Backcountry Boys : The Lives of Guides

It's hard to beat days on the trail, moving along with the rhythmic creak of saddles, the hollow footfalls of the animals behind you and the sweet scent of Ponderosa pine filling your nostrils on a silent, warm updraft.



The string's smell masks your own, making elk, deer, bear and cougar more likely to come within easy viewing range. Life slows down and your internal clock returns to its natural pace.

Most of us have to be content with short forays into the wild, but for some it's a way of life, a lifestyle choice that we might envy but that has an equal share of highs and lows.

Can you make a decent living guiding? Yes, but only if it's done right. Like any business, you reap what you sow, and, as the following guides will attest, it's not just about money—it's about the people they meet, the wild country and, of course, their horses and mules.

Making it Pay

For Matt McDowell, his wife, Amber, and mother, Marlene, co-owners of Wallowa Lake Pack Station at the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon's northeast corner, offering a variety of horse experiences is an essential part of their success.

"Last summer, we ran 8,000 rides out of our stables on Wallowa Lake," Matt says. "Most were short rides, ranging from an hour to a day in length."

In addition, the pack station takes guided and drop-camp trips deep into the wilderness. About 25 percent of their business comes from these outings.

"In summer, we bring a lot of hikers and anglers to camps at the high lakes," Matt notes.

In the fall, the pack station crew guides more than 50 deer and elk hunters.

"We only take four hunters at a time," he says. "And there are two guides for a party of four."

The majority of Matt's clients are repeat customers.

"I'd say 95 percent of our hunters have been with us before," he says. "I love that. It's just like hunting with a group of friends."

Deer hunts run $2,000 for four days of hunting and two days of travel. Elk hunts cost $2,500 for five days hunting and two days of travel.

However, Matt doesn't depend solely on the pack station for income. He is also a successful reining-horse trainer. In 2005, he won the Stallion Stake Futurity at the Denver Super Slide. With an eye for good horses and a gift for training, Matt adds considerably to his bottom line.

"I just love training horses," he explains, "and it gives me plenty to do in the winter, when our pack station is closed."

Ron Hilkey owns Adams Lodge in Colorado, which operates as a bed-and-breakfast inn. This adds to his income earned by guiding summer fishing and camping trips, and fall hunts. Ron has permits for the White River National Forest and the Flattops Wilderness.

"We have a very strong summer business," he says. "The Marvine Lakes area has tremendous fishing, which is a great asset for us.

"From the first of June into early September, we're taking in guided trips as well as drop camps. Most people go in for a two-night, three-day trip."

A four-day guided summer trip costs $800 per person. A drop-camp summer trip varies, though saddle horses and pack animals average $60 each per day, and a guide/packer runs around $100 a day.

Ron says that finding ways to enhance the backcountry experience for his clients has proven to be a sound business strategy.

"We pack in tiny rowboats to the lakes for anglers to use," Ron explains. "They love having those little boats. At first we didn't know if the boats would pay for themselves, but they have proven to be attractive for clients."

By mid-August, Ron and his guides are taking in the last of the anglers and are gearing up for early-season archery hunts.

"We guide about 50 hunters each fall," he says. "People come to Colorado to hunt elk, so that's what we specialize in."

For more of this story, see the August 2007 issue of Western Horseman.