Monthly Archives: July 2013

2013
07/22

Category:
Uncategorized

COMMENTS:
Comments Closed

Stalking the Wild Oyster Beds: Hotel Paulin A Culinary Tour of the Rugged Country around Caraquet, New Brunswick

Stalking the Wild Oyster Beds:

Hotel Paulin

Hotel Paulin

A Culinary Tour of the Rugged Country around Caraquet, New Brunswick

 

By James Rosenthal

Photos courtesy of Hotel Paulin, Caraquet Oyster Museum, and Tourism New Brunswick.

 

“The landscape is a state of the soul.”

–Salvador Dali

 

Coming around each bend of highway en route to Caraquet, New Brunswick , the goggle-eyed driver sighs in the vague hope that he will finally see a glimpse of tranquil blue water.  And finally, when the road meets up with the dramatic northern coastline of the province, the land where Acadians dominate the cultural and social fabric of society, it is as if this ride to nowhere (or so it seems) is worth the endless pursuit of the most exquisite oysters in North America.

The destination of choice in Acadian country is Caraquet, a small town hugging the Atlantic Coast of Canada — Europe is somewhere on the other side of the mists and fogs that creep onto shore at dawn — with enough good food and interesting people to make this out-of-the-way spot seem essential to any serious traveler’s  experience.

 

The first stop in this heart and soul of the Acadian Peninsula is the Caraquet Oyster Museum, a small area at the back of a general store in the center of town.  Gaetan and Marielle Dugas are the present-day proprietors of an oyster business that spans five generations and more than 200 years.  Gaetan, blessed with a quick wit and a mustache that would impress Salvador Dali, notes that Caraquet oysters are now available all over North America, whereas just a short time ago you could find these choice oysters only in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.  “The next step is to ship the oysters to France, where there is tremendous passion for the taste and texture of our product,” says Gaetan, who laughs when he adds that he will no longer to ship to California because the business people there do not pay their bills promptly.

 

ACADIAN ROOTS RUN DEEP

 

Gaetan can trace his French ancestry all the way back to a Frenchman who arrived in the Maritimes in 1616. The official version of Acadian migration to North America is that it began in 1604, when French explorers landed in what is now known as Nova Scotia.  These trailblazers brought their families over to the New World, and transformed marshes into fertile farms with a brilliant dike system to control flooding.  The English, feeling threatened as per usual, deported the French-speaking Acadians, who lived in exile (many moving to Louisiana) until they were allowed to return in 1763. There’s no denying that this Acadian pride runs deep in the Dugas family, who are quick to point out that Caraquet oysters are one of the fasting growing businesses in all of New Brunswick.

 

And after sampling a freshly shucked Caraquet Bay oyster, I was ready to sign on for a regular shipment — and willing to pay quickly and consistently to insure regular deliveries of this culinary delight.

Chef Karen Mersereau deftly removes an oyster from its shell in the kitchen of the Hotel Poulin

Chef Karen Mersereau deftly removes an oyster from its shell in the kitchen of the Hotel Paulin

Caraquet Bay oysters are classified as “small choice,” meaning they are about 2 by 3 inches in diameter.  Oysters are usually classified as either choice or standard, qualities that refer to the shape of the shell. The “choice” oyster is flat on top and deeply cupped on the bottom.

 

Karen Mersereau is a passionate advocate and undeniable expert on all New Brunswick oysters, and just about any other food that grows or is cultivated in Eastern Canada.  She runs (along with Gerard Paulin) the famous Hotel Paulin, another Caraquet business that has been in one family, the Paulins, for several generations.

 

Mersereau, who is the chef de cuisine at Hotel Paulin, a charming mansion with two amazing suites with hot tubs and impressive views, recently hosted a blind tasting to analyze the tastes and textures of local oysters.  All of the tasters were sommeliers: “We tasted five different oysters from around the Acadian Peninsula and the Caraquet Oyster won hands down,” reports Mersereau.

