My Montana experience began with a trip to the Bar W Guest Ranch. Located on Highway 93 West just outside of Whitefish, the ranch is in a postcard-perfect setting, nestled in a small valley overlooking Spencer Lake. Throughout this evergreen canopy, which seems to stretch from the ranch to the Rocky Mountains, springs a myriad of beautiful woodland trails.
As part of the Bar W’s innovative Cowgirl-Up package, one of the adventures planned for us was a trip north to Lake Koocanusa and the Canadian border. There, we could ride along the 300-mile fence line that divides Montana, Idaho, and Washington from the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. CBS news had recently run a commentary on the wild mustangs captured in the area and trained as Border Patrol horses.
Lake Koocanusa is the result of a joint project between the United States and Canada to provide flood protection from the ever-fluctuating Kootenai River. The 422-foot-tall Libby Dam holds back the 90-mile-long Lake Koocanusa Reservoir, providing a large recreational water area with many fish species. The name “Koocanusa” is a combination of the KOOtenai River, CANada, and USA.
The ranch provided us with sturdy little mountain horses, many of them purchased from the Blackfeet Indians and wearing the distinctive Blackfeet brand. We trailered through an ever-changing backdrop of sagebrush hills, snowcapped mountains, and open fields studded with horses to a trailhead near Swisher Lake. Then it was time to ride!
On the Border
Once underway, we found ourselves meandering through groves of ponderosa pines interspersed with several old logging roads crisscrossing in all directions. Various parts of the forest had suffered from past wildfires, giving birth to semi-cleared spaces now being taken over by the field grasses, albeit sparse and brittle after the early fall frost.
Suddenly, we were confronted by a long wire fence that was more decorative than functional. We had reached the borderline.
My mount was a rangy gray Arabian-type gelding named Abu. In my mind, Abu morphed into the proverbial white desert stallion, a Pegasus taking flight.
As we were “flying” along the beach, above us, a bald eagle perched on the topmost branch of a lone pine rooted on an upward cliff. Leah, one of our wranglers, spotted it first and told us she would try and call it down from its roost. We waited, listening as she emitted a series of raucous cries, and then watched, spellbound as the eagle swooped like an arrow straight toward us. He’d interpreted Leah’s call as one of his kind and was in direct flight to seek it out. Sensing his mistake, he changed course, leaving us in awe.
Lake Koocanusa is an immense turquoise jewel shimmering with flecks as windswept waves pushed their way to shore. The lake’s beach was our lunch spot. Adding dimension to the long stretches of pure sand were scatterings of small stones and rocks of amazing shades of blues, pinks, and purples, the source of much of the fine jewelry created by Montana craftspeople.
Leaving the lake, we rode through an opening leading up to the forested ridges. One last look at our newfound paradise rewarded us with a burst of sun, illuminating the yellowing grasses into brilliant gold that contrasted with the cool greens and blues of the lake.
By late afternoon, we’d wound our way back to the trailer. This had been the ride of a lifetime!