A Journey into the Yellowstone Backcountry
BY ERIC LADD
Eleven miles into the Yellowstone backcountry and quietly seated on a log alongside the Lamar River, Kelsey, 10, writes in her journal nearby her favorite horse “Chad,” sporting his freshly braided tail and mane.
Chad is a Haflinger breed and part of the Rockin’ HK Outfitters team, and most agree he’s one of the best looking of the herd. Kipp Saile, owner of Rockin’ HK, has operated backcountry trips into Yellowstone since 1998 and this week his guests are three generations of my family in the park for a four-day pack trip.
Kelsey is soon joined on the log by Jessie to further discuss life, the importance of space, calm, horses and the trip. Kelsey rated the day a perfect score, and what’s not to love, she says. “Horses, camping, Yellowstone Park. It’s a total 10!”
Grandma and Grandpa are seated in the distance, admiring their granddaughter, her spirit and her love for the horses and mules surrounding her. Last night, Grandma Cheryl helped arrange for Kelsey to switch her broken sleeping pad for horse pads, and the new odor for the tent was quickly renamed “Kelsey’s perfume,” a 10-year-old horse lover’s dream come true.
The art of slowing down and moving 3 mph is becoming a pastime for our family, something we all enjoy and need more of in our lives. Whether its rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, hiking the dogs on Porcupine Trail in Big Sky or riding on a pack trip with Kipp and his team of 21 horses and mules.
The speed, 3 mph, is the perfect pace for three generations of our family and we need more of it. The math is simple: 11 miles on horse divided by an average of 3 mph equals 3.6 hours in the saddle. Add in a lunch and bathroom stop, and it’s the perfect pace for a fun-filled day.
“The art of slowing down and moving 3 mph is becoming a pastime for our family. Something we all enjoy and need more of in our lives. whether its rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, hiking the dogs on the Porcupine Trail in Big Sky or riding on a pack trip with Kipp and his team of 21 horses and mules.”
Yellowstone National Park sees more than 4 million annual visitors each year and yet less than 1 percent get more than 1 mile from the road. Kipp and Rockin’ HK arranged for our group of eight, with an age span from 10 to 70, to have three nights and four days on the Lamar River, isolated in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone.
The Lamar River is famous for the roadside viewing of the massive bison herds and healthy wolf populations which have created historic traffic jams, so getting to dive 11 miles off the road is a treat and creates a certain sense of calm at camp.
Kipp has spent 23 years mastering the art of taking strings of mules, horses and guests into the backcountry. His stock is seasoned, his wranglers adept, meals nourishing and his jokes and tales are on point.
Kipp moved to Montana from Michigan where he spent many years living in the early rough and tough years of Big Sky before developing a passion and skillset for becoming an outfitter. He loves his horses, knows each of their personalities and is grateful for the peace and isolation the park provides with his crew, guests and family. It’s not uncommon to hear him use the word “lucky” when describing his business and his love for the park is evident.
The Rockin’ HK team includes Kipp’s wife Heidi and their children Wyatt, Wilson and Scarlett, also integral parts of the business. Rockin’ HK Outfitters has a coveted permit for operating in the park and has a variety of trips offering everything from dedicated fishing excursions to 10-day trips into some of the most remote sections of Yellowstone.
Pack trips involve a tremendous amount of logistical planning including reliable stock, a strong knowledge of operating safely in the backcountry and the ability to plan complex packing management. It’s not uncommon to have amazing wildlife encounters like our breakfast one morning that included a 2,000-plus-pound bison roaming into the camp area and having a standoff with the mules.
Back at Camp 3L7, the smoke-filled skies have created a dramatic sunset as Jessie and Kelsey dive deeper into stories, gratitude and theories on how to stay warm during the looming cool fall night. Grandpa Roger declares that it’s time to play Yahtzee as the family gathers around the table and the spirited game of dice rolling commences.
Nephew Killian, 14, sits on the shore of the mighty Lamar River thoughtfully cleaning the lenses of his camera, and has been awarded trip photographer duties this week, a perfect assignment for this up-and-coming photographer with a great eye.
Wrangler and camp cook Kristen prepares dinner as Kipp begins grilling off-hand cut tenderloin steaks. The outfitting business is one that requires long days and short nights and with a slight twist of “glamping,” the crew delivers a great backcountry product.
The camp setting is idyllic: riverside meal, tepees to sleep in, a bison roaming through the edge of camp and endless stories told by the wranglers of bears, wolves, elk and renegades who have roamed the park for years.
Slowing down to 3 mph is not only a needed reminder for our family, but society in general, and operators of such activities are becoming celebrated.
Exiting the Lamar Valley after four days, our group rides along a high ridge above the Lamar River with hundreds of bison dotting the valley floor. One large male bison blocks the trail and our group carefully navigates around the powerful creature while spotting a sneaky badger in the sage brush.
A large bald eagle sits atop a tree hunting the riverbanks as the sun creates dramatic flares filtered by the smoke and hillsides. Approaching the trailhead, Kipp and his boys greet the group and celebrate with a tailgate feast of snacks and cold drinks. While the horses are unsaddled, our group sits amongst the horse trailers, cold beer and LaCroix in hand, three generations of family sharing hugs and handshakes with the crew that’s now a new extended family. The art of moving 3 mph, Yellowstone park style, has us all grateful for the experience.
Eric Ladd is the publisher of Mountain Outlaw magazine.