 

“We tasted five oysters at that event.  The first two are produced out of St. Simon Bay by Mallet L’Etang Ruisseau Bar Ltee, and the latter three come from Neguac and are produced by Maison BeauSoleil.  [Neguac is considered part of the Acadian Peninsula, but lies but past Tracadie on the other side of the Acadian Peninsula, on the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.]  La St-Simon (Shippegan) is available on a year-round basis; it’s cultivated in floating bags and finished on tables. This oyster delivers a superior shape and clean shell.  La Mallet (Shippegan) is available in the fall and cultivated on ropes, the European method, which delivers a deep cup and high meat content.  Maison BeauSoleil is available year-round and is cultivated in floating bags.  The Caraquet oyster (“La Caraquette”) is produced by Ferme Ostreicole Dugas. The consensus is that these oysters have a richer taste, are somewhat salty, and are well worth the effort to enjoy the complexity of flavors.   BeauSoleil is a specialty oyster with nice texture.”

 

 

A NIGHT IN THE KITCHEN AT HOTEL PAULIN

Down the hatch

Down the hatch

 

After driving around the local beaches and searching for the Museum of the Popes, a repository of papal history, artifacts and photos, it was time to sample the cuisine at the best restaurant in town.  Dinner is a major event at Hotel Paulin, which is no wonder when you consider that Mersereau lavishes remarkable attention to detail while producing a cuisine that boasts fresh local produce and the Acadian influences that denote her unique style of cooking.

here is a typical dinner menu with Mersereau’s comments on preparation and nuance:

 

Crab Cakes

 

“Unlike the crab cakes I’ve tried in Boston, which have a potato-like texture with lots of filler, I make my crab cakes with 99% fresh crab meat, a small amount of herbed bread crumbs, and just enough egg wash to hold it all together.”

 

BBQ Lamb on Skewers with Local Peppers, Served with Wild Rice Risotto

 

“The lamb comes from Whitfield Farms in Sussex, New Brunswick.  The farm is set in a beautiful, hilly region that’s near salt-water marshes. The lamb feed out on the grass which absorbs the natural salt flavors, and this gives the meat a special quality unique to this area.

I then use a Moroccan dry rub to season the lamb, and I’ll often put olive oil on the meat, turn the rub into a sort of paste, and let the meat marinate overnight. I cook the lamb on an outdoor grill and serve it with yellow and red peppers on skewers.  One other nuance is that I’ll cook the lamb bones down and make a stock, and use the stock to flavor the wild-mushroom risotto. This way, the lamb flavor is absorbed into everything on the plate.”

 

Cod in Black Bean Sauce

 

“The cod is local and I serve it with a sauce made from black beans, fresh garlic, ginger, lime rind, rice wine vinegar and sake.  I oven- roast the fish at a high temperature; cod doesn’t like to be handled too much, as it will fall apart, and so oven roasting on high heat is the perfect way to seal in flavor and moisture.”

 

Lobster Mersereau

At the Oyster Museum, Caraquet

At the Oyster Museum, Caraquet

 

 

“I steam the lobsters in sparkling wine or in a combination of beer and white wine.  I’ll add herbs from our garden for flavor, and then reduce it all down for the sauce for my famous seafood linguine.  I like to steam lobster in flavored water;  Gerard (Paulin), like most chefs from Caraquet, likes to boil the lobsters in salted water, and in Nova Scotia the style is to steam the lobsters in a very small amount of water.”

 

 

One of Mersereau’s special creations is a line of delicious savory pies made out of seafood or meat. The pies — with a crust as light as air and brimming with fresh flavors — include clam pie, also known as pate au palourde; a shrimp pie made with small, delicate shrimp that are collected fresh off of local shrimp boats; lobster pie; and a meat pie that combines three or four different varieties of game (including moose) that’s cooked up like a stew with allspice, clove, parsley, green onion and garlic.

 

Acadian culture and pride are alive and well in Caraquet, New Brunswick.

 

 

 

 

IF YOU GO:

 

Hotel Paulin

143 Boulevard St. Pierre Ouest

Caraquet, NB, Canada B1W 1B6

Tel. 506-727-9981

http://www.hotelpaulin.com

 

The easiest way to get to Caraquet is to fly Air Canada (http://www.aircanada.com) from Montreal to Bathurst (about 30 minutes by car from Caraquet) or from Toronto or Montreal to Moncton (about 3 hours by car from Caraquet.) Schedules change quite frequently so check the Air Canada website for more information.

