These pack trips are designed for riders who want to capture their trophies on film.
“I know several people who are totally against hunting, but they sure would like to go on a hunting trip. They want to see and stalk wildlife, but they don’t want to kill anything.”
Those are the words of Yeldon Morgan, the owner of Morgan’s, the fine horse products company in Ellsworth, Nebraska. Yeldon has always been a hunter. He enjoys hunting, but he also enjoys simply seeing and photographing wildlife. “I love pack trips in the mountains,” says Yeldon, “and I can get just as much pleasure from photographing an elk as I do from hunting one.”
In pursuit of that kind of trip, Yeldon contacted his nephew-in-law Rick Felts, who owns and operates Grizzly Ranch, near Cody, Wyoming. Rick is a professional outfitter. In the fall, he guides hunters after deer, elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep, and in the summer he offers pack trips for sightseers, photographers, and fishermen.
“I often tailor my summer and early fall trips to suit the needs of wildlife photographers,” says Rick. “There are plenty of wild animals to see in this area.” Rick can even offer photography trips during the hunting season, because part of his area of operation includes Yellowstone National Park, where hunting is not allowed.
“The best time of all is in September,” explains Rick. “The weather is just fantastic because we usually have Indian summer about then. And the elk are bugling. They are easy to find, their antlers are all grown out, and they are really putting on a show.”
Last August, Yeldon and Rick got together for a camera safari into the Washakie Wilderness, just east of Yellowstone. Along for the ride was Bill Davis, an outstanding western and wildlife sculptor who also has a passion for fly fishing.
The trip started at Grizzly Ranch, where Rick and Candy Felts have, over a period of about ten years, built a cozy and hospitable guest ranch. The ranch is surrounded on three sides by national forest, and is picturesque enough to have appeared in one of the Marlboro cigarette ads. In fact, Rick’s horses, mules, and ranch wagon have been used on numerous occasions for the ads, and Rick has often helped find locations and cowboy extras for the Marlboro photographic sessions.
Grizzly Ranch is just about as close to being home as any visitor could want. Rick and Candy are people lovers and wonderful hosts. Their seven cabins will accommodate a total of 15 guests, and everyone-guests, guides, wranglers, ranch helpers, and Rick’s own family-dines together at two gigantic round tables in the Felts’ dining room.
“We don’t do anything special,” says Rick. “When people come here, they are coming into our home. We sit round at dinner and then visit afterwards; seeing who can tell the biggest lie is our main event. It is a chance for people to relax, to slow down in this fast world we live in.”
For the wilderness trip, Rick drives his guests to the Eagle Creek Campground, a few miles west of his ranch. Eagle Creek is one of the major tributaries of the North Fork of the Shoshone River. The campground is at the mouth of Eagle Creek, and one of Rick’s most popular trips is the ten mile ride up this stream to Eagle Creek Meadows.
“There is no way I can describe Eagle Creek Meadows,” says Rick. “When you ride up the creek bottom and through those trees, and then finally get to where you’re going, and you break out into that fantastically beautiful meadow, you can understand why people love it so much. But until you actually see it for yourself, you just can’t grasp how wonderful it is.”
Rick owns 30 head of horses and mules, so he is able to outfit any rider with the kind of mount he or she prefers. At the campground, Rick and his wranglers will help each guest get properly mounted, and then the guide, pack mules, saddle horses, and guests splash across the Shoshone and head for the high country.
The trail to Eagle Creek Meadows winds gradually upward through pine and spruce forests, occasionally topping out for splendid views of the Eagle Creek canyon. Along the way, moose and deer are a common sight, and it often takes longer to reach the meadows than is really necessary simply because there are so many photographic opportunities along the way.
And when you get there, Eagle Creek Meadows tops it all off. It is a huge valley-two miles long and 1/2 mile wide-surrounded on two sides by towering, timbered ridges, and on the southwest by snowcapped peaks along the Yellowstone boundary. While guests are busy taking in the splendor of it all, Rick and guide Roy Sanders unload the mules and set up camp.
“When we take a pack trip,” declares Rick, “we take a pretty posh outfit. We take tents, chairs, tables, foam pads to sleep on, a “potty” tent, and lots of good food. It’s really not much like roughing it. In fact, the only difference between this and camping out of your car is that you go on horseback and you get into much wilder country.”
