My Romance With the Backcountry

By Melissa Hemken

Sometimes the breeze wafts down the Lander slope and brings the scent of mountain to the town streets. I inhale long at those moments, as I do when in the backcountry. My preferred way see the mountains is from the back of a horse, whether on day rides, personal pack trips or guiding for outfitters.

When wrangling for the Diamond 4 Ranch, I meet the guests heading out with me into the Shoshone National Forest on the lodge porch. A family of five from Boston, parents and three teenage girls, they are first-time Wyoming visitors. As my dogs, Miles and Chip, are jockeying to be close, they are introduced at once. Jim Allen, Diamond 4 owner, and I show our route on the topographical map spread flat on the picnic table. Supper resting in our stomachs as the sun makes the meadow and surrounding pines glow.

The next morning is not as serene. The family drops their personal gear at the barn before breakfast, and we make the balanced pannier loads. As we’re going to the Sanford Park base camp set up earlier this summer, we don’t have to haul a full camp. Just replenish gear, supplies and bring food for our five-day stay. I memorize horse names as we saddle: Geronimo, Brandy, Cowgirl, Willow, Lene.

Mary Allen, Jim’s wife, teaches Horse 101 to the family—how to mount, direct the horse and stop along with basic horse psych—as we throw loads and try to remember anything forgotten. Once lined out on the trail, I take a deep breath of mountain.

I’m riding my horse Hondo, who I describe as an energizer bunny. He chafes at walking slowly in the back leading the pack string. Lunch along the bank of the North Fork of the Popo Agie River provides me the opportunity to let the family know they can ignore Chip and her fetch sticks.

I enjoy wildflowers, and the Wind River Mountains provide a colorful array. Whether the family wants to hear or not, I call out the Fireweed, Stone Crop, Lewis’ Monkeyflower and Scarlet Gilia as we pass.

The trail winds along the North Fork as we gain elevation and then we’re at the bottom of the elongated Sanford Park with high peaks forming the Continent’s backbone rising above. We quickly unload our packs, direct the family to their tents, and untack and feed the horses.

While supper is being prepped, I grab picket pins and head to the meadow to set pickets for our lead horses. The “followers” will be hobbled and allowed more freedom to graze at night. When packing, one of my luxuries is to bring my ukulele. I pull it out to play as the alpenglow slips from peaks, a bull moose wades in the river shallows, and the fire flames pop.

Camp falls into a rhythm: morning day ride with fishing, naps and games in the late afternoon. We ride up to Cliff Lake with the highest waterfall I’ve seen in the Winds. On our return a bull moose blocks our way, with a lake on one side and a steep slope on the other we have to wait. Finally he drifts to a choice grass patch and we slide past. I turn eagerly to the dad, at four yards his camera would have captured a great shot, but in his excitement he forgot to use it!

Chip has been so spoiled by the family’s willingness to throw sticks she greets them at their tent doors as they emerge for the day. She will be bereft that we’re heading back to the Diamond 4 tomorrow.

The trail out has thoughts moving to the family’s dog and their driving route home. And I begin to identify what blends the mountain scent: pine needles heated by the sun, the lichen wearing off its rock, aspen leaves quaking, flowers swaying, water over rocks, and me pulling it into my lungs. I wish I could bottle it and send it to Boston with the family.