2013
07/22

Category:
Uncategorized

COMMENTS:
Comments Closed

Ann Arbor: A Little City With Big City Things To Do

Ann Arbor:

A Little City With Big City Things To Do

 

Downtown Ann Arbor

Downtown Ann Arbor

By Steve Bergsman

Photos by the author

 

My son lives in Manhattan, and whenever my wife and I visit, we usually plan for a mega-burst of activity —  going to museums, seeing Broadway shows and eating out at great restaurants found nowhere else in the country.  Sometimes, if we are particularly energetic, we might stop in one night at a club like the Blue Note to hear some great musicians.

This Manhattan experience is something that I rarely find in any other city in the country.  That is until recently, when I was able to mirror all of my Manhattan activities plus some others while traveling in the Midwest.

 

Where was I? Chicago, you guess? Or Minneapolis? How about Cleveland or Cincinnati? All good choices, but the answer is no city with so large a population. The most surprisingly cosmopolitan smaller city in the country is Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan.

 

Well, you might say, it’s a university town.  It should have many cultural amenities. If you think that you haven’t been to too many university towns, which are notoriously thin in lasting import after you’ve stumbled past the bars and greasy spoons on the main drag. No, Ann Arbor stands on its own with the university as a supplemental part of its wall of cultural offerings.

 

Zingerman's Deli, an Ann Arbor tradition

Zingerman’s Deli, an Ann Arbor tradition

Here’s the first thing you need to know about Ann Arbor: it’s a foodie town. I’m not sure if they have zoned away chain restaurants, but I only spotted a couple in the downtown area, a section of the city that was chock-a-block with unique shops, bars and eateries – many of which can be found nowhere else but in Ann Arbor.

 

In Ann Arbor, you can go inexpensive with a stop at university favorite Blimpy Burger or Mark Carts, a popular downtown cart park. Or, you can go upscale at myriad restaurants. My favorite was Vellum, where I had the local fish, a pan-fried walleye, cooked with hand-pressed onion broth, shallot, brandade and apple.

 

My second favorite restaurant was the somewhat more downscale Frita Batidos, excelling it what might be called Cuban street food. I’m a huge fan of the Cuban sandwich, which I’d previously ordered only in Miami, because that’s the singular place in the country where they do it right. However, Frita Batidos offered the best Cuban sandwich I ever tasted. Called the “Inspired Cuban,” it consisted of lemongrass roast pork, thick cut bacon, tasso ham, gruyere, cornichons and chipotle mayo on Cuban bread. That and a cup of cortadito (Cuban-style espresso topped with steamed milk) and you are in a little slice of Cuban heaven.

 

Now, I can talk about Ann Arbor’s restaurants for another thousand words, but good eating was only a small part of my visit to this city of about 115,000, a 40-minute car ride from Detroit airport.  In three days there, I visited three museums; saw two plays; caught one rock concert; attended a reception at Metal, a metal design and fabrication studio; strolled the downtowns of two smaller cities outside of Ann Arbor; and even found time for a morning kayak down the Huron River.

 

Getting ready for kayaking, the Huron River

Getting ready for kayaking, the Huron River

I’ll start first with the Huron River, which I first encountered close up while antiquing in the old industrial city of Ypsilanti. One of the primary stops was Materials Unlimited, the showroom for an architectural salvage company, which is like a little museum of design if you don’t mind looking at the beautifully reclaimed doors, doorknobs, windows, lighting fixtures, etc., from homes and offices located  anywhere and everywhere.

Materials Unlimited is located in old auto retailer building on the shore of the Huron River. I took some time to walk down to the river, where a local was fishing. I thought at the time, even here in Ypsilanti, this was a beautiful little waterway.   I didn’t realize that a day later I would have the opportunity to travel it by kayak.

 

In Ann Arbor, at the Argo Park canoe livery, a stretch of Huron tumbles into a small dam. For decades, jutting off the dam was a large, ugly concrete spillway. When it was time to fix or blow up the concrete monster, they did the latter, creating a series of naturalistic Grade 2 cascades for kayak enthusiasts.

