The idea of a "most remote place in America" conjures a romantic notion. With all the development in our country over the last 200 years, does a "most remote" place still exist? The answer is yes. In terms of being in the center of a circle the farthest distance from any road anywhere in the continental United States, the most remote place is at the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It's surrounded by the wilderness part of Yellowstone, and the Washakie and Teton Wilderness Areas. We had to experience it.
We planned an 80-mile, nine-day pack trip through this region with our two saddle horses and one pack horse. Why do we go alone into large wilderness areas? First, it's easier to manage fewer horses and people. But mostly it's the incredible spiritual connection we feel with nature and our horses. Day-to-day worries are forgotten. We live a minute-to-minute existence with nature, one another, and our horses. An amazing bond develops.
Cast of Characters
The horses we use for trips involving long days and possible strenuous situations must be in good physical condition. With only one pack horse, we're unable to take any horse feed, so they have to get all their nutrition from grazing. That means they need time well before the trip to adjust to green grass to lessen their chance of colicking. We bring horses that are tried-and-true veterans of wilderness pack trips; our lives could depend on it.
We always followed our experienced-horse rule - until this trip. The only wilderness veteran was Charlene's 8-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter, Scout. He'd already been on a number of wilderness pack trips in the West. My horse, Buddy, was a 5-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter who'd just been started the year before. I'd done quite a few day rides on him, but no pack trip. Luckily, he's a level-headed quick learner.
Another problem: We'd also just sold our pack horse, so we had to rent one. Normally, we'd never want to venture into the wilderness with an unknown horse, because he'd need time to develop a herd mentality with our saddle horses. This mentality is important so the horses will act as a well-behaved herd and not be argumentative in dangerous places, such as cliffs.
But fortunately, we had trusted friends in the rental-horse business - Kail and Rene Mantle of Montana Horses (888-685-3697, www.montanahorses.com). If you're ever in the West and need a horse for two weeks or the season, this is the place to go. The Mantle family has been renting horses to outfitters and dude ranches in the west for 50 years.
We told the Mantles exactly what we needed: a horse that could walk fast enough to keep up with our Fox Trotters, would be rock-bottom safe, and could be ridden as well as packed - just in case. They rented us Gator, a 19-year-old, good-natured Tennessee Walking Horse-Quarter Horse cross. We were ready. We had a seasoned horse, a youngster, and a rental pack horse.
The night before our trip, we camped at the Ishawooa trailhead on the South Fork of the Shoshone River, south of Cody, Wyoming, where we planned to leave our rig. That evening, we were filled with suspense and anticipation. The horses seemed to know that something was up. Charlene fed them their last night's grain. As the sun set and alpine glow painted the 12,000 foot peaks across the valley, we wondered what the next day would bring.
Bright and early the next morning, a local outfitter drove us around Cody and up the North Fork of the Shoshone River to the Eagle Creek trailhead, where we'd enter the wilderness. We'd spend the next nine days riding through the wilderness back to our rig. Normally, our pack trips form a loop. However, this one would be point-to-point, shaped like a half circle.
On the way to the trailhead, we passed the little town of Wapiti, where a large fence encircled the elementary-school playground to keep out grizzlies. Earlier, we'd seen a segment on CBS' 60 Minutes about the growing grizzly population in the area. We were going to ride right into the grizzlies' back yard!
When the outfitter left us at the trailhead, he looked at the panniers we had for one pack horse and wondered where the food was. I joked that this was my weight-loss program.
We put the packs on Gator and forded the North Fork of the Shoshone River. (This ford shouldn't be done in early summer, as the water can be too high to cross.) From there, it would be about 15 miles up Eagle Creek to Eagle Creek Meadows, the site of our first camp.
As we worked our way up Eagle Creek, we looked around and enjoyed wilderness views in every direction. Nature was certainly painting a beautiful palette to welcome us. This valley hadn't been burned in the 1988 Yellowstone fires. Trees were dying from beetle infestation, which leaves them vulnerable to fire. However, fire is the natural way forests are recycled and rejuvenated. In Yellowstone, the forests are recovering nicely from the huge fires of 1988.
Riding steadily up the canyon, we saw a number of bird species and smelled the sweet fragrance of wildflowers. We enjoyed the warm sun on our backs and the soft wind on our faces. The pack trip was young, and adventure was in the air. As we enjoyed the rhythmic movement of the horses, we nibbled on our lunch from the horn bags.
After several hours, the trail dribbled to an end. Somewhere, we'd taken a wrong turn, but how? We backtracked the trail and kept an eye out below for the "correct" trail. Finally, we saw our mistake. A tree had fallen across the trail where it rounded a corner. This made it difficult to see that the trail continued straight ahead. At that same point, an animal trail connected to the horse trail, and we'd turned right onto the animal trail.
Eagle Creek Meadows
After five hours of steady riding, we reached the site of our first camp, Eagle Creek Meadows, an idyllic camping location. The meadow is nearly two miles long, filled with lush grass, and complemented by a meandering trout-filled stream. Its upper end is topped with gorgeous snowcapped peaks.
The first editor of Western Horseman requested that after his death his ashes be placed here. This beautiful pristine valley, nature's cathedral, is about as close to heaven on Earth as one could find. And it would be our home for two nights; just a temporary home. No one can own this place; it belongs to all of us.
