Watch a Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone

With Horses' Help, Army Veteran Finds Healing in Yellowstone

Watch a Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone

With Horses' Help, Army Veteran Finds Healing in Yellowstone

“Life is very, very short. It’s up to you to fill the book of life with beautiful and interesting chapters.” – Veteran Ray Knell

The short days on an adventure are often the most memorable. The days when you relax, soak in the experience, and aren’t constantly pushing yourself. The days that you really get to know the people you’re with. For the first three days of our journey, we traveled 30 miles a day. For the last three days of our journey, we travelled seven miles a day. What to do with spare time in Yellowstone? Fishing! (See “A Backcountry Recovery” Photo Gallery)

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Cinematographer Phill Baribeau had to abandon the camera for a trout hole like this one. We fished hard for introduced rainbow and brown trout to add them to our dinners. But unfortunately, or fortunately, all we caught were native Yellowstone Cutthroat which we quickly released. Photograph by Ben Masters

Yellowstone National Park, like most places on the planet, has a problem with introduced non-native plant and animal species. Take the non-native Lake Trout for example. Lake trout were introduced into Yellowstone Lake in the 1980s. They began to eat the native cutthroat trout, which is a very important species because they spawn up rivers and provide food for bears, eagles, and other predators. An adult lake trout can eat 40 cutthroat trout a year and left unmanaged, the lake trout population can drastically impact the cutthroats and everything that depends on them. In response, the park service nets as many non-native lake trout as possible in an attempt to keep the cutthroat population healthy so they can provide the crucial role they play in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

But Lake Trout aren’t the only introduced fish in Yellowstone. Non-native rainbow trout, brown trout, and brook trout have worked their way into Yellowstone’s rivers, creeks, and lakes as well. These non-native fish compete with cutthroats and can dilute their genetics through hybridization. In fact, the problem is so severe that in the Lamar River, where we were fishing, you are legally required to kill every invasive fish that you catch. So we weren’t just fishing for fun and food, we went fishing to eliminate invasive species in an attempt to allow the native cutthroat to flourish!

Ray caught the first fish on his first cast, a beautiful 13-inch native cutthroat trout. It’s signature red “cut throat” red markings below its gills were vibrant and pronounced. What a beautiful animal. After a moment of admiration, we released it unharmed back into the river. Then Ray caught the second fish, and the third fish. Then he caught the fourth fish, and the fifth fish. He was smiling and jumping around like a little kid obviously very smug about himself to catch five fish before I got a single bite. I walked over to his spot, wanting to get in on the action, and found an incredible trout hole. The river took a sharp bend and piled a bunch of drifting logs into a big pile. The current went under the logs and had carved a deep slow pool under the bank and logs. The water was crystal clear and we couldn’t even see the bottom. As I looked into his honey hole about the size of a bus, I saw glimpses of moving fish below below the surface. I switched out my fly and cast, hooking a fish almost immediately! I brought him in, giggling like a child because there’s just something so fun about feeling a fish at the end of your line, and released the magnificent cutthroat back into the river.

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Dinosaur shakes off a long days ride. Photograph by Ben Masters

Hours later, sunburned, exhausted, and happy, we went back to camp to find all the horses laying in the sun enjoying the midday breeze. In addition to being my preferred method of transportation, horses also make excellent pillows. So we went and lounged on them, enjoying a morning cup of coffee. It was the first time Ray had ever been able to walk up to his horse Mustang Sally and mules Top Gun and Magic while they were laying down. As a prey animal, horses don’t like other animals around them when they lay down because they’re vulnerable. There has to be a strong trusting between a horse and rider to allow that to happen. When Ray’s horses and mules allowed him to lean on them, Ray burst into an immense smile of pride and happiness. They had come a long way!

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Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell laughs as he uses his mule, Magic, as a couch for his morning coffee in Yellowstone National Park as he nears the end of his solo, 1,000-mile ride from Lake George, Colorado, to Manhattan, Montana. Magic had never let Knell lay on him during the trip until this morning. Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

Seven months ago Ray bought Mustang Sally, Top Gun, and Magic as green horses and mules, meaning they’d received some training but were not experienced. For four months prior to the beginning of his journey, he worked with them every day to prepare. Progress was slow as Ray was an inexperienced trainer. He spent an immense amount of time, energy, and thought on how to train them to the best of his ability. While Ray trained the horses to ride and pack, they also trained him to be patient, to live in the present, and to listen to their body language. Over time, Ray experienced one of the most satisfying things on the planet, watching an animal begin to trust you and look to you for leadership. As Ray was explaining this to me, his mule/pillow Top Gun let out a deep sigh and leaned into Ray. Ray leaned back, smiled, and told me the trust was complete.

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Army veteran Ray Knell kisses his mare, Mustang Sally, during their reunion on the trail. Mustang Sally had to be taken off the trip for a few weeks after she ingested poisonous plants. Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

I asked him what the horses meant to him personally. His head went down for a few minutes while he gathered his thoughts. When he looked up, staring into the distance through glistening eyes, he simply replied, “These horses saved my life.”