 

I never saw the spillway, but the navigable drops were a delight, although not without some danger.  One woman in my group of kayakers didn’t make of the cascades, spilling out and turning her boat over. She was so intimidated afterward, I put her in my two-person kayak while my forward passenger took her boat.

 

Shooting the cascades on Huron River

Shooting the cascades on Huron River

Despite the precariousness, these were well-designed flows; every cascade flowed into a recovery pond before the onset of the next challenge —  on and on for about six sets, and then under a bridge and a long, lazy river float through the Ann Arbor countryside.

 

The day of my kayaking was my last one in Ann Arbor. After spending time on the river, we headed back into downtown for my fabulous lunch at Frita Batidos.  Sated, three of us then drove to the lovely, nearby hamlet of Chelsea which has an old but thriving little downtown.

 

The actor Jeff Daniels grew up in this part of the world, and after many years in Hollywood moved back here with his family. One of the many generous things he did on his return was create Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theater (he starred in Woody Allen’s movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo).  My friends and I stopped here to see one the theater’s offerings, 33 Variations, an intriguing play about Beethoven. It was absolutely topnotch.

Actor Jeff Daniel's Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan

Actor Jeff Daniel’s Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan

 

Once the play concluded, we hopped in our car and headed back to Ann Arbor for dinner at one of the more popular upscale dining spots, Mani Osteria & Bar.

 

I was there on a Saturday night and there was a crowd at the door waiting for one of the already busy tables to empty.  You can’t beat something like this: local ingredients for its house-made pastas and wood-fired pizzas, all served with small production, Old World wines.

I was having dinner with Marianne James, executive director of The Ark, who was telling me about the long history of this particular Ann Arbor music hall, which has been around since 1965 in one form or another, and today is one of the most important venues for new music and folk/roots music in the Midwest. Musicians touring east from New York make the stop here before Chicago and beyond, and the same is true from those touring from the west.

 

These small venues — about 400 seats — are my favorite, because you are invariably never far from the stage. So, after my dinner at Mani, I walked a few blocks to Main Street and took in an 8 pm show of Marshall Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets.

 

Just as I suspected, there were really no bad seats in the house, and the musicians out-perform in such intimidate settings.

 

As I mentioned, I was in Ann Arbor for three days, and it wasn’t just popular culture that I sought.  At the Performance Network Theater I also took in the fine play about Martin Luther King, The Mountaintop, which had a limited run on New York’s Broadway in New York starring Samuel L. Jackson.

 

Kaiser automobile, Automotive Heritage Museum in Ypsilanti

Kaiser automobile, Automotive Heritage Museum in Ypsilanti

Plus, I got to visit to three museums. In Ypsilanti, I toured the entertaining and pop-culturish Automotive Heritage Museum, home to vintage automobiles, many of which, such as the Hudson, Kaiser and Corvair, had been built in Ypsilanti.  Preston Tucker, the entrepreneur who created the Tucker car, lived and worked in Ypsilanti.  One of the cars from the movie, Tucker, is here. (No, it wasn’t one of the 51 Tuckers that were actually built.)  The museum includes Miller Motors, a preserved, pre-Word War II dealership that still operates, servicing vintage Hudson automobiles.

 

On a more serious note, I strolled over to the beautiful University of Michigan campus, where I visited two small but terrific museums.

My first stop was the newly reconceived Kelsey Museum of Archeology, and I have to say this is a real gem. The focus here is Greek and Roman civilization in Egypt, as the bulk of the collection was done at a site outside of Cairo called Karanis.  What makes this Greco-Roman collection different from most others in museums is that so much of the artifacts relate to everyday life.  From toys to shoes to textiles, it’s amazing how much has been recovered.

An example of Kelsey Museum of Archeology's collection of Latin inscriptions, or some might say Roman graffiti

An example of Kelsey Museum of Archeology’s collection of Latin inscriptions, or some might say Roman graffiti

 

Although it looked a lot like graffiti to me, the museum boasts the largest collection of Latin inscriptions in the West with 375 items.

Make sure you see the unique, full-size replica of the famous Villa of Mysteries murals from Pompeii.  Getting these watercolors to be displayed here is a story worthy of a very long book – ask your guide for the tale.

