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High on the Trail in Wyoming

Published: July 11, 1999, New York Times

TWENTY horses -- 10 with packs, 10 with riders -- were following Caldwell Creek in single file down narrow cascades of water spilled off high canyon walls. The creek roiled, tossing logs and boulders as if they were bath toys. Our mounts struggled to keep their footing as forest floor metamorphosed into water course. A cry went up; we turned to see a surge of water and mud explodin Brown Rock Canyon. The rain had been steady and hard for 30 minutes; cg over the rim. Minutes later a mud tsunami came crashing halfway to the hips of the last pack horses.
''Clearin' up!'' sang out Press Stephens, the lead rider. ''Clearin' up!'' His weather forecast, mixed with laughter, was relayed along the line. We were not seasoned riders who displayed such cool in the face of danger, but middle-aged urban- and suburbanites, many with sketchy riding experience. It was a tribute to Press that on Day 6 of our seven-day adventure into the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming last July, we trusted that he -- and his sturdy mountain horses -- would bring us safely through.
Indeed, in another hour or so, the canyon widened on our side of the creek into a high, grassy meadow, and just as we dismounted, sunshine came streaming down. After five days of intermittent showers, it truly was ''clearin' up.'' Within two hours, tents were pitched and clothes were drying around a campfire. Press, who had managed to find a clear-water spring feeding into the muddy creek and build a fire, was spooning up cream of potato soup.
This campsite, like our previous two, provided flat, grassy places for pitching tents, nearby trees with downed timber for plentiful firewood, a potable water source, good grazing for horses and magnificent views. But this time, instead of looking down from more than 10,000 feet on valleys and across to snow-covered peaks, at merely 8,000 feet we were looking up at the canyon wall across the creek. The next morning, mountain sheep would gambol and pose against this craggy backdrop.
It was hard to believe that we were only three hours by horse from our starting and finishing point at the Wiggins Fork of the Wind River, an area thick with recreational vehicles, and another three hours by car west to Jackson Hole, where ice-cream-licking tourists swarmed sidewalks in search of T-shirts. In the course of our seven-day adventure we would see only two people not of our party -- Forest Service employees conducting a grassland study -- and that was within the first hour.
What kept our private paradise private was a forbidding terrain of deep canyons and snowy mountain passes. We were in the northwest quadrant of Wyoming, inside the Washakie Wilderness Area, where motors -- from chain saws to four-wheel-drive vehicles -- are banned. Stiff climbs and grizzly bears discourage most hikers.
It's a land best explored on horseback, and only a handful of outfitters are licensed to conduct tours here. Our happy choice was Press Stephens, who, at 47, has been operating his own outfit since 1979. He continually varies the route he takes. This one would give our group of eight friends spectacular scenery, lots of wildlife, six nights of camping out, but not too much hard riding.
The group spent the first night in a motel in Dubois, where we joined Press and his wrangler, Christy Hansel -- a cheerful recent college graduate -- for dinner. Press told us that the original plan had changed because a crucial pass was still snowed in, but he had another trip in mind that should prove equally or even more beautiful.
After a big breakfast at a cafe, Press ferried us and our luggage by van into the national forest. It took three hours to adjust saddles and load luggage, camping gear and food onto the pack horses. Press asked if anyone minded if his two Australian kelpies came along. We enthusiastically welcomed the little black and tan herding dogs.
We rode for about two hours, climbing steadily. The vegetation changed from sagebrush to conifer stands strewn with wildflowers. Stalks of purple lupine were interspersed with daisy-like yellow arnica and splashes of red Indian paintbrush. It looked as if all the garden clubs of Wyoming had been on a manic planting spree.
Lunch was baloney and cheese on whole wheat: not fancy, but we were happy to get off our horses and rest by the side of Bug Creek, which luckily did not live up to its name. Two more hours of riding and we were above the tree line, watching 50 or so elk -- mothers and young -- cross a snow-covered ridge. There was a descent of another 40 minutes to a high-meadow camp with views of fantastic rock formations called hoodoos, caused by the wind eroding soil over composite rock, that looked like cobblestones set haphazardly into mortar.
We put up our tents, one for each couple and one each for the two single women. Besides the tent floor, pads and thick flannel sleeping bags would keep us off the hard, cold ground. Press and Christy unsaddled the horses and -- except for two kept in camp to round up the others -- turned them loose, unhobbled, to graze. After supper, (spaghetti with meat sauce, salad and wine), Press brought out his backpacker Martin guitar and sang ''San Antonio Rose'' in a Bob Wills tenor.
