Posted on Thursday, April 11th, 2013
The vast wilderness areas surrounding the Wind River Valley are ideal for pack trips. These undeveloped lands stretch all the way to Yellowstone Park and are probably the wildest and least crowded left in the lower 48 states. They are protected from development by the Wilderness act of 1983 and previous acts of Congress. All motors are prohibited in these areas and not even chain saws are allowed. A new nation like the United States lacks the ancient, historical treasures of the old world, but we do have some of the world’s most beautiful and unspoiled wilderness areas as a national treasure and some of the best of it is right here.
An excellent way to visit this wild kingdom is on horseback with pack animals to carry your gear in the same manner as the early mountain men. Competent outfitters will take you deep into virgin forests and cross vertiginous mountain passes far above timber line, where golden eagles catch the updrafts on the lookout for an unwary pika, hoary marmot or gold mantled squirrel. You can see big horned sheep, elk, mule deer and occasionally moose. Camps on pack trips are usually pitched in Alpine meadows carpeted with a profusion of wild flowers near crystal clear mountain streams.
The horses are critical to the success of these pack trips and you learn to appreciate them, not only because they carry you and your gear, but also as responsive companions. Their agility on steep, rocky trails often amazes guests. They will scramble up uncomplainingly from the valley floor on difficult trails to top over a pass more than 2,000 ft. above and then drop off the other side, taking sharp switchbacks to the next valley floor. They are seemingly immune to vertigo. Guests live in close proximity to them during pack trips and to know them well.
Just as in the times of the mountain men of old, the horses have to live from the land and every evening as the packs and saddles come off they must be allowed to graze for several hours on the rich grasses of the high meadows. Horses used to have to be picketed or hobbled and sometimes they were belled so that they would be easier to find in the morning. Taking care of this used to be quite a task for the wranglers. These days it is more convenient to let the animals go free inside a portable electric fence, which is quite easy to carry.
Usually the days pass with no sign of civilization or an encounter with other people. One returns to the tempo of nature and leads the kind of life our distant ancestors and the early explorers did. The experience brings the history of the West into clearer focus and makes it much easier to comprehend what the early arrivals dealt with. The persona of your pack trip guide is also vital to the total experience. Do not expect him to be loquacious, but, if encouraged, he can unfold a great wealth of knowledge gained over years in the mountains. He can also recount a wealth of personal adventures; encounters with grizzlies, horses spooked away at night, etc. A glimpse of life through his eyes may give you a broader way of looking at the world; a different Weltanschauung.
The mountains rise to nearly 14,000 ft. and some of the passes between valleys will be over 11,000 leaving the timberline at 10,500 ft. far below. Usually camps are in valley floors, where there are occasional alpine meadows, but most of the lower areas are heavily forested with groves of aspen, stands of smooth, straight lodgepole pine, majestic Douglas fur and the twisted trunks of limber pine. The limber pine is one of the world’s longest living trees and can last over a thousand years. A subspecies of it called the whitebark pine lives at the higher altitudes and the large nuts of these trees are an important food supply for grizzly bears. Squirrels and birds love them too, as did Native Americans in years past.
As the pack train climbs higher and higher above timberline the panorama spread out below is breathtaking. On most days you can see well over a hundred miles. As you top over a high pass a whole new view opens up and it is fascinating how different each valley is from another, due to the capricious actions of Wyoming geology. One place is green from copper and another tinged red from iron. Some spots are pure bentonite, making grey splotches where nothing grows, others are rock covered with many colors of lichen and still others are fertile soil growing grass and shrubs.
The descent from the heady summit of the pass is somewhat easier than the upward climb and perhaps there is a chance to hear the squeal of a hoary marmot and to catch a glimpse of him before plunging back into the trees. The most common sound to shatter the tranquility of the forest is the raucous cry of the Clark’s nutcracker, a member of the jay family, which feeds on the pine nuts and is an abundant year round resident. Once the campsite is reached the packs and saddles come off the horses, tents are pitched and the campfire is lit. A frequent visitor in these places is the grey Canada jay or “camp robber”. They will swoop down to grab a scrap right beside you and when they get used to you will take a piece of bread from your hand. The beautiful blue Steller’s jay with its distinctive crest is far more shy, but can often be seen on the periphery of the camp. In the stillness of the night one is often entertained by a concert of howling coyotes echoing through the mountains.
A pack trip into the untamed wilderness far from civilization is always an adventure. The wilderness, by its very nature, cannot be entirely controlled or programmed and that is one of its great charms. After a few days you will adjust to the slower, more contemplative rhythm of wilderness life and the frenzied pace and frustrating pressures of the busy outside world will fade. This kind of trip allows you to live more closely with horses than any other since the horses are constantly in close proximity.
Our Wyoming ranch which borders the national forest, is an ideal headquarters for these wilderness pack trips.
By Bayard Fox