Also worthwhile is the Museum of Natural History.  It’s a little old-style in that it’s not very interactive and heavy on panoramas.  But I have to admit — since I started visiting natural history museums when I was in elementary school, it’s the panoramas I love the best.

 

The elegant rotunda of Museum of Natural History, University of Michigan

The elegant rotunda of Museum of Natural History, University of Michigan

Tiffany windows at Kelsey Museum of Archeology, University of Michigan campus

Tiffany windows at Kelsey Museum of Archeology, University of Michigan campus

I should conclude by saying the most impressive tour I took while on the university campus took place on a quiet Friday morning. It was of the University of Michigan stadium, locally referred to as The Big House. For those who don’t live in Ann Arbor, UM stadium seats over 110,000 and is the largest in the country. Highlights include a visit to the press box and locker room … and, most importantly, you get to stand on the field and fantasize what it would be like to play football for 110,000 people.

 

Go Wolverines!

Touring the field of the Big House, University of Michigan Stadium

Touring the field of the Big House, University of Michigan Stadium

This is how the players do it. Emerging from The Tunnel onto the field of the Big House, University of Michigan stadium

This is how the players do it. Emerging from The Tunnel onto the field of the Big House, University of Michigan stadium

2013
07/22

Category:
Uncategorized

COMMENTS:
Comments Closed

Over the Mountain and Through the River on Horseback

Over the Mountain and Through the River on Horseback

Our cabin at Covered Wagon Ranch

Our cabin at Covered Wagon Ranch

By Linda Buchanan Allen

Photos by the author

 

“Hot shower and a cold beer, there’s nothing better,” claims Austin as he scoops a large spoonful of potatoes au gratin onto his dinner plate.  His nickname is Tater, and he’s making good on it right now.  He’s just finished another long day of work at the Covered Wagon Ranch, where he wrangles a large herd of horses and a small flock of guests.  At age 23, Austin is young enough to be my son, but I trust this professional wrangler to guide my friend Libby and me on horseback up steep trails into the mountains above the Gallatin River in southwestern Montana.

 

Chatting, guests and crew pass a heavy platter laden with sliced ham, baskets of warm bread, and a huge bowl of steaming, buttery green peas down the long farm table. No one is shy about piling a plate full or digging into the food with gusto.  We’re all hungry.

 

Libby and I arrived at the ranch today just in time for lunch — fresh salad, crusty bread, soup, fruit, cookies and more.  Quickly we learned that the cookie jars are always stocked with homemade chocolate chip, vanilla, oatmeal raisin — whatever type the chef decides to bake.  After polishing off our first meal at Covered Wagon Ranch and a quick tour of our cabin and the rest of the ranch by Kayla (who drove us here from Bozeman in the ranch’s big red pick-up truck) we pulled on our boots and headed down to the stable feeling self-consciously like eastern dudes.   The eastern part was true — we’re from New Hampshire and New Jersey — and we stood around in our cabin for several minutes debating whether we should wear our new cowboy hats (purchased at Murdoch’s in Bozeman) or the safer, English-style riding helmets that we’d brought from home.  OK, I’ll admit it:  We chose the helmets.  The dude part was only half true; we weren’t experienced at western-style riding, but we’d ridden English intermittently for fifty years.   We could stop, go, and turn, among other things.  However, we had no idea exactly what lay ahead.  We clamped helmets onto our heads as we approached the string of horses hitched outside the tack room.

 

Ranch co-owner Kurt Puckett stood among the saddled horses holding a walkie-talkie as he conferred with his ranch hands and wranglers about horse assignments for us and a few other new guests.  Based on information provided by guests before their arrival, Kurt and his team (including wife and ranch co-owner, Melissa Puckett) try to pair horses and riders according to skill level and temperament.   If the match fits — which it usually does — horse and rider stick together for the entire stay.    With a herd of 70-plus horses and the capacity for only 24 guests, Kurt and Melissa rotate horses through the program so they get plenty of rest and grazing time between riders.

