Thirteen Miles on Annie the Mule

Back Country Horsemen ride from Absarokee to Fishtail
Nate Howard - Enterprise Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Article Image Alt Text

Justin Heimer, 15, holds onto his hat riding horseback on Stillwater River Road on April 28.

Article Image Alt Text

A ranch and the Beartooth Mountains, covered in snow, north of Fishtail.

Article Image Alt Text

Annie, the mule, at a stop along the 13-mile ride from Absarokee to Fishtail.

Article Image Alt Text

Rebekka Brewer leads our group of horses into Fishtail.

I fell in love with Annie, short for Annie Oakley, my mule. She was gentle, respectful and preferred being in the mountains, but just lacked riding straight, which I don’t blame her for. She veered left then veered right, which I later learned wasn’t my fault.

“She doesn’t steer straight, but she’s a sweetheart,” said Wanda Wilcox, Annie’s owner, upon arriving at our destination.

Annie was one of 22 horses and mules that carried their riders 13 miles in the annual Beartooth Backcountry Horseman Associate Poker Fun Ride on April 28, riding from Absarokee to Fishtail.

We started out from the Absarokee Ball Park, headed west along asphalted Stillwater River Road straight into the wind with Annie’s big ears as my windshield.

Annie rode like an old but reliable pickup truck with alignment issues. Her gait was faster than the horses and she was always willing to trot.

On the open road, Annie was out of her element. There was no thick pine forest, no stream crossings, no talus slopes, or steep traverses. Just asphalt stretching out to miles of rolling hills with the Beartooths in clear view, and this was foreign to her.

Like the backcountry riders, she preferred being tucked in the wild mountains but they were still under several feet of snow and, here in the foothills, this was the nearest to the mountains the ride organizers could find to get out and ride.

Annie found shelter and security with her nose just inches from the ass of the horse in front of her ridden by Justin Heimer, 15. The young cowboy held tight to his cowboy hat and leaned into the wind.

The usual 60 riders was cut down to 22 as a result of a nasty forecast of wind and snow.

Beside me was Abigail Cavender, 12, who asked if this was my first time riding.

My ego sank. Riding a mule, yes, this was my first time, and down a road, yes, this was a first time.

I’d been on horses a couple dozen times but apparently I wasn’t riding like I had much of any experience at all.

The nasty weather, mostly the wind, forced a few riders to turn back and when Sharon Cavender, our group leader asked if we wanted to turn back, Abigail, her daughter, was quick to say no and we stayed the course.

Abigail clearly had a lot of experience on her horse. The weather didn’t phase her. She sat relaxed, quiet and dressed for conditions and was enjoying every moment.

Halfway through the 13-mile ride we turned south on Upper Grove Creek Road and Annie was at peace being off the asphalt and, walking along the dirt road, she swerved less. We both found a majestic view of the Beartooth Mountains, covered in swirling snow, blue sky and patchy white clouds rising over a verdant valley with cows and calves grazing.

We stopped at a few checkpoints along the way and adults picked up a card to play a hand of poker at the Cowboy Bar in Fishtail.

The place offered beer, burgers, onion rings, warmth, no wind and 20 or more horsemen and women who love to ride gathered in fellowship.


The Cowboy Bar

A few veteran riders, even the founding members of the Beartooth Back Country Horsemen Association, joined me at my table.

Those members, seated across from me, were John and Bonnie Chepulis, who live outside of Columbus, and John Simmons. Chepulis has a tire shop in Bozeman and Simmons is a welder and blacksmith in Absarokee.

They told me that they are advocates for public access to the mountains.

“I want my kids’ ongoing preservation for my grandkids. To keep it open for future generations. We want a place for peace and quiet,” John Chepulis said.

The Chepulises said that on the trail, their main fear is bicyclists spooking their horses.

John Chepulis explained bicycles show up silently and he wished the bike riders would slow down and talk to them, even talk to the horses.

Simmons chimed in.

“When I was twenty-something I was naive,” he said. “What’s all this talk of wilderness, or wildness, as some called it? Those old jeep roads would be highways now if it weren’t for wilderness,” he said, referring to the restrictions of wilderness areas to only horses and hikers.


In the beginning, in Absarokee

The Beartooth Back Country Horsemen Association started in December 1997 and includes members from several counties including Stillwater, Carbon, Park, Sweet Grass and Yellowstone.

Much of what led to the creation of the association started with fires and weather, closing many trails for years.

The U.S. Forest Service was often preoccupied with forest fires in other regions and these modern-day mountain men and women took the initiative and organized, riding and clearing trails, miles and miles of it, in the Beartooths, the Absaroka and the Pryor mountains.

Along with working solo, the group partners with a variety of agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to pack in and pack out their gear, all as volunteers.

In 2018, the Beartooth association worked 132 miles of trails and tallied 1,300 hours clearing our trails.

Proceeds from the April 28 Poker Fun Ride were split between the Fishtail Community Fund and the Abasorakee Baseball Park.

Beartooth Back Country Horsemen meets at 7 p.m. on the third Monday of each month at the Fishtail Community Center. A program of interest to backcountry horsemen and the general public is presented at each meeting. The public is invited to attend.

For more information on Beartooth Back Country Horsemen, visit