Our trip started at Wind River Outfitters in Dubois, (“do-boys“) with Meyer and his wrangler Cody Brown. We tried to stay out of the way watching Meyer and Brown get the horses ready and loaded into the trailers. “You really have to watch where you walk around here,“ Alex said to me as another horse was led into the trailer. “Why is that?“ I asked him. “There’s horse manure everyplace!“ he said. “You’d better get used to it,“ I replied. “We’ll be living with them for the next five days.“
A couple of hours later, after a brief explanation from Brown on how to ride the trail horses, we were on our trusty steeds, following Meyer and Brown up a narrow trail into the Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area of the Shoshone National Forest. Susan, Maxx and I had to learn about our animals’ idiosyncrasies, where they liked and didn’t like to walk, how close they liked to stay to the horse in front, and more. Alex, however, took to his horse like a rodeo pro. He was a joy to watch as he gamboled over the mountain terrain.
The trail led up and over Whiskey Mountain (so named because an illegal ’still was once located there). That area, and the surrounding forest, went up in flames under suspicious circumstances one night about 70 years ago. The summit was treeless, but a dazzling array of wildflowers of every color met our gaze. Indian paintbrush, daisies and buttercups, bluebells, purple asters, and many others I couldn’t identify, stretched out along the ridge as far as we could see. Orange lichens, gripping the rocks for survival, completed the rainbow effect. Higher up, the spectacular snow-capped peaks of the range loomed in the distance.
On the way up we encountered patches of snow. Snow in July! Al-though I grew up in New England, my boys, born and raised in Florida, had never seen the real stuff before. We all dismounted to play in the snow, and their attempt to have a snowball fight was hilarious — neither one knew how to make a snowball. I had to show them. But sliding down snowy hills? They figured that out quickly all on their own, and they thought sliding down a wet, cold and snowy hill on their rear ends was fun!
While on the summit, Meyer pointed out many of the nearby landmarks. “Down below us are Ring Lake and Trail Lake. There’s good fishing in both of them. Off to the west is Squaretop Mountain. You can see why they call it that. And that butte over there,“ he said, pointing at the distant feature in question, “is Crowheart Butte.“
Meyer continued, “The story goes that a little more than 100 years ago the Shoshone and Crow natives had a big battle over there. The Crow chief Big Robber and the Shoshone chief Washakie fought each other on top of the butte. Washakie came down off the butte. Big Robber did not.“
HOME SWEET HOME
The trail led steeply downward, but the horses easily negotiated the rocky terrain. Meyer lead the pack train along the path unerringly, and eventually led us into the narrow valley of Wasson Creek. In a lovely little meadow cut by the creek we set up base camp.
Immediately after arrival, we got to work. Horses’ packs needed to be unloaded and saddles removed. The animals needed to be put out to graze. Tents needed to be pitched. Firewood needed to be gathered and water had to be carried. I was surprised at how quickly we became winded. Meyer noticed our heavy breathing, and explained about the altitude and the effect it was obviously having upon us. “It’s about 9000 feet here. At 10,000 feet there’s one- third less oxygen than at sea level“, he said. No wonder we Floridians were all huffing and puffing.
As soon as camp was set up, our guides started working on dinner. The menu included fried chicken tenders, mashed potatoes and green beans — and plenty of it. Sitting down to dinner gave us the chance to discuss the day’s adventure, especially the horses. Susan, Maxx and I wanted some pointers on horse-handling skills.
“A horse will only do two things,“ said Meyer, “what you let them do and what you make them do. You have to make sure they know you’re the boss.“ Meyer also told us we should never let the horses eat while riding. “They start looking for food instead of watching where they’re going — not a good thing. Horses aren’t like dogs. If they were as smart as dogs, they’d never let us ride them.“
Our mornings quickly settled into a comfortable routine: Wake up and get dressed, wash the face and hands, then wander into the mess tent. Coffee would be ready and a solid breakfast under construction. We would all eat and chat, then get ready for the day’s ride. Brown did most of the work, rounding up and saddling the horses, and assembling lunch. Then off we would go, mounted up for the day to see the countryside, wildlife, or go fishing.