 

Lunch around the mountain campfire--Libby, Anna and Austin

Lunch around the mountain campfire–Libby, Anna and Austin

“Here at CWR we ride 100-percent no contact,” explained one of the wranglers as we sat on a log bench for orientation.  “That means don’t jerk the horse’s mouth with the reins.”  Libby and I already knew this, but Covered Wagon Ranch makes sure that all of its guests get proper instruction and head out on rides through terrain appropriate to their skills and knowledge.  After all, riding horses into the mountains of Montana isn’t exactly amusement park stuff.

 

Then I met my horse:  a 16-year-old paint named Rango, whose coat was the color of cinnamon and sugar.  He couldn’t possibly look more western if I had conjured him up.  I felt ridiculous wearing my English helmet.  Austin loaded our horses onto a trailer, and away we bumped down the dirt driveway to our departure point.  We unloaded the horses and mounted near the roiling Wapiti Creek.  Milky water swirling with glacial sediment rushed alongside us as we followed the path into the trees where the surroundings quieted.  I settled into the big leather saddle.  We ambled along in single file, the horses brushing beneath low-hanging branches, stepping over fallen logs, pivoting around tree trunks where the trail snaked in a sharp turn.  I respected Rango’s surefootedness, as he placed each hoof carefully, balancing his body beneath the heavy saddle and my own weight.  I chatted to him in a low voice, running my free hand along the side of his neck.

 

“That was an easy ride,” says Austin at dinner several hours later, after his comment about a hot shower and cold beer. “Wait till tomorrow.”  Libby and I glance at each other.  We push back our chairs and return to our cabin — one of the originals built at the ranch in 1925.   As the sun dips behind snow-topped mountain peaks, the river valley descends into chilly dusk.  Libby lights the woodstove while I unpack.  Straight out of the old west, our log cabin has sloping wood floors and beds draped in beefy, red-and black wool blankets.  The stove warms our snug little lair.

 

Cold rain sweeps through the valley overnight.  When I step out on the front porch of the cabin before breakfast, I find the stairs littered with bright white nuggets of hail.  I pull on riding jeans and boots, adding layers on top — flannel shirt, fleece vest, rain parka.   We ditch the helmets in favor of our cowboy hats.  At breakfast, Kurt circulates to each group of guests — a family, a couple, friends like Libby and me.  “What do you want to do today?” he asks.  Then he describes the different options for riding.  It’s going to snow; we already know that.  But we choose to ride into the mountains with Austin and another guest named Anna — a young attorney from San Francisco who is an accomplished rider.   Then we fill out our lunch-request slips, and while we chomp a hearty breakfast of chicken enchiladas, pancakes, bacon and fruit (we can’t turn down any of it), the chef makes our sandwiches. We’re ready for a full-day ride to a place called the Sunken Forest.

 

I find Rango hitched among the other horses and greet him with a rub along his neck and shoulder.    His eyes watch me softly.  His mouth is so sensitive that he wears a bridle with hackamore — no metal bit in his mouth.  He carries scores of riders up into the mountains and down again each season.  For these three days, I’m his partner.  I want to be a good one.  We mount up under a steel-gray sky.  The creek thunders along next to us until we turn toward the mountain.  We follow a narrow path across fields and into the trees. Rango shifts his weight as the trail begins to ascend.  Anna, riding behind Austin on a tall grey thoroughbred named Oyster, points out mountain flowers scattered over the forest floor:  larkspur, shooting stars, glacier lilies.  “You can eat those bright yellow glacier lilies,” she notes.

 

As we ascend the mountain, the air around us grows thinner and colder.  We’re walking at nearly 8,000 feet elevation — the ranch sits at about 6,600 feet above sea level.  I lean forward to lift my weight off Rango’s back as he climbs.  Sometimes he breaks into a trot and I try to slow him, until I realize this is how he likes to tackle a steep section.  When we break free of the forest, wind scours the open slope, ruffling sagebrush and battering our jackets.  I push my hat down tight on my head.  When we reach the edge of the Sunken Forest, we peer down into a wide ravine containing a tangle of trees toppled like pick-up sticks.  The earth simply sank at one point, taking the forest with it.  “I don’t want to go any farther than this,” says Austin.  “There’s a fault line along here.”  The ledge calved like an iceberg only a few years ago, sending more trees to the valley floor.  That’s OK with us.  We can see everything fine from this vantage point.