The meadows are a perfect place for the horseback photographer. Not only are there many opportunities to photograph wildlife like moose, deer, elk, and marmots — but the meadow itself is worth several frames. Early in the morning, when the sun is just breaking through the ground mist, elaborate spider webs glitter with dew-drops in the tall grass, and brilliant wildflowers cover the ground in carpets of color. Its easy to run out of film long before you expect to.
If, on the other hand, the guest prefers hook and line to film and camera, Eagle Creek is a fisherman’s dream. In the course of one day of fly fishing, artist Bill Davis waded up the meandering stream and happily caught and released over 200 hard-fighting brook trout.
For visitors who can stay longer, Rick offers a seven-day ride that goes on into Yellowstone Park. “That trip is especially good for fishing,” says Rick, “because we drop right into the head of the upper Yellowstone River. It is unsurpassed for fishing for about a month out of the year, from the 10th of July to the 8th of August. A lot of large trout are spawning then. After that time period, it is done. They all go back to Yellowstone Lake.”
You don’t have to go to the park to see wildlife. The Washakie Wilderness is part of what is known as the greater Yellowstone management area. This includes areas of U.S. Forest Service and BLM lands outside of the park. The chances of finding and photographing wildlife are often as good or better than they are inside the park boundary.
Regardless of the reason for going, be it a photographic safari, a fishing trip, a hunting trip, or just a sightseeing tour, guests who have a chance to visit Grizzly Ranch are in for a treat. Rick and Candy really make you feel like you belong there.
Ordinarily, a typical visit to the ranch lasts about five days. Guests can take a pack trip, or day rides, or an overnighter up Big Creek Canyon, right behind the ranch. The Felts will also throw in a one-day van tour of Yellowstone. “A day-long trip over there is pretty nice, even when the weather is unstable. You see more wildlife on days like that than you do on bright, sunny days.” says Rick.
In addition, they will take guests on into Cody to visit the exciting Buffalo Bill Historical Center and to see the action at the well-produced Cody Nite Rodeo. “We don’t have a big operation,” says Rick, “and we don’t want one. Our guests like the family atmosphere around this place. In fact, the people who stay here get to be like part of our family.
“We had people here recently who stayed with us for two weeks. The guy was a lawyer, and his wife was a school teacher. Heck. When they and their three kids left, everybody cried. For two weeks they had lived right with us, just like family. We’ve got guests that have been coming back for four or five years. We are almost closer to them than to some of our own relation, because we get to see them more often.”
Being around Rick is an exuberant experience. He has a great zest for living and a great sense of humor. His speech and stories are full of humorous phrases. When he introduces you to a group of his cronies, he’ll say something like, “How’d you like to have a pup out of that litter?”
But the most impressive thing is his enormous enthusiasm for what he does. He loves people, he loves animals, he loves working outdoors, and he loves the hard physical work and variety involved in owning his own guest ranch. He has to handle about anything. At times he is a farrier, a carpenter, a plumber, a medic, a guide, a wrangler, a nature expert, a businessman, an accountant, and a congenial and patient host.
“I like to have a lot of business,” explains Felts, “but I don’t want to get too big. If I did, I’d lose touch with all the stuff that made me want to get into this business in the first place. I don’t ever want to leave it, ever in my whole life, not until I’m at least 128 years old! If I didn’t have to make a living, I’d do all of this for nothing. I love it.”
Another thing Rick likes is that staying small allows him to go on the pack trips. “I don’t go on all of them, but there haven’t been very many of them that left here without me.” Part of Rick’s desire to be along on each trip is that he wants to make sure his guides do things the way he wants them done. According to Roy Sanders, who has guided for Grizzly Ranch for several years, Rick is great to work for because he likes to do things properly. Roy explains, “Rick runs a first-class camp. He keeps his equipment in top shape and hates to see anything that looks ratty or shabby. And he’s always looking for a better horse or mule.”
The Cody area is perfect for camera hunts. Large game animals are abundant, as are many other species, including waterfowl, hawks and eagles, passerine birds, and squirrels and chipmunks. But even without the wildlife, the scenery alone is enough to keep any photographer busy.
Early in the fall is probably the best time to go. The aspens begin to take on their golden mantle, and though the days are still warm, the air is crisp with just a hint of the coming winter. There are animals everywhere. Bears are busily storing fat for a long hibernation, waterfowl are starting to gather for their southern migration, and bugling bull elk are battling each other for the right to collect a harem of cows.
This article was originally published in the February 1986 issue of Western Horseman.