Ten people, 17 stock animals and 1,400 pounds of supplies. Is it possible to travel through Yellowstone National Park – to one of the most remote locations in the United States – and leave no trace?
There was a good reason why I stood on the shoulder of Highway 191 with my saddle, a duffel bag and my Appaloosa mare, Gravelly, at 6:30 in the morning. We were hitchhiking – sort of. At the beginning of a leave-no-trace pack trip into Yellowstone, it seemed appropriate to car pool. Matt Henningsen, outfitting manager for the Club at Spanish Peaks, a Montana resort, had agreed to pick me up on his way into the park. His truck and trailer pulled up at 7 a.m. sharp.
“We’ve got a tight schedule to keep, if we want to be on the trail by noon,” he told me.
We stowed my gear in the truck bed, loaded Gravelly into the trailer, and were gone inside of five minutes.
Two hours later, we pulled into the South Boundary Trailhead parking lot, on the opposite side of the Park. Henningsen and crew – wrangler Sam Hauke, fishing guide Aaron Wert, and camp chef Chad Winstead – readied the mules and gear. In the background, a stream of cars and RVs poured through the South Entrance gate. Statistically, 90% of them will stay on the roads and walking paths of Yellowstone’s frontcountry. The din of their engines killed the Leave-No-Trace vibe, but we would shed their exhaust soon enough.
A truck pulled out of the traffic and parked next to us. It was photographer Will Brewster. He was dressed in the Montanan fashion that says: “If it weren’t for my day job, I’d be out cowboying.” He wore a tattered cowboy hat, oilskin vest, packer boots, and faded Wrangler blue jeans. After introductions, Brewster jumped in on the packing crew, anxious like the rest of us to get backcountry-bound.
Also along for the trip were Nick and Jane Wyer of La Hoya Beach, Calif., and Steve and Sabrina Sigourney, of Big Sky, Mont. They were repeat clients of Henningsen’s who had joined him on other forays into Yellowstone. When he suggested the idea of packing up Snake River, where jumbo-sized trout were rumored to live, these avid fly-fishermen were in.
With everyone saddled to go, Henningsen plunged into the river at the lead of a seven-mule packstring. Their white canvas loads bobbed and rocked as they went, looking like the sails of a Spanish armada at sea. They splashed out of the water and took to the opposite shore where the backcountry of Yellowstone begins.
When you imagine Yellowstone’s backcountry, you picture a vast expanse of untouched land. However, horseback travelers have crossed the region for centuries. Native American hunting parties used the Bannock Trail to go in search of buffalo. The trail indentations created by their Indian ponies are still visible today.
The long-lasting effect of livestock on the land was apparent when we rode into camp that afternoon. The site was perched on a bluff overlooking the Snake River, and surrounded by what appeared to be grass meadows perfect for grazing livestock. On closer inspection, the grass quality was poor. Short, leafy plant species known as forbes covered the ground, crowding out the native grasses that had fattened buffalo and elk for millennia. We weren’t the first stock users to camp here, but the grazing practices of previous tenants had overused the land.
“Let’s check the grass on the other side of the river,” Sam Hauke said. We forded the Snake and emerged onto a field of girth-cinch tall Timothy grass. The cat-tail heads made a drum-roll as they bobbed against our stirrup leathers. Gravelly arched her head down to grab a bite as we rode.
Timothy grass hails from Europe, a long distance from Yellowstone Park. How did it get here? I later spoke with Mike Ross, a Park Service Ranger, who explained.
“Timothy was planted in the north of Yellowstone as a hay crop to feed bison in the winter,” he said. “But, I doubt that it traveled all the way to the Snake River. More likely, Timothy was introduced by outfitters in the 1960s and 70s, back when the Park allowed outfitters to pack-in hay bales for supplemental feed. Odds are, the hay had Timothy seeds in it.”
Native grass species or not, the Timothy field was primo grazing. We returned to camp to report the discovery, and found the rest of the crew busy setting up. I rode towards them, but Henningsen signaled for me to stop at a distance.
“Stay right there,” he said. “One rule of Leave No Trace is to keep livestock out of camp core. A horse’s hooves can turn it into a dust bowl in no-time.”
Looking around, it was obvious that a horse hadn’t been within 100 yards of camp in recent history. The rule, when abided by everyone, keeps a campsite looking new year-after-year. Henningsen had gone through the trouble of unloading the mules at a distance, and then carried the panniers into camp. He pointed out some of the other Leave No Trace practices they followed. The tents were assembled on barren ground where previous tents had been located, or on resilient “duff” surfaces under the tress. The cook had spread two scrim ground mats on the ground, one in the dining area underneath the folding table and chairs, and another in the cooking area under the propane stoves. Kitchens attract a lot of foot traffic, and the mats prevent soil erosion. Lastly, the empty pack panniers were converted into “bear boxes” for storing items that could attract wildlife. Henningsen threw a lash cinch over a “bear pole” fastened between two trees 20 feet in the air, and hoisted each box up like a piñata, safely out of reach.