 

Grazing in Hancock Meadow

Grazing in Hancock Meadow

Snow begins to swirl out of the sky, so we turn back into the timber, where we hop off the horses, remove their bridles and loosen the saddle girths.  Austin decides not to let the horses graze loose up here, and instead tethers them to a stand of trees.  At first they are restless and annoyed, shifting and pawing; then they settle down to wait.  Austin directs us to collect kindling so he can start a fire.  Within minutes he’s got sticks laid, and flames reach up to toast our shins.   We grab our lunch sacks and hunker down on our haunches to eat as close to the fire as we can, leaning our faces toward the heat.  After lunch, reluctantly we douse the fire, pack up and untie the horses.   Wind pummels us as we make our way across the slope, stopping briefly to check out the muddy tracks of wolves and mountain lions.  Suddenly Austin’s radio crackles with the news that two horses from the other riding group spooked while grazing during lunch, and took off up the mountain.  Briefly he considers waiting to see if the horses show up here, but decides it’s too cold for us.  We begin the journey down.

 

We descend slowly, deliberately.  Rango picks his way among sharp sage bristles.  Occasionally his hoof hits a giant anthill and sinks in a puff of dust.   In the distance below us, a large herd of elk roams through the brush.  Rango’s ears shoot forward.  His nostrils snort several sharp bursts.  Elk give off a musky scent that offends the horses.  Alert to our presence, the elk herd begins to move, rippling over the undulating hill.

We’re almost to the foot of the mountain when we hear the rushing water of Wapiti Creek.  Austin leads us to the edge and begins to give instructions for crossing.  Seriously?  Like chocolate milk poured from a glass, the creek splashes over rocks and along the banks.  “Keep your horse’s nose pointed upstream, and keep him moving forward so he doesn’t drift too far down,” orders Austin before he sends his horse into the drink.  Oyster goes next, then Sage drops into the swirl.  Rango perches on the bank.  I feel him hesitate, and recall that someone at the ranch mentioned he doesn’t like to wade through running water.   I bump him forward with my boots and he plunges in.   We’re swallowed by a whirling flood.  I feel Rango straining, searching for invisible footing, heaving against the current.  His nose held high, Rango focuses on Sage’s soaked rump right in front of him.   Sage’s back leg hits an underwater hole and he slips right before the shore.  Rango swerves to avoid the hole, pedaling two more steps underwater, and then I feel sand and solid ground underfoot.   We’re on the other side.

 

By early evening, the wranglers have retrieved the wayward horses.  Kurt fires up the outdoor grill, cooking thick steaks to order for all of us while a local band plays country tunes.  Kurt even coaxes Melissa into a smooth two-step to the music.  He whirls her around the dining table and dips her before she laughs and tells him, “Enough.”

 

The next morning dawns bright and clear — a true Montana big sky.  It’s our last day of riding and we want to make the most of it.  Kurt thinks Austin should take us up to Hancock Meadow, at about 8,600 feet elevation.  We’re game.  “As long as the creek crossing is tamer than yesterday’s,” cautions Libby.  We eat a quick breakfast and get down to the stable early.  We trailer across the Gallatin River, which is coursing fast, though Austin assures us it’s a foot lower than it was yesterday.   We mount up and set off down the dirt road leading to the trailhead.  Strong Montana sun evaporates dew from the meadows and warms our faces.  Rango and I are now a team.  I can feel his movements beneath the saddle and anticipate his strategy.  He likes to trot up hill.  He wants free rein to use his head and neck for balance on steep terrain.  He doesn’t like water but with a nudge of confidence he’ll go, and give it his all.  He wants to pick his own path through brush and over fallen logs, but he’ll accept help.

 

We've crossed the Gallatin River

We’ve crossed the Gallatin River

We climb steadily through the forest for a few hours, stopping to check out some massive grizzly tracks in the mud nearby.  “Those are fresh,” says Austin.  “Last night or early this morning.”   We enter Hancock Meadow, which opens up a panorama of white Montana peaks against blue sky.  We cross the height of land to a stand of timber where we hop off and let the horses graze.  They deserve lunch as much as we do.  Austin hands over a can of pepper spray as Libby and I head into the trees for a bathroom break.  “Just in case a bear is bedded down in there,” he explains.  Then he lies down in the grass, pulls his hat over his face, and promptly falls asleep.

