Over the Mountain and Through the River on Horseback
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.
“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.
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 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.