A Transcendental Trip

Horseback riding in Wyoming's back country is the best kind of R&R - even with the bears.

America's Horse

“You don’t have a can of bear spray, do you?”

When that’s the conversation starter, you know you’re in for an in interesting ride.

Marilyn Wegweiser, a friend of mine who, at the time, lived in Cody, Wyoming, was explaining what I might need to take with me on a backcountry pack trip through the nearby Shoshone National Forest. And she was right … this Oklahoma girl didn’t have any bear deterrent on hand.

But Ron Good, who runs Sheep Mesa Outfitters in Cody, just chuckles when he hears about the worse-case scenarios I’ve been playing in my head.

“We’ve learned to live with the grizzly,” he says. “We use camping practices and techniques that cut down on conflict.”

He explained that in the 1960s, bears became accustomed to feeding out of the dump grounds in Yellowstone National Park, which adjoins the Shoshone forest. “They became habituated to people,” he said. “But the bears today have become much more self-sufficient.”

These days, most bears want the same thing we humans do: to keep the two species at bay.

“We really take care of our food, more than anything,” Ron says. “We either put it in what they call bear boxes (metal lock boxes that are in established campgrounds), or we will hang our food every night off a pole and get it out of a bear’s reach. As long as you can keep it out of their reach, then normally you don’t have a problem at all.”

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And I suppose, when you’re talking to someone who has been taking horseback trips into the wilderness practically all his life, you should believe him.

Ron’s father began working as an outfitter in the 1950s. In the early '80s, Ron took over the family business, and he takes guests on hunting, camping, even photography trips into the backcountry of Yellowstone and the Shoshone forest.

“Trips are three to 15 days long,” he says. “We see all kinds of country. I’ve met all kinds of terrific people and made friends from all over the world.”

The longer trips might extend 100 miles or more, with every other day being a travel day. Along the way, campers can fish, hike or – if they haven’t had enough of it – ride.

The photography trips include a professional photographer who gives lessons on wildlife or scenic photography. Not surprisingly, Ron says “there are a lot of opportunities for grizzly bear photography in this area.” Bears congregate in the high alpine areas, above the timberline, and telephoto lenses allow photographers to snap them from a safe distance.

Hunting trips run from September through December, and elk, deer and mountain sheep are the primary prey.

In all of this, horses are integral. Can you imagine getting a bounty of elk meat off a mountain any other way?

Even on a seemingly simple overnight trip … well, it wouldn’t be so simple without the horses.

Ron sums it up: “We’d be wearing backpacks. We’d be eating freeze-dried food instead of New York strips. Adding water to stroganoff.”

With the extra luxury of pack horses and mules, “We kind of get spoiled,” he says. “I try to keep what we bring to a minimum and yet keep it really comfortable. Some of the new technology in camping has helped. The tents are lighter, the equipment is lighter and easier to use.”

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Ron, Marilyn and I – along with Sandra Whalen who came along as a cook – went into the Shoshone forest for an overnight stay. But if you think about the amount of food required for four people and all the gear required, “It’s a lot of work,” Ron says.

We did, in fact, dine on New York strip steaks high in a mountain meadow. Sandra also packed a dozen eggs into a “pannier,” the containers strapped to each side of the pack animals. All 12 arrived intact and made for a sumptuous alfresco breakfast the next day, along with hash browns and bacon cooked over the campfire.

I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed any meals more than those. But that wasn’t the highlight of the trip for me. It was simply the time spent horseback, with trees hugging the trail and the only sound the soft thud of hooves on dirt. The brisk air cleaned my lungs and cleared my mind.

Marilyn, a geologist and paleontologist, offered periodic bits of insight on the ancient rocks jutting through the forest floor.

Midway through the ride, climbing upward, I was so entranced by the experience that even the sight of a bear print – big enough that I think I could’ve gotten both my size 6 feet inside it – didn’t bother me. (I will admit, however, to a little trepidation once I saw the bear box at our campgrounds, scarred with claw marks from bears trying to pry their way inside.)

Once at the campgrounds, taking care of the horses was first priority. Ron set up a lightweight electric fence that would hold my horse, Marilyn’s and one of Sandy’s mules. Once we watered the horses from a spring-fed mountain stream, we turned those few into the corral. The others – Ron’s horse and the pack animals – were turned loose in the expansive meadow.

“We always camp near a big meadow, some place where the horses can feed,” Ron explains. “We don’t really pack any feed, other than a small amount of horse cubes to catch them if we have trouble catching them …They really do well on the grass up here. They love it. It’s very good grass for them so they do great. They never lose weight. It’s an endless supply.”

About half of the roaming horses wore bells around their necks. “It’s just a good way to locate them if they go into heavy timber and you can’t really see them,” Ron says. “I think the bells are a bear deterrent, as well. The bears know that we’re in the area when they hear the bells, and they usually avoid us.”

Ron has more than 30 mules and horses, and many of them are Quarter Horses. The mules are used mainly for packing.

His needs are pretty specific: He is taking guests, with varying levels of riding experience, across terrain that can be challenging and exhausting.

His basic philosophy on horses: “You want a freight truck rather than a Maserati.”

“In a good mountain horse, I look for something with good bone, a good heavy-boned animal, because it’s pretty rugged country. I like something with big feet. They seem to hold up better over the years if they’ve got good, big, black feet and heavy bone. And good-muscled animals, deep-chested animals. That gives them a lot of wind.”

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He seldom allows riders to bring their own horses, although he doesn’t rule it out. Marilyn brought along her own American Quarter Horse, Blazin Bitzy, and got along just fine. But the two of them were acclimated to the climate and terrain and were used to taking long rides through the mountains.

The horse part of the experience makes it so much more than just a camping trip. Watching the horse cavort in the meadow, throwing in a few bucks even after the strenuous ride and hungrily taking bites of the lush grass, it’s obvious “they’re happy when they’re here,” Ron says. “They really enjoy it. They’re getting all the green grass they can stand, they have freedom, they’re up in the mountains. They enjoy it as much as we do.”

So they’re not just beasts of burden for Ron? A means to make a living? He chuckles again.

“They’re my pride and joy. I try to take the best care that I can of them. I ask them to work hard, too, and they do work hard for me. I try to turn them loose any time I can. I think they appreciate that … and want to work for you more.”