 

Anna, Libby and I eat our sandwiches while we watch the horses browse lazily across the meadow.  I hope they are as happy as we are.  When Rango drifts a bit farther than the other two, Austin jumps up and retrieves him, reminding the horse to stick with the herd.  We could stay here forever, but we still have a long way to go.  So at Austin’s signal we gather the horses and begin our descent.  Soon we come to the precipice of a sheer slope covered with sagebrush (think, black-diamond ski terrain). Apparently, we must ride down this.  I freeze.  I’m afraid of heights, and I’m peering over the rim into nothing.  There’s no choice.  We have to go.  I nudge Rango to follow Oyster and give him his head, leaning back in the saddle.  Rango inches his way down in a tight switchback.  I let him choose where he wants to turn, then use my legs to pivot him through the swing.  Halfway across the slope, his hind leg slips and my stomach lurches in fear.  But Rango catches his balance and rights himself.   This horse is a talented athlete.

 

Finally we reach flat ground.  Austin remarks, “I’m so glad I don’t have to babysit you two.”  Soon we see the ribbon of road that leads into West Yellowstone.  In the distance we make out the silver roof of the long gooseneck trailer hitched to the ranch’s red pick-up truck, parked off the road.  Between us and the trailer lies a broad, marshy meadow — and the Gallatin River.

 

Austin trots back and forth along the shore in search of a place to cross.  One route looks shallower, the water rippling over smooth rock, but it’s too wide.  Another offers a sandbar but that’s a trap.  The river is running higher and faster than we anticipated.   Austin picks a spot and waves to us.  “Point upstream.  Focus on the far shore.  Don’t watch the water, it will make you dizzy,” he shouts above the roar.  “Go!”  Oyster plunges into the strong current.  Rango takes a few seconds to decide where he wants to make the leap.  When I feel him tense, I press him forward.  In we go.  We’re engulfed by a torrent. I turn his nose upstream and create a wall with my downstream leg, driving him toward the opposite bank.  I can’t hear anything above the thunder of gushing water.  Halfway through, I feel Rango begin to flounder.  He can’t quite find his footing, and in another second he’ll be swimming.  We drift downstream. Glacier water pours into my boots.  My knees are now submerged.  I hold my calves tight against Rango’s flanks and feel him make one mighty surge toward the shore.   His hooves strike rock and he regains his balance, pulling himself to where he can stand.  The bank is too high for him to climb, so we turn upstream and wade through the racing shallows until Rango finds a place to clamber up to dry land.   We stand in the wet grass, dripping and gulping air.

 

I swivel to watch Libby and Austin finish fording the river side by side.  Austin slaps Libby’s palm with a big high five.  He does the same with Anna and then with me, flashing a bright cowboy grin.  Libby rides up beside me.   “Our friends back east will never believe we did this,” she laughs.  We’ve been baptized by the Gallatin River.  We’re now officially cowgirls.

 

 

IF YOU GO:

 

Covered Wagon Ranch is located in the Gallatin Gateway area, about an hour southwest from Bozeman, Montana.  For more information visit the ranch’s website, http://www.coveredwagonranch.com,  call 1-800-995-4237, or email: info@coveredwagonranch.com.

 

Covered Wagon Ranch accommodates all levels of riding ability, and rides are grouped accordingly, in small numbers.

 

The nearest major airport is at Bozeman, where you can rent a car.  For $150 roundtrip, the ranch will pick you up and deliver you back to the airport.

 

The horses have Sundays off to graze and play, so people may choose to arrive or leave on Sunday.  However, the ranch offers access to fly fishing, whitewater rafting and other activities (guests can also visit Bozeman, Big Sky and Yellowstone National Park), so there is plenty to do.

 

Alert the chef to any allergies or other dietary preferences.  Even though the ranch sits in cattle country, you can order vegetarian alternatives.  Covered Wagon Ranch is BYOB, so be sure to purchase any alcoholic beverages before you arrive.