The countryside was astonishing. We passed through thick stands of lodgepole and sugar pines, Engleman and alpine spruce, and Douglas fir trees. Dwarf mistletoe, a parasitic plant, frequently grows in clumps on evergreens here, forming a tangled growth that looks like “witch’s hair,“ its nickname. Narrow forest meadows, lushly green and populated by a kaleidoscope of wildflowers, greeted us at every clearing.
Crystal-clear streams supported beautiful brook trout, some of which could be seen darting to and fro, alarmed by our passing. High alpine meadows were found near and in the mountain passes. There, the grass was sparse, the flowers plentiful, and rock outcroppings were everywhere.
One day we climbed to Rebar Pass. The pass was named for the steel reinforcement bars used to support concrete embankments holding sections of the trail in place on the steep cliff face. Meyer announced we needed to dismount here for a while. “It’s too steep here for the horses to go down while they carry us.“ We started down, each of us walking just ahead of our horse. Meyer told us that it’s easier to lead a horse by the reins than to walk a dog on a leash; and that a horse can walk almost anywhere a human can. The riderless horses negotiated the terrain easily, and we arrived at Ross Lake without incident, ready to do a little fishing.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of alpine lakes are found in the Wind River Range. Carved out by ancient glaciers and fed by melting snow, many of these high lakes are cold and deep, and provide excellent habitat for a variety of trout species. Cutthroat, rainbow, brown, golden, and brook trout were plentiful, and reportedly easy to catch.
Ross Lake holds rainbows and cutthroats that average 20 inches in length. And let’s just say that these big boys presented a much more formidable challenge than the 8-inch brook trout many of the other lakes held. I fished it hard, got four bites and hooked only one fish, which broke off on my lightweight gear. My boys also had many bites, but only hooked and released a couple of undersize rainbows. But as any true angler knows, it’s not really about the fish.
You couldn’t ask to fish in a more stunning natural setting. High peaks, many covered with glaciers, surrounded us, poking their pointed party hats into a brilliant blue sky mottled with cotton-ball, white clouds. The fishing was spectacular, even if the catching wasn’t.
Meyer brought bison bratwurst for our lunch on this particular day. “Lunch is at one o’clock,“ he told us before we went off to explore the lake. Wanting to catch a fish more than I wanted to eat, I lost track of time, casting my line well into the lunch hour. I was delayed long enough that my boys were sent to find me. “The bratwursts are delicious!“ they said. “There are four left for you.“
On the way back we passed a couple of hikers. I paused to discuss the fishing with them, and watched their two dogs running back and forth. Now paying attention to my hunger because I was no longer fishing, my mouth was watering at the prospect of delicious bison bratwursts.
I scurried back into camp, drooling in anticipation for my awaiting lunch. “Where are my bratwursts?“ I asked. He looked up and replied, “Did you see those two hikers go by earlier? Their dogs must have eaten them, and I don’t have any more!“
Oh! My poor, growling tummy! My lunch went from four delicious bison bratwursts to only three chocolate-chip cookies in the blink of a dog’s eye. Proof once again that when you snooze you lose, he who hesitates is lost, the early bird gets the worm, and probably several other old and dusty clichés.
That day’s missed lunch aside, it was like most of our days in the Wind River Range. We explored the countryside, fished some more, ate more, and rode more. We also relaxed, enjoyed the good company of our guide and wrangler, ourselves and the horses.
RIDE INTO THE SUNSET
All too soon it was the final morning of our trip, and camp was busy with the packing of horses, and getting ready for the 9-mile ride back to the trailhead. The hopeful and anticipating chatter of that first morning was replaced with a quiet, reflective mood.
We had been graced with a wonderful wilderness experience, learned something about horses, discovered how the native inhabitants lived with the land, heard stories of pioneers and explorers, seen some incredible country, and probably gained five pounds each. It had been a perfect family adventure.