“Sam’s about to set up the low-impact grazing pasture across the river,” he said. “Go check it out, it’s slicker than snot on a door knob.” I chuckled at the metaphor. Matt Henningsen has a repertoire of comparisons for how “slick” something can be. It’s part of his story-teller charm. Another classic from later in the trip: “Slicker than deer guts on a stair step.”
I grabbed three saddle horses and lead them across the Snake. Sam had already forded with the mules, and was unloading fencing supplies from one of their packs when I rode up. The supplies included an ax, fiberglass poles, a roll of electric polywire, and a battery-powered charging unit.
“We just need to build a pasture big enough for the alpha mares,” she said. “The rest of the geldings and mules will free-graze outside. They won’t go far without their ladies.”
Sam walked the meadow to trace out the fence line, unspooling polywire as she went. I followed, pacing out 25 steps and then pounding a fiberglass pole into the ground using the backside of the ax. With the pasture enclosed, Sam then created an adjacent round corral. A polywire rope gate swung between the two, in one direction to corral the pasture mares, and the other way to gather the free-grazers on the outside. The corral system didn’t share properties with mucus or door knobs, but I agreed with Matt that it was pretty slick.
The next day, Michael Curtis, the backcountry Park Ranger in charge of the Snake River, rode through camp for a surprise Field Evaluation. Most everyone was gone fishing for jumbo trout, except for Sam and Chad who stayed behind to attend camp. Curtis put them to the test. First Aid kit? Check. Low-impact camp core? Check. Minimal stock-to-human ratio? Check. The Wrangler and Chef handled everything he threw at them, and Spanish Peaks proved itself a top-notch operation. In his report, Curtis noted:
“A well managed and operated camp. Excellent stock management, friendly and easy-going guides. Camp was well set up, clean, and organized. All animals were in good condition.”
It’s not like Rangers have tons of free time to police outfitter camps. National Parks are notoriously under-funded and short-staffed. Curtis had seen the itinerary that Spanish Peaks filed for our Snake River trip, and he made the time to drop by.
That Rangers even conduct Field Evaluations is a credit to Yellowstone’s commitment to Leave No Trace. It didn’t used to be that way, however. Commercial outfitters used to run rough shod over the Park. Old-time operators packed in dozens of mules and horses, erected “tent cities”, and left a razed swath of land in their wake.
“Thirty years ago, it was common for an outfitter to bring 60 or 70 head of livestock,” Ross said. “Back then, the public had the expectation of a luxury experience in the backcountry. Today, that has changed and people want a wilderness experience.”
In the late 1980s, Yellowstone Park changed the way it managed outfitting. They implemented a Limited Concessions Permit that required outfits to be licensed by the Park in order to operate. As a condition of the permit, an outfitter had to abide by a list of Leave No Trace initiatives. These included: reducing the number of stock they brought into the backcountry, scheduling itineraries with the Park Service to help them monitor backcountry use, and a host of in-camp criteria aimed at preserving the backcountry for other users.
The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 represented a demarcation between a century of overuse, and a Leave No Trace future. 793,000 acres in the Park were affected by fire, $120 million was spent on the effort, and yet the fire crews never had a chance against the perfect storm of flame. It took unseasonal snow and rain in September to put the fires out. The moral to the story was: let Mother Nature do her job. After the fire, the landscape quickly rebounded, with lush meadows, forest undergrowth, and tree saplings sprouting out of the ground. When outfitters returned to the backcountry in the years following 1988, they were managed by a Limited Concessions Permit, and they had embraced a Leave No Trace outlook towards the land.
On day three we departed the Snake River camp, the pack train hoofing its way over a mountain divide where we attained a bird’s eye vantage of the valley behind us. The landscape showed the progress of 20 years of healing since the fires. Ranger Mike Ross patrolled the Snake River in 1989, and he told me about witnessing the aftermath.
“It was a mosaic of patterns,” Ross said. “In places, the land was scorched from ‘hot burns’ that took everything. There were places where crown fires burned only the tree canopy, and then there were islands of green forests that were spared. It was an eye-opening experience to see how diverse fire can be.”
Out on patrol, Ross had the considerable challenge of clearing trails of innumerable dead-fallen trees. A hand saw and scabbard were a permanent fixture on his saddle. On some rides, he’d clear dozens of trees on his way in, and have to clear new fallen trees on the roundtrip back. And he never dared go out when the wind blew. With 140,000 acres burned in the Snake River area alone, and so many dead trees waiting to fall, it was like riding through a rainstorm of falling anvils. Ross recalled the thunder of dead trees tumbling down like a row of dominos.
“I never thought I’d work for the Park Service long enough to ride through a forest again. But, in recent years, new trees have grown tall enough to provide a little shade on my shoulders when I go on patrol.”
