The Rocky Mountain Front in Montana was my backyard. I grew up incredibly fortunate to spend summers constructing clumsy wooden forts in forests of Englemann Spruce (Picea engelmannii), tubing down shallow Spring Creek (ever uneasy about mountain lion rumors), and unenthusiastically participating in team sports (by standing aloof in the outfield).
But my best memories are taking backcountry pack trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. My dad was a schoolteacher, and he worked summers for the Seven Lazy P Guest Ranch as a packer and guide. If there was an extra horse (usually an old and sluggish one—although there was no complaining), I was allowed to tag along on the trip. I pretended to help with camp duties like dishes and maybe sawing logs for a fire, but I mostly snuck off to pet the rambunctious mules, play Go Fish under the rain fly, explore age-old burn areas bursting with Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), and swim in snowmelt creeks.
So last summer when I was invited on a Dropstone Outfitting trip to travel as an informal photographer, I could not refuse. My closest friend since childhood, Maggie, and her friend, Yve, started Dropstone Outfitting in 2013. Dropstone is unique since the gear is packed on mules and the guests hike with a daypack rather than ride a horse. The trip was not quite in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but rather a short traverse across the RMF, or “The Front.” I’d spent countless days hiking the Front and climbing to the mountaintops, but I had never traversed below them on an extended trip. The other bonus? My dad, who was seventy-four at the time, was coming too. The trip distance was quite short (sixteen miles) and spread out over four days, so I was a bit nervous that the pace might be too gradual.
Yve and Nicole (the cook) guided the guests, while Maggie and Will, the packers, had gone ahead with the mule strings to set up camp. The working crews on the backcountry trips of my childhood were mostly cowboy types wearing shabby leather chaps and wiping their brow with red bandanas. They had quintessential cowboy names like “Dusty” or “Rocky” and probably chewed on prairie grass. The working staff here wore long hair in blonde braids under grimy mesh caps and made sure to pack boxes of wine.
We started at the North Fork of Dupuyer Creek down a rutted path. I knew a few of the local women on the trip, and although they had spent their whole lives near the RMF, they had never really “been there.” Some had never hiked with even a daypack and wore ill-fitting gear. Despite shoulder soreness, unyielding arid heat, personal concerns of physical ability, and overgrown trails—the group was in high spirits. My dad, of course, sported his blue jeans and old cotton button down shirt. He would be the last to grumble about the weather.
The guests were mostly comprised of women from the baby-boomer generation. The women came from various backgrounds and locations. Ali, the radiant, white-haired former accountant/counselor/gardener/shopkeeper/MT-born/goat raiser wore her straw sunhat with a fluorescent blue and green fly-fishing tie. Bev, a former schoolteacher, from the “other side” of the divide (west side of the Continental Divide) knew many of the flowers and shrubs by heart and educated us accordingly after verifying with her plant key book. Maggie and Yve later schooled us in pit-toilet etiquette.
We walked past veined Sticky Purple Geranium (Geranium viscosissimum) with Old Man of the Hills rising in the background. We stopped in the Subalpine Fir (Abies bifolia) shade for respite, next to flaming Common Red Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata), which coordinated nicely with my multicolored umbrella. The previous winter had been relatively mild and June was already too hot (which is why I insisted on bringing my umbrella). Ali brought along a vinegar mix in a spray bottle to avert the few (somehow still surviving) ticks. The entire group smelled of sweat with lingering vinegar for the remainder of the trip. Except my dad would rather pick off ticks than spray himself with vinegar.
We arrived at camp with Old Man of the Hills to our north and Mt. Frazier to our south. The South Fork of Dupuyer Creek flowed beside our camp to make for easy access to decent water. I remember when the rivers were so high as a child. Shortly after a horse accident that resulted in a broken wrist, I went on a pack trip and my white and brown speckled horse, Freckles, slipped in a fast river and I fell off—floating downstream with my off-yellow colored cast high in the air to avoid getting it wet. I swore off horses briefly after this event, determined to walk the remainder of the trip. Of course, I reluctantly hopped right back on (still soaking wet) and held a prolonged grudge towards Freckles.
