a short while, then have a few snacks while preparing our fly rods for an evening of casting dry flies.
After a few hours of fishing – Mary Pat and I had caught a pair of feisty cutthroats – the dinner bell sends us running back to camp. Having pack mules means you can pack in just about anything you want. Our first meal was filet mignon and baked potatoes with all the fixings, topped off with some amazing Australian wine. After dinner, we head to the campfire and tell stories of days gone by. Cameron describes previous trips and his guiding during hunting season. Because the camp is just five miles from Yellowstone, wildlife is plentiful; but I’m mostly interested in all those trout in the creek.
No need for horses today. We carry snacks, some water, and our fishing gear to one of the best parts of Bull Moose Creek. Dozens of landed cutts later, we sit down to another big dinner and then cook s’mores by the campfire. We learn that we’ll saddle up and ride an hour or so to a lake the next day for more great fishing. Again, sleep comes quickly and we awaken to the wonderful smell of a hearty camp breakfast.
After the break from riding, my legs seem to fit much better on the horse. We head south toward Yellowstone, following the trail alongside the creek. We ride to a hidden lake and the fishing just gets better. You could literally put a string on a stick with a dry fly and catch fish here.
A couple more days like this and I begin to wonder why we all live the way we do, with our hectic lives and our work-work-work mentality. Out here in the wilderness, far away from the bustling, high-tech world below, simpler ways seem to take over, and one can only imagine what it was like for Lewis and Clark and all the other hardy souls who braved the West in the early days.