Paradise Valley, Montana is a beautiful place and one you must see to truly appreciate. A valley with large mountain peaks, open grassland, and the Yellowstone river carving down the middle. It was late evening as I was riding down through the valley watching the sun set over the mountain peaks, creating shadows that darkened much of the valley. I was riding shotgun with my father as we curved down deeper into the valley. We were heading to Gardiner, MT to camp overnight and then onward into Yellowstone the next morning. We had a 4 day pack trip planned on horseback for some work on a forest service cabin, 10 miles north of the park in the wilderness.
We arrived at the Forest Service station after dark, based in Gardiner, where we pulled the truck and horse trailer into the back of the lot. After unloading the horses into a paddock we tried to get some sleep as the next few days were going to be long. We woke as daylight broke in the valley, loaded the horses and into Yellowstone we drove. We still had another hour drive to the trailhead.
Even in the early morning, where most is calm, we found excitement in Yellowstone park. Our trip almost ended before it began. As we were coming over a hill I see some tourists just waving their hands in the air, obviously trying to get our attention but the reason was not revealed. I speak up to dad so he is on full alert, then I realize what they were waving about. As we crest a small hill a large buffalo appeared on our right, heading right for the road and in our direction. It’s not simple to stop a Ford F-350 with a full load of horses and gear in a trailer. You might not even try because if you wreck trying to avoid a wreck you have solved nothing. As the buffalo crossed the edge of the pavement on our right my father began to veer the truck left into the other lane. Just at the critical point right before impact, I guess the buffalo got a full visual of what was about to happen, the buffalo turned to veer down the right side of the truck. If my window was down I could have touched the buffalo’s back as he galloped by. By now we were about to hit the tourists standing in the road with their eyes still wide from watching. However they quickly realized they needed to get out the the road. I’m not sure about my father but I know I had to check my britches when we stopped to get out.
At Slough Creek Trailhead, we unloaded the horses and got our gear loaded to head up the trail. We had four horses with us, two were carrying dad and myself, while the other two were packing our gear. This was my first pack trip, but my father had done this many times since he lived out west. I was no stranger to horses though, we kept those in my younger days and rode in the Appalachian Mountains often. We check the saddle girths, strapped the lever action rifles on our horses and headed down the road. We had to cross Slough Creek before heading up the trail to Buffalo Station, the Forest Service cabin we would be staying at.
Crossing Slough Creek proved to be the most challenging part of the day. Since there was still a lot of snow runoff the creek was high. Large boulders laid at the bottom of the creek that could have easily tripped up a horse. In the water we went, one step at a time, letting the horses have their head to find their own way through the rocks proved they knew what to do. What felt like an hour took us about 2 minutes. One major obstacle crossed, 14 miles of backcountry wilderness ahead.
The ride in was majestic as we climbed up through a outcropping of rock to round the ridge. We could see over the valley below, looking at the creek winding back and forth from one end to the other of the valley floor. Further up the trail the devastation was still apparent from the fires in 1988, many dead trees still standing but only the trunk was left swaying in the wind. Several of the ridges and hillsides were covered in the bare tree trunks. Vegetation was starting to grow back but it takes decades for trees that large to establish in this dry climate. We kept riding, stopping only when needed to check the pack horses and make sure everything was still strapped down. We left the valleys of Slough Creek and followed Buffalo creek up to the cabin. As we neared the cabin it started to rain. As we arrived, we pulled the gear off the horses as fast as we could and put it on the cabin porch or into the tack shed. After turning the horses into the paddock we took shelter inside the cabin. We had arrived and not a moment too soon. Mother nature quickly took a turn for the worse and the clouds that had accompanied us for most of the ride in, decided to downpour.