By Kelsey Wicks, NOLS backpacking and horsepacking instructor
This past September, I had the opportunity to go on a 13-day horsepacking trip through the Gros Ventre and Wind River Mountains with four good friends, three happy dogs, and five dependable horses.
Jim Culver and Maureen Fox rode with me for the first six days and Liz King and Ari Hertz from for the last seven days. We are all deeply grateful to the NOLS Field Staffing and Training Department, whose support made our trip possible, and also to Jen Sall, Liz Hardwick, and Jim Culver, who were generous enough to provide their horses for the duration of this trip.
Our original plan was to ride from Bondurant to Lander, Wyoming, with a rider switch on September 21 at a friend’s cabin near Mosquito Lake. We went into it knowing that it was an ambitious route that may not end up being realistic, but excited to see new country and what we could accomplish.
The Gros Ventre Mountains are a range that none of us had traveled through before. Jim, Mo, and I were eager to explore this new place. Despite a grim forecast, we set off as planned.
We persevered through three days of cold, wet weather to find ourselves deep in the heart of the mountains without anyone else around. We were blown away by the high views, where we saw Wyoming’s biggest ranges, the Wind River, Gros Ventres, Absarokas, and Tetons, covered in snow.
Another highlight was seeing wolf tracks on the snowy trail, coming across the pack in a meadow, watching them for awhile, and then, after passing by, hearing them sing and howl. Everything about exploring these new mountains felt magical.
On September 21, we rode into our friend Michael’s cabin where we met him, Liz and Ari. We all shared an incredible dinner, and the next morning, Liz, Ari and I waved goodbye, and rode into the Wind River Range via the Green River.
During this part of the trip, we saw only clear, beautiful fall days. We rode long miles, and enjoyed the unique feeling of being the only people in the Winds.
Before crossing the Continental Divide, we found ourselves with five tired horses. The idea of riding into Lander was exciting, but not worth risking the health of our horses. We changed our route, stayed on the west side of the Winds, and got picked up at the Scab Creek campground.
We traveled about 135 miles in total, drinking hot coffee together every frosty morning while we watched our horses and the rising sun.
The decision to change our pick-up wasn’t obvious, but it was best for the health of our herd. This experience was a great opportunity to practice weighing the human and equine variables in decision-making, which is an important horsepacking skill.
Other skills we continued developing were field shoeing, riding long days in new terrain, and working with young horses that were newer to packing and camping. We also gained deeper understandings of our personal values, and the reasons we spend time in the wilderness. All of these lessons benefit us as instructors, because through sharing our own values, memories, and experiences with our students, we can better facilitate the development of their own.