Trail riding and lake fishing go together like, well, fresh-caught trout cooked over a campfire with lemon and butter. So the first time I returned a living trout to a mountain lake, my inner-hunter asked, “What’s the point?” while my stomach grumbled, “There goes dinner.” Fishing regulations allowed me to keep the trout, but I’d noticed over the years that my favorite lake had fewer and fewer fish. So, I released my catch to swim another day.
It turns out, diminishing fish populations are an issue facing mountain lakes across the American West. In the past year, major backcountry areas in California and Washington have cut back their fish stocking programs. Why are they picking a fight with fish?
Horses and the card game poker were a recipe for mayhem in the Wild West. But not today. Horseback poker rides are now charitable events during which trail riders enjoy a day in the backcountry while raising money for a worthy cause. And, as I discovered on a ride last spring in Virginia City, Montana, the events are a good way to bomb-proof a saddle horse under crowded trail conditions.
Four hundred years ago this month, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei published the first book of astronomy, Starry Messenger. It reported such discoveries as the moon is pocked with craters, Jupiter is orbited by moons, and “light clouds” in the night sky are actually clusters of stars (such as, the Milky Way). In honor of this milestone, which forever changed man’s relationship with the heavens, I spoke with an expert astronomer George Beimel, board member at the Museum of the Rockies, for tips on stargazing in the backcountry.
“The teeth of a storm.” For the first time, I understood what that meant. Molar shaped clouds brewed over the mountain skyline, looking like the gullet of a terrible being about to eat us raw.
“This doesn’t look good,” Eliseo Miciú said.
He stowed his camera in a backpack he wore when shooting from the saddle. Next to him, my fiancée Madeleine rode huddled down in a poncho with the blanket’s fringe draped over her rein hand for warmth. A head wind blew us into a “V” formation, like a gaggle of Canada geese that didn’t get the memo about when to fly south.
Then again, we were already south. South of the equator, in South America, in southwestern Argentina. It’s a quizzical land to a northerner. Everything is reversed. Birds do fly north for the winter. The constellation Orion is flipped upside-down, looking like a skull-and-crossbones. And water swirls in a clock-wise direction when you flush the toilet. Scarry. If the hands on my wristwatch spun backwards, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But that’s the beauty of Argentina. It’s a loophole that allows horsemen to glimpse what life might’ve been like on the American frontier.
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.