The cycle of nature is unchanging.
After thousands of flowers bloomed in June and lush green grass covered the hillside in July, Spring Mountain begins to take on a straw hue. Apart from a few storms it has not rained since mid-June. With this dry summer, grasshoppers have invaded the meadow, flying under the hooves of horses and offering a feast to the grouse family that has elected to make its home around the cabin.
I have a couple of days left until a couple of friends from Auvergne arrive for an expedition to the source of the Yellowstone River, the same one that gives its name to the world’s oldest natural park, created in 1872. I decide to pay a visit to my friend Steve Mecum, who at this time of the year watches the cows of the Diamond D Ranch in the Shoshone National Forest a few kilometers from the cabin. We spend the day together, riding gently in the middle of the herd, ensuring the animals are well. Cap is at ease with the black Angus.
On the return I notice that the willows are beginning to turn yellow. We’re only in mid-August, but Wyoming’s summer is coming to an end. Just before arriving, I cross a small ravine and flush out seven mule deer males. At this season they regroup.
Nathalie and Philippe arrive in two days. After examining the horses, I find Curly is lame. A new horse will join the string for this trip: Becker, a sturdy bay gelding. The team also includes Cap, Calypso, Honcho and Big. We have two days for our preparations. We must pack for eight days.
While preparing, we enjoy watching the ballet of hummingbirds. They will soon be leaving, flying south to the southern United States and Mexico. In the evening we look to catch the horses. I do not like to leave Curly alone — the mustangs prefer to stay together in a herd. But I have no choice. As usual, they let themselves be caught without worry.
Our journey from Brooks Lake is a 50-minute drive. Daniel Epp, always so friendly, transports our horses and equipment the day before departure. A lodge is located on the shores of the lake, and Snider, the head wrangler, provides us a corral for the night.
The weather is beautiful the next morning when we put ourselves in the saddle. Not a ripple disturbs the clear water of Brooks Lake. Everything is going well with Becker, the newcomer to the herd. The caravan takes its rhythm toward Cub Creek, where a man was killed by a grizzly bear. He had not taken bear spray, the very powerful tear bomb. We are equipped.
In the beginning of the afternoon we cross the south fork of the Buffalo River, which our horses ford with no problem. In the evening we see our camp at the foot of the granite dome of Pendergraft Peak. A grassy meadow offers horses first-class food. I never take a dietary supplement; here nature provides us everything we need for our stock.
In the early morning we embark on the gorges shaped by the Buffalo River. The sun is struggling to light the bottom of the canyon sometimes obstructed by huge snowdrifts. We take in beautiful waterfalls. After a hard climb, we arrive midmorning on the highlands that must lead us to Ferry Lake. The show is breathtaking: The snow-capped peaks of the Absaroka Mountains looming on the horizon, the high-altitude plants, flowers in bloom on the alpine meadows. After this stop we arrive at Ferry Lake.
On the opposite bank a grizzly and her three cubs are out for a walk. We are lucky to be able to observe this beautiful family safely.
We leave Ferry Lake and its inhabitants to cross an unnamed pass (at 3,350 meters, according to the map) and switch to Woodard Canyon. We are worried. There aren’t any traces on the track, no hoof prints. Apparently we are the first to pass here this season. This steep valley that leads us to the Yellowstone River is very wooded. Centennial Douglas firs cover its flanks.
Were it not for our 60-centimeter blade saw we would not be able to overcome trees of this size if one of them had fallen across our path. We will take more than three hours to reach the southern branch of the Yellowstone. Trees that have fallen during the winter frequently challenge us, but our horses manage to circumvent the obstacles when we cannot open the way with our saw.
We finally arrive in the valley where the Yellowstone flows peacefully. We spot beautiful boletus mushrooms — tonight’s dinner will be pasta with porcini mushrooms.
The next day, our travels are again painful. The scenario of the previous day is repeated: Many trees cut the track. The horses still perform feats. After we’ve walked for two hours the trees thin as we enter a high glacier valley. In late August the snowfields continue to feed the river, which becomes narrower as we progress. We arrive, and I can not resist the pleasure of a photo of the Yellowstone, one of the most important rivers of the American West.
We have succeeded in our challenge. According to my information, fewer than 20 people pass here every year. Are we the first French to come here since the trappers of the 19th century? Maybe. We head south and let the small streams running down the slopes give birth to one of the most beautiful rivers in the Rocky Mountains.
Marston Pass opens to us with its dizzying descent into scree. The horses are in great shape, nearly all mustangs with feet of steel. More than four centuries in freedom forged their genes. Yet initially I was a little worried. Will they be able to accomplish this journey on these high-altitude tracks of rock? Yes.
A thunderstorm approaches when we see Bliss Meadow and the Shoshone River. Cautiously, Nathalie dismounts; the mare is still green. The rain does not last, and we find a good place to camp.
The criteria and rules of the camp are important. First, find a place with water and a good meadow big enough for five horses. Cape, Big and Calypso are attached to the halter by an 8-meter lanyard connected to a stake firmly anchored to the ground. This system allows them to move to eat on a sufficient surface. But some horses do not adapt this method — as in the case of Honcho and Becker, who panic. So I set them free, risk-free, sure they will not leave the rest of the herd.
Once the horses are at rest we must take care of the saddlery and mount the tents. Strict rules are necessary. We are in the country of grizzlies. About 50 meters must separate the campfire and our camp. The grizzly has a smell 40 times higher than a hunting dog. It is only after that that we can relax and swallow a good dinner.
This last precaution is the most important: hoisting the food crates out of the reach of bears. A large tree does the trick, but in some places gallows have been installed by the forest services. Tonight we have a nice surprise. Mule deer come to visit the camp, undisturbed by our presence and that of the horses.
The next morning is chilly, the first frost of the season. To get out of Hidden Basin, where we spent this cool night, we follow a trail that goes up and down a slope recently devastated by a fire but brightened by mauve fireweed. The way back takes us through Twilight Pass. At the top we discover by chance a marker indicating the altitude: 11,364 feet.
We descend to the cozy valley of Five Pockets, a beautiful meadow with a river full of fish. Some trout will pay the cost of our passage.
We are on our way to our last day. The horses who know the trail understand we are headed home, and they advance with a good step. Cap’s ears lift, and he stops.
At the bend of the track, an impressive convoy emerges: 12 mules and horses saddled, led by only two cowboys. They’re headed to a fishing camp more than 10 hours from here as guides, and customers are waiting for supplies. It really is a vision of the time of the conquest of the West.
In the late afternoon we meet cattle with the Diamond D brand. The loop is complete. Almost 200 kilometers of wilderness traveled and only one meeting on the last day. Few regions in the world can offer us that.
We deserved a good beer left at our cool departure under the source of the cabin. The horses, unsaddled and turned out, gallop toward Spring Mountain, not even tired.