Rain and cold were our companions as we rode our horses and mules north along the eastern edge of Yellowstone Lake, North America’s largest lake above 7,000 feet. Muddy trails made travel slow and spirits sink. We had a massive 30-mile day ahead of us. The wind intensified and chilled us to our bones. The temperature wasn’t freezing, but I wished it was so we’d have snow instead of rain. Sopping wet, I slipped off my horse to walk for a few miles and warm up. My fingers were worthless and numb in the wet and cold until I stuck them under my armpits inside of my shirt. Ahhhhh, it felt so good to warm them up! (See “A Backcountry Recovery” Photo Gallery)
We made it to the northeast corner of Yellowstone Lake and crossed the only road of our hundred-mile journey. Cars and busses flew by in a constant reminder that only a tiny percentage of visitors in Yellowstone actually get off the pavement for the full experience. The sound of motors, traffic, horns, and brakes was a buzz kill so we quickly made our way past the road. As soon as we got out of the sound of traffic, the clouds parted and the warm, drying, wonderful, sun beat down on us. Oh yes, it felt so good!
The wind shifted and brought the stinky smell of sulfur to our noses. Soon after we entered into an eerie depression with a bubbling stinky lake, Turbid Lake. Steam from thermal activity rose all around us and settled stagnantly in the humid air. Cinematographer Phill Baribeau stepped off to take some footage and forgot a lens. Thirty minutes later, when he realized he left it, we ran back to get it and saw a big grizzly along the banks of Turbid Lake. It is a creepy place!
We left Turbid Lake and entered into the extraordinary, sweeping Pelican Valley. The intermittent rain had cleared the air and beautiful changing light was bouncing through the valley, clouds, and atmosphere in a vivid spectrum of colors. It was a magical moment, and I felt like running. So we ran as fast as our horses wanted to travel—and my horse loves to run! Golden dew sitting on three-feet-tall grass exploded into a dazzle of color as we galloped through the valley without a care in the world. A lone old male bison curiously watched us go by. His curiosity got the best of him and he started to follow.
“Stop!” yelled Phill from behind his camera. There was a maniacal twinkle in his eye that I knew only meant one thing: He had a shot in mind. Phill instructed Ray and me to travel up the valley for a half mile and crest onto a large open hilltop that was bathed in golden sunlight. When we summited, the sun went behind a cloud, and we waited for it to come out.
Then I noticed the big curious bison we saw earlier walking straight toward Phill and Michael, who were looking at us. I radioed Phill to tell him to keep an eye out. Then the bison deviated from its course and headed straight toward two of my horses that were tied to trees while Phill and Michael were filming.
Horses don’t like bison, they’re scary, and I yelled at Phill to release the horses before they pulled back on the tree or hurt themselves. So Phill ran out in front of the bison, who stopped and looked at him curiously, and unties the horses (who were very concerned about the bison.) Phill ran away from the bison with the horses while the old bull walked right to where the horses were tied, and rolls in the dirt. Then he stood up, walked over to a camera case, and let out a long stream of urine next to it. And he started to follow Phill, who by this time was back in his original position and trying to load up the camera and tripods. They went in circles for the next ten minutes until we had all of our gear loaded up and we left. That bison followed us for two more miles! He never showed any aggression, just curiosity.
Eventually the old bull buffalo got bored of us, crossed the idyllic Pelican Creek, and was lost in the layered sage hills along the Pelican Valley. Then a big black bear stood up and looked at us. I don’t know who was more surprised, the bear, the horses, or us. He sauntered away as we looked at each other in amazement. The amount and variety of wildlife we were seeing was incredible. The big grassy valley tapered as we went up it and once again we entered the burned downfall 88 fire forest to go up and over Mist Creek pass and enter into the Lamar River drainage.
I was born in August of 1988 at the peak of the ’88 Yellowstone fires that burned almost 800,000 acres inside the park. The burned areas in Yellowstone still aren’t exactly pretty in the manner that people often refer to as pretty. There are black logs, dead tree skeletons sticking into the air, and downfall that is incredibly difficult and dangerous to travel through. But the burned areas are special to me. The new growth is the same age as I am and I look forward to seeing the forest grow as I get older. The downfall provides elk, my favorite animal, security from wolves who can’t cross the logs as easily. The open canopy allows sunlight to the forest floor where rampant vegetation competition is occurring between bushes, aspens, baby lodgepole pines, flowers, and grasses. The downed trees themselves prevent soil from eroding away and over time, the logs themselves will break down into the soil to guarantee nutrients for the future.
We topped over Mist Creek Pass and were greeted with a magnificent view of the upcoming miles. Broad meadows funneled into Mist Creek which wound itself through new growth pines and ran into the Lamar River. We hurried our way down, hoping to catch some fat trout for dinner! We arrived at camp, barely before dark, and with just enough time to go fishing. We caught two beautiful cutthroats in the fading light, let them go back into the river as they’re a native fish, and called it a perfect day.
Green Beret and Army Veteran Ray Knell was a broken man with PTSD and severe anxiety when he returned home from Afghanistan. His trust in humans was gone. A friend introduced him to backcountry horsemanship and the wilderness and animal relationship gave him hope and peace of mind. To inspire others to use wilderness and horses to overcome their struggles, Knell embarked on a 1,000-mile ride along the Continental Divide with Mustang Sally and his two mules, Top Gun and Magic. Filmmaker Ben Masters and his team joined Knell through Yellowstone to see the grandeur of our country’s first national park and to witness the importance of conserving wilderness to heal ourselves.