It’s just cracking light when we gather for a last portrait at the wall tent camp run by Layne Wilcox and his Advantage Backcountry Outfitters. A serious storm is blowing into Montana’s high country.
We’ll all string horses down to the trailhead. Guides Tom Kulesza and Shane Escott flank Jim on the left. Outfitter Layne Wilcox and myself are to the right of Jim. We’re bracing for what promises to be heavy snow and high wind, a tough combination especially when you’re on a horse.
Layne fetches a saddle from the tack tent.
The horses, tied to the hitching rail, are already starting to feel the sting of the wind-driven snow.We’ll each ride a horse, plus we’ll have another three mules in the string.
We’ll each ride a horse, plus we’ll have another three mules in the string.
One of the mules already has my elk head lashed on its pack saddle.
Layne looks at the drifting snow and worries aloud that the trail may be impassable deep in the canyon.
But then he returns to saddling horses and packing mules. Layne may be the outfitter, but he’s a remarkable wrangler and horse packer, legacies of his days as an elk guide and a rodeo cowboy.
Shane’s face gets redder with the whipping wind and the lashing snow. We’re all eager to get out of the high country but we’re not sure what sort of weather awaits us in the Ruby River Valley.
We’re getting close to go time. Layne checks cinches and panniers on the pack stock.
I lay my gloves down to take some photos and in minutes they’re nearly covered with the sifting snow.
Finally, we’re in the saddle and start the string toward the trail. The horses are nervous and edgy in the blizzard. We all hope there’s no wreck on the 4-mile ride.
But once we line out, the horses get comfortable and are well-behaved. They want to be out of the snow as much as we do.
One of many stream crossings. In the lower country the windless snow settles on the pine branches, creating a classic winter-in-the-West tableau.
And in the last mile, the snow lets up. From here on it’s easy going to the horse trailers and pickups.
Our destination: Donna McDonald’s Upper Canyon Outfitters. We’ll spend the rest of Jim’s adventure here, waiting out a Ruby River whitetail. The forecast calls for more snow, but hopefully the wind will be a little more gentle on the valley floor.
A ferocious blizzard will make our ride out of the Montana backcountry a treacherous one.