Nicole made a delicious dinner of pasta and veggies on the propane stove, accompanied with red box wine in rubber mugs. The cook’s job is the most difficult. The cook gets up before everyone else and prepares a thermos of coffee (and decaf coffee per strange demand), organizes breakfast, sets out lunch, and then cooks dinner again (with all allergies, intolerances, and preferences considered). My mom cooked once on a backcountry trip. On that particular trip two people announced they were vegetarians at the last minute, so mom threw a bag of lentils in her saddlebag and created lentil-everything dishes. At the end of the trip there was a blizzard heavy enough to collapse the canvas teepee tents and the only food item left at trip’s end was pistachio pudding. She never cooked on a backcountry trip again.
Although we could use the moisture, I was grateful there was no snow. We all sat around in Crazy Creek chairs with only light jackets and discussed our highlights and frustrations of the day with laughter. I set up my tent on a grassy knoll near Maggie. That evening the sun set on Mt. Frazier with a three-quarter full moon suspended above like a watercolor print. No need for a rain fly. I fell asleep listening to the gentle chomping of mules and a faint ding, ding of the horse’s neck bell.
The next morning the sky was bright and blue and Nicole led the group in a brief morning stretching session. This layover day was free and I spent mine trekking below Old Man in sandals, piling stones to dam a small swimming hole, and examining hairy black and orange moths. I also laid in the shade on a mantie tarp next to Maggie with her chipped turquoise painted toes. Dad disappeared to climb some hill overlooking camp, not concerned with socializing with anyone but the trees.
The next morning we started early and I watched Maggie and Yve in action. Everyone’s belongings were divided to pack into white, hard plastic crates and tested for weight. Then the crates were folded in canvas and wrapped with a mantie rope. Finally the loads were lifted onto the mules and tied snugly with an even load on each side. Maggie owned this process and delegated the rest with tact. We used to act out “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid” and I giggled now to see Maggie as the cowgirl.
Nicole led the hikers uphill past blue purple Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus) and lemon Yellow Columbine (Aquilegia flavescens) to a high ridge crossing in front of Mt. Frazier and Mt. Werner. We continued on a well-maintained trail through chalky white and charcoal burned trees with a floor of lush green shrubs and a multitude of flower hues.
We ate lunch in Blackleaf Canyon with our bare feet resting in Blackleaf Creek. I was getting anxious to move at a faster pace just for the afternoon and headed over the hill to Muddy Creek Canyon on a familiar trail. Although I appreciated the conversations with the others, I also savored the brief solitude and the swift movement of my boots. But up on the hill, I stopped suddenly.
There was nothing in sight, no rustling leaves—but the woods seemed too quiet. There was nothing but a sensed company. I normally yelled out weird phrases in broken Thai to make noise while hiking alone. This also confuses, rather than terrifies, other hikers. But that day I had been too focused and quiet. I continued on to camp hastily without turning back. I’d encountered many bears on the trail over the years, but I still never liked meeting them alone. I convinced myself it was just a mule deer. The others arrived shortly after and reported spotting a grizzly standing only twenty feet from the trail.
That night I felt a large being make an ephemeral stop near my tent. I told myself this was only “bearanoia”—most bears want nothing to do with humans, contrary to popular beliefs. Also, the horses and mules weren’t going wild and I was camped close to other tents. But logic didn’t win and I emerged Nancy Drew from my tent with a headlamp and bear spray to investigate. Again, nothing. The next morning, Bev also reported “something” meandering past her tent. Maybe that was my imaginary mule deer?
On our last day we walked through a windswept meadow with a new backdrop of Choteau Mountain and two unnamed peaks to the north. The sky was clean blue, speckled with puffball clouds. Yve and I helped my dad look for an obscure old two-track, which was our route out. There was some concern over a change in plans and certain worry when the straw-colored plains were visible and appeared to be miles away. We hiked down and down on the hot gravel road, stopping intermittently under Limber Pines (Pinus flexilis) for respite.
After several hours we spotted Maggie’s mom, Mary, walking to greet us with her cowgirl hat. Mary yelled out in her gregarious voice, “Good job, ladies! You made it!” I think a few of the older women groaned.
There were no mountains climbed, and the mules carried the heavy packs. And except for the working staff, there were no frenzied continuous “things to do.” The “locals” were exceptionally grateful to have experienced their backyard and the “beginners” were thankful to have survived (and thrived) on the trip. I was pleased to see my closest friend (who once stated, “I hate horses”) competently succeeding in a small business that she loved. Most of all, I was happy to return home to the mountains with my dad.
Sarah Helen loves to get her shoes muddy. She writes more about being a registered nurse, strange adventures to faraway lands, and other random stories on her blog: www.sarahssunbeam.com.