For many outdoorsy folks, the worst part about backpacking is all that gear they have to carry: a sleeping bag, tent, rain jacket, cook kit, food, water, sleeping pad and spare clothes, to name some of the basics. All of that stuff can quickly add up to 30 to 50 pounds.
Lightweight gear is now available to ease backpackers’ loads – at a premium price – but for all but the very experienced or toughest hikers, lightweight can often mean a cold, wet or uncomfortable trip.
Luckily, backpackers have another option.
Along the Rocky Mountain Front in northwestern Montana, backpackers can pay Dropstone Outfitting to horse pack in their gear while they hike ahead.
“I love to hike and backpack, and I always thought that the perfect solution was to have stock to follow you to carry your stuff,” said Yve Bardwell, who co-owns the business with Maggie Carr.
Now in its second full year of operation, Dropstone’s guides also plan and cook meals – which aren’t dehydrated and include a fine boxed wine. The company also provides hiking guides to help clients explore the best of the spectacular mountain terrain.
“It’s exciting because we have the energy to do it,” said Bardwell, who is 31, and does much of the hiker guiding.
Dropstone guides in the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness, which adjoins the Scapegoat and Great Bear wilderness areas to protect a vast swath of 1.5 million acres of mountainous terrain – the fifth-largest wilderness in the lower 48 states. It’s a wild place that is still home to major predators like wolves, grizzly and black bears, as well as elk, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
As a nod to the unique landscape, the business takes its name from the large boulders dropped on the prairie below the mountains, miles from where they were picked up by ancient glaciers.
Since Bardwell and Carr both live in the small Rocky Mountain Front town of Choteau, where jobs can be scarce, they decided the best way to bring their idea to life was to run their own business. In January 2013, they bought an outfitting business that had been operated by veteran hiker and wilderness advocate Bill Cunningham and his wife, Polly, who also bestowed upon the new owners a wealth of information on the surrounding wilderness, as well as an all-important client list.
“Bill and I are really enjoying passing the baton before we were totally decrepit,” Polly said, noting that she and her husband are now in their 70s. She added that she’s especially pleased that the new owners are local women.
“We’re totally supportive of making them succeed,” she added. “We even recruit for them. It was very congenial.”
Dropstone’s owner-operators are Montana-born, college educated, multi-talented, woods-wise individuals.
Bardwell grew up in the small Missouri River town of Cascade, southwest of Great Falls. Although her family owned horses, as a youngster she was skittish of them after being thrown and bitten. Since she married a cowboy, Bardwell has decided to strike a truce with equines.
A University of Montana graduate with a degree in hydrology, she has done field work tracking wolves in the Italian Alps, surveying for Lahontan cutthroat trout in California’s Sierra Mountains, as well as guided river trips on the remote Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in central Montana. She spends the off-season working as an assistant at a veterinary clinic.
Before settling into her new role, Carr worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington D.C., earned a rangeland management degree at Montana State University and now spends winters working at the nearby Teton Pass Ski Area.
“I just feel like we’re both really lucky to be doing this in such an amazing spot,” Carr said.
Carr, 27, acts as the main horsepacker, a skill she learned growing up around horses and then refined while working for the Forest Service and a nearby guest ranch. She also is camp cook, whipping up dinners like pork molé and black-eyed peas with Italian sausage, simply called peas and sausage.
“Maggie is an excellent baker,” Bardwell said. “She usually makes all of the desserts, too, like cookies and lemon bars.”
Cunningham noted that there was an “uproar” among their clients on the first horse trip because all the food was still freeze-dried backpacking meals.
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“Our theory of our backpacking trips was: if you want gourmet food, you better stay home,” she said. “But slowly we enlarged our menu to live things instead of dead food.”
So far, Dropstone has had no problem filling up most of the seven trips it is offering into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex this year. The most popular trek is to the 20-mile long, 1,000-foot high cliffs of the Chinese Wall. This year, clients began signing up in November and all but one trip had filled by Jan. 1.
Each of Dropstone’s trips is to a different area. There is a fall visit to the North Fork of the Sun River and includes the opportunity to hear bull elk bugle during the mating season. Another is focused on yoga and includes a hike-along yoga instructor. The business also offers guided day trips and custom trips for a minimum of six people. Prices start at $950 for the 17.6-mile, four-day yoga trip.
Birch Creek, a drainage that enters the Bob Marshall Wilderness just south of the Blackfeet reservation town of Heart Butte, is one of Carr’s favorite places to visit, although she admitted it’s hard to pick a favorite.
“Part of the thing with the Bob is you’re constantly exploring,” she said. “It’s always a little bit new.”
The trips are limited to eight clients. The hiking group is assisted by two hiking guides and two wranglers.
Cunningham doesn’t miss all of the work involved in guiding and outfitting.
“The preliminary planning is exhaustive, slapping together all of the food and all of the logistics,” she said. “So, retirement is looking pretty sweet.”
The majority of the clients come from out of state, with the East Coast, Midwest and Seattle areas providing the bulk of visitors. The hikers have ranged in age from 50 to early 70s – older folks who are experienced backpackers but have tired of carrying all that heavy gear.
“They’re people used to backpacking, and they’re used to being in the woods,” Carr said. “They’re great to have for a client base – generally enthusiastic people.”
Cunningham noted that she and Bill started the idea of horse-supported backpacking about 10 years ago.
“We noticed that there were plenty of people out there that didn’t feel like even hefting a 40-pound pack,” she said. “The trips themselves tended to be pretty arduous because you have to go to horse-suitable campsites, which tends to be a long stretch. So they’re not easy trips.”
Even without a pack, the hikers are covering 7 to 12 miles daily.
“We usually include a couple of layover days to rest or day hike,” Bardwell said.
The hikers are followed by five or six horses carrying the gear, which is still kept to a minimum so that fewer horses are required. Cunningham said she originally toyed with the idea of donkeys to carry packs, partly because they are cute. But Bill talked her out of that.
“We’re generally shorter than typical pack trains,” Bardwell said. “We camp in pristine places where we want to limit the impacts.”
Fewer hikers also fosters a more intimate experience, she added, which is important to keep the mood, as well as the loads, light.
Cunningham trekked with Dropstone acting as a hiking guide on one of their trips last year.
“It was so much fun to see Maggie do all of the work,” she said. “It was great, because it used to be me.”