That regrowth is Mother Nature doing her job. Consider it her way of adhering to Leave No Trace.
There’s a point during a packtrip when it seems that life can’t get any better. On this trip, it was the Mount Sheridan moment. We had ridden into our final base camp along Basin Creek, the horses were out to pasture, and the camp chores were complete. The formidable Mount Sheridan loomed in the background, shellacked with a golden sunset. We sat down for a white-tablecloth dinner, under a canopy of 75-foot tall evergreens. Chef Chad served lobster tail and steak – backcountry surf & turf. The ingredients were so fresh, I wondered if a helicopter had flown in supplies. Chad’s pantry pannier was a bottomless hole of surprises. We wined and dined until late, and then I lay awake in the tent listening to the bell mares toll the night’s progress. The sound was comforting, like the night-watchman of old saying, “11 o’clock and all’s well”.
Outfitters are known to sleep through the clanging of bells, but it’s the dead quiet that will startle them awake. Like the silence of a missing bell mare, one of the fly-fisherman noticed a conspicuous absence in Yellowstone. Where were the buffalo? We had covered nearly 20 miles in three days, and yet we hadn’t seen any of the big mammals that the Park is famous for, like buffalo, elk and bears. We’d seen bald eagles, yellow belly marmots, and the Snake River’s cutthroat trout, but the mascot of Yellowstone was missing.
The winter of 2008 was hard on Yellowstone’s herd of 4,700 buffalo. Half of them perished. Still, the 2,300 that survived were a huge improvement over the population of 25 buffalo that remained in 1894. Back then, a buffalo head was worth $1500, and poaching was a profitable business. Over the course of the 20th century, Yellowstone nurtured their numbers back into abundance. Last winter’s losses were a blow, but at least the buffalo have rebounded to a population that could withstand such a die-off.
In the morning, Will Brewster spotted a lone elk in the mountains, its buckskin hide reflecting the sun. It was evidence that just because we hadn’t seen any big wildlife, it didn’t mean they weren’t there.
In Andy Garcia’s 1878 journal Tough Trip Through Paradise, he told of an encounter with a gang of horse thieves from Yellowstone.
“They had what looked to me to be about ninety head of horses. They were all fine saddle horses – no scrubs in the bunch,” Garcia wrote. The gang asked him to be their camp cook on a trip to the Northwest Territory in Canada, where a $10 horse sold for $120. “I don’t know much, but I know enough not to go stealing horses. I will see you all in hell before I will have anything to do with those horses,” he told them.
Horse thieves would rustle in Idaho and Wyoming, and then drive their herds through Yellowstone on a trail known as the Thorofare. In the 1800s, the Thorofare was an area of mass-transit, also frequented by Native Americans and fur trappers. Today, it bares the opposite distinction; it is the most remote location in the lower 48 United States. According to a 2005 U.S. Geological Survey report, the Thorofare trail is a record 30 miles from the nearest paved road.
Our Basin Creek camp was the closest we would get to that point. We were separated from it by a mountain called Big Game Ridge. As we broke down camp the final morning, I kept looking towards the ridgeline, content to know that beyond it was the continental Untied States’ farthest removed wilderness enclave. By turning around just short of the Thorofare, we helped it remain so. There’s nothing more Leave No Trace than that.
It was hot and dusty, as we rode the final leg of our journey. The dirt hung in the air, where the sun cut our shadows into airborne jigsaw puzzle pieces. The trail skirted the base of Mount Sheridan and then the shores of Heart Lake. We passed through the shade of live forests, and then barren stretches where dead trees stood naked against the sky. On a distant mountain, there was the remnant of an old dirt road. Vehicles pulling motor boats used to drive into here, until 1961 when Yellowstone banned motorized traffic on Heart Lake. The road was shut down and it has since sprouted regrowth and begun to crumble back into the mountainside.
Today, Heart Lake is a quiet, pristine backcountry destination eight miles from a paved road. It’s hard to imagine motor boats carving wakes across it. If you could compare the 2005 USGS map with how it would have looked in 1960, Heart Lake would show a growth in the backcountry between then and now. It’s evidence of how Yellowstone Park’s managers, combined with the efforts of Leave No Trace outfitters like Spanish Peaks, are combating the encroachment of the paved frontcountry. RVs have their place in a National Park, but we should all agree that it is not up Snake River.
We rode into the Heart Lake Trailhead that afternoon, exhausted, covered in dust, but wishing the ride could go. When Matt Henningsen dismounted, he discovered that he had lost a spur along the way. It had fallen off when he stopped to adjust the packs, he figured. One month later, he received a phone call from a Park Ranger who had found a spur with the initials “MCH” tooled into the leather strap. She looked through the log of stock outfitters that had traveled the Heart Lake Trail, and found the name “Matt Henningsen”. To his surprise, she called him up and reunited the lost spur with its mate.
“Now, that,” Matt said, “is Leave No Trace.”