Half the fun is getting out there and back
[by Ben Romans]
A few weeks ago, someone asked me to describe what it was like to ride a horse through the heart of Montana’s largest designated wilderness, the Bob Marshall Complex. I thought about it for a minute.
Only one word came to mind—pain, and lots of it. But it’s a good kind of pain, if there actually is such a thing.
It’s one thing to roll an ankle or pull a hammy wading across slippery rocks, but sitting in a saddle is not a natural position for feet, thighs, hips, or the back. Don’t get me started on what it does to the buttocks. Depending on the size of the steed, your own personal proportions, and “little things” like how you lean during the ride—it’s not a question of if you will be sore, but when, and for how long. Sometimes you can ride for hours and work out the kinks in just as long. Other times, your knees feel like they’re on fire and you shuffle around for two days like you’re walking on stilts, hindered by sore joints and muscles you didn’t know existed.
On the plus side, riding a horse is certainly better than walking 15 miles.
Flash back to summer 2015. After weeks of planning, low water levels, raging wildfires, and other natural wrenches in the gears forced my friends and me to rain check our trek to the South Fork of the Flathead. The year 2016 brought improved conditions, and I reveled in the planning and anticipation of our foray as much as I did the trip itself.
From the trailhead, we followed a fork of the Sun River upstream along its secluded banks turn for turn awhile, watched the water volume dwindle the farther we worked upstream, and eventually stared from a narrow, steep, shale-laden trail 100 feet down at one of its tributary headwaters. Soon after, the sight and sounds of the creek disappeared, and a new spring coursed in the opposite direction. We didn’t need a map to know we’d crossed over into the South Fork drainage.
For the next few miles, I brought up the rear and inhaled dust kicked up from my cohort’s steeds. But my trailing position offered a view of the group—a group that had been riding tall, loud, and energetic a few hours earlier now appeared worn out, slumped over their animals, hushed, tired, and dehydrated. Some people don’t like the idea of snoozing on the ground, but we sure did sleep good that night.
It may seem odd to take so much joy in the voyage in and out as I do the trip itself, but it’s all part of the adventure. Years ago, trips to fishy places and wild water became more about the experience as a whole rather than just a mission to land whatever I’d traveled so far to catch. I found I enjoyed the fringes of those moments—things like the quiet, lonely departure from home, the smell of horse sweat on old saddle leather, shoring the boat at the final rendezvous point, and of course, that long, dusty drive back to civilization (replete with the most delicious cheeseburger I’ve ever had).
Getting there and back is simply part of the fun. Are the hours behind the wheel, miles logged under clip-clapping hooves, and expensive shuttle tab worth it? Oh yeah, you bet—bring on the pain.