We rode about two-thirds up the meadow and selected a campsite next to the stream. Our kitchen/fire area was in a group of trees by the water. Off to the side was our tent, and beyond was plenty of grass for our hungry boys. We quickly unloaded Gator, and unsaddled Buddy and Scout. We put the boys in hobbles to graze freely. Charlene started dinner, while I put up an electric corral.
Another horse group camped nearby. As it turned out, these would be the last people we'd see until the final day of our trip.
We spent our first morning at Eagle Creek Meadows enjoying coffee around the campfire. This moment is the essence of pack trips for Charlene. After we put the horses out to graze and get the fire crackling, we love to wrap our hands around a warm cup of coffee, and watch the morning sun come up and lay patterns of light on the landscape around us. These peaceful, beautiful moments are "what it's all about."
We spent our day relaxing, reading, and fishing for brook trout in the nearby stream. The restful day was important, as we had no idea how strenuous the next day would be.
The Longest Day
The next morning, we were up at 6:00. Even with abbreviated coffee time, it still took around three hours to pull up camp and pack. With pack horse in tow, we rode out for a 20-mile day over Eagle Pass and to our next camp on the Yellowstone River.
The trail becomes indistinct at the upper end of Eagle Creek Meadows. Don't take what appears to be the more inviting valley to the right. Instead, ride into the valley on the left, and you'll soon pick up the trail. We worked about six miles up to Eagle Pass. At 9,625-feet elevation, this divide is the boundary between the Washakie Wilderness Area and the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. Here was a great place to pause and look back to see where we came from. We could see Eagle Creek Meadows in the distance far below. How wonderful to travel by horses to such pristine places!
From Eagle Pass, we started into Yellowstone Park and quickly descended into the headwaters of Mountain Creek. We were greeted by tremendous lupine wildflower displays. Many people don't realize that Yellowstone Park is larger than Rhode Island. Only 10 percent of the park is developed with roads, hotels, and services, leaving 90 percent just as wild, free, and remote as when it was declared the world's first national park in 1872. It would be our privilege to ride through this area and relish in its unspoiled beauty, as well as experience its harsh ways.
Soon, we came into portions of the 1988 Yellowstone burn. Although a new forest was flourishing, 50- to 100-foot-tall snags (burned tree trunks) remained. Snags tend to start falling over about 10 years after a fire. We came across dozens of trees felled by recent windstorms. Our horses did a good job of working around them, but we still had to stop often to saw out a path. We used a Swedish chainsaw, which had been my dad's; it's probably 60 years old. It consists of a set of blades that roll up. To use, we simply unroll the blades, put on the handles, and begin sawing. I've seen new versions of these in outdoor stores, but have never seen one as heavy duty as Dad's. With the added work of sawing to our 20-mile ride, we were getting tired!
A near-catastrophe occurred at one of these log crossings. I was in the lead with Buddy. Charlene was following on Scout and leading Gator. Buddy went over a log. Scout, who readily crosses logs, for some inexplicable reason stopped and backed up, catching a back leg in a small loop at the base of Gator's halter. Gator's head was caught. Scout's leg was caught. Confused, they started jumping around on the cliff-side trail.
Charlene didn't realize what was happening. I yelled at her to get off, and she did. But she leaped between the horses, who were now sandwiching her like peanut butter between two pieces of bread. I rapidly dismounted and cut the lead rope that entangled the horses. After their scare, the horses were calm. A near disaster had been averted.
We crossed Mountain Creek and started down the Yellowstone River valley toward our camp. We'd been in the saddle and working around logs for nine hours. Plus, we'd worked more than three hours before that to break camp.
Finally our night's camp along the river came into view; it lay just beyond an area of six-foot-tall brush. At that moment, out of the brush shot up a huge brown mass, only 15 feet from Charlene and Scout. Scout turned and did his best Seabiscuit imitation. Gator broke loose and ran. Buddy turned and scooted out for dear life. After what seemed like 100 yards, but was really only 30 feet, we brought the horses under control. We turned to see the "brown mass" was a cow elk. At least it wasn't a grizzly!
Finally, we reached camp at 7:00 p.m. This spot was only about four miles from the actual center of the most remote place in America. We had hours before dark. In that time, we had to put the horses out to graze, feed ourselves, and set up camp. Just as we were finishing up, a lightning storm hit. At first, it stayed to one side of us. But then lightning started flashing all around us, along with roaring winds and a torrential downpour. We quickly highlined the horses and ran to our small tent.
Inside the tiny tent, we felt like two sausages in a single hot dog bun. Lying in the dark, we could hear rain pelting, thunder booming, and winds howling. Then the winds started blowing down the snags from the 1988 fires. They crashed down around us, occasionally shaking the ground. We wondered how the horses were faring.
We were in a tiny tent surrounded by nature's fury. Once in a while, a flash of lightning would light up our little home. We were 35 miles from the trailhead in one direction and more than 40 miles in the other. We were all alone, except for the wolves and grizzlies that we knew were outside our tent.
As we laid there exhausted, worried, and unable to sleep, we wondered what the night and morning would bring. Join us in additional articles as we awaken at dawn deep in the wilderness. Continue along with us as we travel through the most remote place in America.