Our first breakfast -- generous and delicious -- set the pattern for all the others on the trail. Press served up a big pot of coffee, fresh cantaloupe, toast, oatmeal, blueberry muffins, bacon and scrambled eggs, then outlined the day's options: a ride to look for mountain sheep and elk, a ride down Blue Creek Canyon to fish, or a hike. My husband, Michael, and I chose to hike along the high, narrow ridge above camp, carrying bells to warn off grizzlies. We surprised an elk herd and sent them whistling and squeaking down the other side. They would keep popping up -- sometimes only 100 feet away -- then yelp and disappear again. Upon returning, we found that Press had rigged a hot shower among the trees. As I was showering, the horses, curious, came to watch.
We helped Press obliterate all signs of passage when we broke camp the next morning. Fire and latrine pits were filled and resodded; horse droppings were broken up so they would degrade rapidly. We mounted, and after several hours of steep climbing, emerged from a canyon of Douglas firs to a long, broad valley rimmed by snowy peaks -- prosaically termed a drainage. Marmots whistled; elk stopped grazing to watch our train of horses stepping into their hidden world. That night at our camp at the headwaters of Bear Creek, we built a shaman campfire rimmed with bones of a large elk we found scattered on the ground -- probably a result of a grizzly kill. This is the closest we would come to a bear. According to Press, they tend to stay away from camps where there are horses.
The next day (the trip was organized so that every other day was a rest from riding and a chance to explore on foot) Michael and I and two others hiked to Wiggins Peak. We walked along narrow ridges with thousand-foot drops on either side -- not for the acrophobic. Wiggins Peak is a 12,175-foot pyramid-shaped mound of buff-colored shale, and no sooner had we struggled to the top than we looked back and saw Press and his dogs coming up behind. He had stayed back to hang food out of bear reach. We ate lunch, watching thunderclouds boil up around us. Press pointed out various peaks; of the 54 over 13,000 feet in the state, we could see 53, including the Grand Teton.
Crossing Bear Creek on the way back, I picked up a stone the color of a robin's egg and handed it to Press. ''That's worth having analyzed,'' he said, pocketing it. Press, who holds a master's degree in art history, is a perpetual student. As soon as we'd signed on, he sent us a three-page reading list on the area. He packs a small library of field guides, and if encouraged, might produce a copy of a scholarly article on the history of mountain sheep in the area, or something equally esoteric.
The nonhikers had chosen to stay in camp and play a rough and tumble game of Scrabble. It rained at dinner time so we ate our chicken-almond stir fry under the tarp. The salad featured elk thistle that Press had picked. It tasted like a cross between cucumber and heart of palm.
The next day five of us chose a long ride with Christy and three chose a shorter ride with Press. The long ride took us over Bear Creek Pass at 11,000 feet, where hoodoos guarded the way like sentry posts from a lost civilization. We dropped into another long valley, all loose stone and pink snow (it takes so long to melt that an algae-like plant grows on it, turning it pink). ''Surreal'' and ''Martian,'' we exclaimed, in an attempt to find alternatives to the much overused ''Wow!'' It was raining when we circled back over East Fork Pass and wound our way through stone formations. A mountain bluebird flashed before us, a startling apparition against the green and brown.
The rain was over by the time we returned, and Press was heating water for showers. Friends who live in the area assured us that it is not common to encounter as much rain as we had. But we were prepared to pay a price for the privilege of entering this wild country. The taste of adventure is all the sharper for a little hardship -- although hot showers are also welcome. That night at the campfire, Press brought out his guitar and displayed a dazzling knowledge of the entire oeuvre of Kris Kristofferson, while we thoughtfully helped ourselves to more boxed wine so the horses wouldn't have to carry it down in the morning.

If you saddle up
Press Stephens Outfitting can be reached at Post Office Box 828, Dubois, Wyo. 82513; (307) 455-3265, His price, $300 a day per person, includes horse, food and use of all equipment except fishing tackle, which guests must provide. His season runs from the third week of June through the end of September. Four to eight people can go on a trip; if a group of fewer than eight insists on not having outsiders come along, rates are higher ($300 a person a day for five, for example). Trips last 4 to 10 days.
Press recommends footwear that is sturdy but comfortable for hiking and riding, a duffel bag, rain gear and a heavy coat or sweater. You can bring your own sleeping bag.
The closest airports to Dubois are in Riverton, 79 miles to the east, and Jackson Hole, 85 miles to the west.
MARY TANNEN, a novelist, is a regular contributor to The Times Magazine.


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