Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear - For all Your Motorized and Non-Motorized Adventures!

By Micah Drew

First Pack Trip Departs into Bob Marshall Wilderness


Micah Drew, Pathfinder

Jack Rich leads the pack train into the Bob Marshall. Rich has been going into the Bob since he was five.

SEELEY LAKE-A line of 10 mules, interspersed with the occasional ranch hand on horseback, wound its way down the trail into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The mules each carried a large canvas covered pack on either side of their back-enough supplies and food to last four days.

The first pack trip of the season was underway.

Several hours earlier, at 7:10 a.m. Gail Theard and her family from North Carolina arrived at the Rich Ranch to start their trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Jack Rich, owner of the ranch, greeted them by the barn.

"This is officially swap howdy time," he said.

He gave them an overview of the day before sending them to the ranch house to get ready for breakfast.

All through this interaction, the flurry of activity in the barnyard never ceased.

Ranch hands saddled mules, packed tents and made sure cross cut saws made it into the pile of gear that would be taken on the trip.

For a four-day pack trip like the Theard's would be on, preparations take almost as long as the journey itself.

* * * *

This summer, the Rich Ranch is set to take 24 pack trips. In addition to the 30 guests the ranch can accommodate, two pack strings will be out in the Bob all summer, each with the ability to take up to 10 guests out on the trail. Most trips last between four and 10 days but there is already a 12-day excursion planned for next year.

Each pack string requires four to five crew members-one to run the mule train, one to take charge of cooking and at least one assistant to each.

The first preparation for a pack trip is the menu. The head cook will build the menu, create the grocery list and go shopping

Groceries are repackaged into certified bear resistance containers and set up to be packed onto mules. Rich said that the job is one of the most intensive for a crew member to do-it takes three summers of practice before a crew member is ready to cook a pack trip on their own.

Food quantities vary depending on the length of the trip but there's certain amount of base gear that each trip needs regardless of the length.

Rich wandered down from the kitchen to a group of tents near the barn. Inside each tent were piles of camping equipment.

"This time of year it's all progressive," said Rich. Rather than having a pre-stocked base camp, progressive camping means that anything the packers want to have on the trail they have to bring in themselves.

A typical camp will include a place for stock, tarps for food, guest tents, privacy tents with solar showers and a communal latrine.

Lightweight stools, at $50 each, will provide places to sit. Tents of the sleeping, shower and privacy varieties, cost about $400. Custom tarps, bear resistant food containers and coolers add to the cost. Just counting camp gear, Rich estimates that each camp has more than $10,000 of gear associated with it-cheaper than your average motorhome and with much better wilderness access.

Rich calls these their port-a-camps.

"We make our home as we go," he said. "When we leave we try to leave as little evidence as possible that we were there."

During the summer, pack trips will stay in about 20 places in the Bob. For shorter trips, like this first one, the group will make a single camp for the duration and take day trips out from that location.

For the ranch hands, the morning of a trip is busy. Bridger Skillicorn and Ken Weaver worked as packers on this trip. Both just finished their freshman year of college and returned to the ranch to work for the summer.

The month leading up to the trip, the ranch hands were in "spring chore" mode. Even though the ranch is open year-round, the biggest push is during the summer months when guests arrive and pack trips head into the backcountry. To get the facilities ready for the summer season, every one of the 22 person crew is needed. Saddles need to be oiled, camping gear needs to be checked and trails need to be cleared.

Over the course of the summer, ranch hands work many different jobs. The day before the pack trip went out, Bridger and Ken did maintenance in the morning, taught fly fishing to a group of middle schoolers in the afternoon and line danced in the evening.

"I like teaching fly fishing, that's probably my favorite," said Skillicorn. "But I also like trail rides."

* * * *

The morning of the pack trip, Skillicorn and Weaver were among the half dozen crew members who were saddling and loading the mules.

Micah Drew, Pathfinder

Bridger Skillicorn strains to tighten a pack on a mule. Each mule carries up to 200 pounds of gear.

A combined eight people were needed to load the mules, horses and gear into three trailers and drive out to the trailhead-this week the North Fork of the Blackfoot.

It took an hour to outfit each pack mule with its loads, making sure they were balanced. Each pack can weigh more than 100 pounds.

When the pack train is almost ready, the Theard's and their ranch guides took off down the trail to head to the camp. The mule train started a few minutes later.

With all the mules packed and ready to head out, Rich strapped a revolver onto his waist and pulled himself onto his horse to lead his crew into another season of wilderness.

"Every trip is different, every story is different," said Rich who has been guiding in the backcountry with his family since he was five-years-old. "No matter how many times you travel these trail or how many trips you take, you can rediscover it vicariously through our guests.


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