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Wilderness Immersion: The Peaks of Pack Trips and Parenting

Nestled in the Absaroka Mountains of Wyoming is our wilderness camp where, every August, my daughter, Charlie, and I spend four days alone. This has been an annual tradition since she was two years old. There are a lot of things to ponder when you’re 17 miles deep, just me and her, our bear dog Sparrow, three horses, some bear spray, and a pistol. The smaller gun is an added, backup precaution in case all other options fail, we are alone with numerous predators or, most importantly, to humanely put down a horse if it gets a debilitating, terminal injury like a broken leg while in the wilderness. 

A landscape view of mountains in Wyoming, with a field in the foreground and a rainbow in the sky Image via Kim Havell

Our camp sits on the edge of an expansive meadow surrounded by towering peaks and plateaus, green forests contrasted by stark burn areas, babbling brooks, pristine lakes and streams, and a constant flow of wildlife. The horses graze free and wander around each evening in the luscious green grass. The morning round-up brings them back into the makeshift corral and ready to go for an adventure each day. We sleep in beige, canvas-wall tents which sit near a dining and cook tent, a fire pit for evening grilling and storytelling, tree stump nooks for gathering, hammocks hung from trees, and a nearby spring fed water source for pure, unfiltered drinking. 

A group of horses in a field grazing, with mountains in the distance Image via Kim Havell

Twelve years ago, when my husband Pete Linn and I met, he talked about his dream of buying this camp, which he considered one of the most extraordinary in the western US. Seven years ago, an aging, legendary cowboy named Paul Gilroy put the camp up for sale. With the help of partners, we bought the camp and merged it into the Linn family outfitting business. My husband’s dad, granddad, and great granddad have been Outfitters for several generations now and my daughter is a 6th generation Wyomingite; navigating the wilderness is in her blood.

A girl on a horse wearing a purple helmet, among trees and purple flowers Image via Kim Havell

 

Charlie and I have always been a team when it comes to traveling in and out of camp for our two week stay each summer. Pete is busy running the packing operation, so she and I work together to go the distance. Charlie’s birthday is in August, so we always celebrate at camp and then, back at home, with an annual birthday hike in the Teton mountain range after we emerge from our stay. Traditions are great for kids.  

As a twelve-month-old, Charlie rode in an Osprey Poco on my back while I stopped frequently to nurse and to change diapers. At two years old, Charlie spent three quarters of the time in the Poco and then did the final stretch of mileage into camp, riding in front of her papa on his horse while I took over leading his pack string on foot. At three years old, I led her on an older pony some friends gave us. And, at four years old, she rode in and out on her own. Mom now cruises into camp in freedom on horseback. Our keys to a successful journey are abundant snacks and treats in saddle bags and her Osprey Daylite pack with water hydration hanging off the horn on the saddle. Through this progression alone, I have learned that kids are resilient and can rise to the challenge. Seventeen miles is a long way to ride. 

A girl on a horse wearing a pink helmet and jacket Image via Kim Havell

The journey into camp includes a 1,000-foot descent and another 1,000-foot ascent, along with multiple stream crossings and beautiful stretches through burn. We follow a meandering mountainside  trail which intersects with the Continental Divide trail at one stretch of the route. When I hiked the 17 miles with a baby on my back, I would arrive at camp tired. As the years go by, I have adjusted to the journey and relaxed with my child on horseback. It took some time to manage this unknown through hard-won experience and to successfully arrive at a level of both comfort and enjoyment. But, even when it was very hard it was always rewarding to get there. 

A group of people riding horses along a trail, surrounded by trees that had been previously burned Image via Kim Havell

Once we all arrive at camp, we spend the first week exploring the mountains and lakes with our guests. At the end of the week, Charlie and I then watch our fun companions ride out of camp. It’s unwise to have large groups of horses and people on the trail at the same time. If one thing goes wrong, it can have a domino effect on the whole group and slow the momentum.  So, the guests leave camp first with a wrangler. Next, another pack string heads out, and then the last pack string departs with Pete in the rear. After the last horses and riders cross the stream that flows through camp, we watch them turn the bend and disappear into the trees. It is at this point that I mentally settle in for our solo adventure. 

This alone time has its risks. Though we run a tight camp, keep a clean kitchen, and the 30 horses in the meadows out front of camp typically deter other animals from coming through camp, when the people and the ponies leave, camp becomes a more attractive place through which wild animals like to roam.   

Once we drift into silence, there are sounds all around. We hear the horses softly pacing in the corral. The stream near our wall tent rushes through the rocks and willows. Birds chirp and leaves rustle in the breeze. When I was a teenager in New York City, I used to walk home alone at night though the empty city streets. There’s an odd similarity in these deserted environments, absorbing the city’s and the wilderness’s undisturbed essence. 

A girl sitting at the entrance to a canvas tent sitting on a log Image via Kim Havell

Some mornings, we wander out to the meadow to a grove of pine trees where Charlie gathers sticks, pinecones, stones, feathers, and other nature treasures to build fairy houses. She writes notes and draws pictures to leave for the fairies, welcoming them to their new home. In the afternoons, we hike along the buffalo river and cross the deeper, moving-water sections on burned logs, balancing on these beams to get to the other side. Bracing, we jump into the glacial cold water and then jump back out to lie on the warm pebbles on the beach front. Sparrow and our bear spray are always nearby. 

A man and woman standing next to their daughter on a horse, along with their dog Image via Kim Havell

Other days, after a short and steep ride up the hillside, we arrive at the series of lakes that lie in shelves along the plateau. Charlie likes catching lake trout, and we eat it for dinner at night. Wandering the nearby hills, we find patches of huckleberries ripe for picking. When our cook returns to camp, she transforms them into a sweet sauce for our pancakes and the next group of guests sprinkle them in their evening cocktails. 

A small girl holding a fish in her hands next to a river Image via Kim Havell

As dusk arrives above camp, we watch the sun slowly setting in an opening between the mountains touching the meadow. Reds, pinks, and oranges streak the sky as we sit on tree stumps at the edge of the meadow and munch on mac and cheese, drinking cool, crisp water from our camp cups. We carefully wash and sterilize our dishes and head out for chores. With full bellies, Charlie and I rotate horses for their feeding, keeping two in the corral overnight for our protection. The one that gets to roam is lucky, but does not like leaving its friends. We call it flight insurance.  

Though I have a heightened sense of awareness with a child to protect, the horses and Sparrow will warn us of approaching predators. This allows time to get bear spray or to do anything else necessary. I don’t think much about the “anything necessary” part.  

A field of horses grazing with mountains in the background Image via Kim Havell

For bedtime, we wash up near the stream and use biodegradable products to keep our stream clean. These small rituals fill our hours, and we live in a basic, present state, enjoying each other’s company in this small window of complete serenity. Back in the tent with Sparrow, Charlie and I read books together and then, after a time, we drift off to sleep. We sleep and rise with the sun which makes for early evenings and brisk mornings watching dawn arrive from our tent.  

It is hard to escape the modern world, but in this immersive mountain experience in a wild, remote place, Charlie and I find another rhythm to our relationship, pause to reflect on what is most important, and enjoy a challenge that is perfect for us both.

A girl crossing a river by walking over a downed tree Image via Kim Havell