Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Hundreds of snorting bison chew on tender grass. Elegant white trumpeter swans swaddle nests, awaiting chicks. Taupe pronghorn run wild and free in vast valleys. Deer, elk and bald eagles emerge from the forests; the rivers are thick with trophy cutthroat trout. Only the human population is sparse: 100 people call Bondurant, Wyoming home.
Kenny and I leave behind our South Carolina beach to visit Jackson Fork Ranch, 51 miles south of Jackson Hole Airport. Nestled on 1,600 acres of stunning beauty, the ranch is surrounded by the Gros Ventre, Wind River and Wyoming mountain ranges. The Upper Hoback River snakes through winter snows and summer wildflowers. Out here in Big Sky Country, you’ll find no shopping malls or movie theaters. Just peace, quiet and maybe the best fly-fishing and horseback riding of your life.
We’re staying at The Lodge on Jackson Fork Ranch, a Western-style four-bedroom home with 280-degree panoramic views. Guests gather in front of the cozy river-rock fireplace, enjoying the magnificent wildlife paintings. No one misses TV; there are enough adventure stories to share with each other. Before bed, we float in our outdoor Jacuzzi under a blanket of shimmering stars.
Chef Brad Hoch entertains with hilarious Wyoming stories and keeps us well-nourished with delicious culinary creations. Who wouldn’t love this breakfast: homemade chicken sausage, scrambled eggs, buttermilk coffee cake and fresh fruit? Or this gourmet dinner: chicken breast in phyllo, salad with huckleberries and apple rhubarb crisp with vanilla bean ice cream?
The Lodge is perfect for small group getaways: fishing buddies, adventurous girlfriends, rustic weddings, family reunions, creative retreats.
And perfect for Ken and me, beach lovers who love hanging out with beautiful horses and 1,000-pound bison.
Our first morning, we’re greeted by our fly-fishing instructor, Mike Kaul, a partner in Two Rivers Emporium. We’re inspired right away by Mike’s joie de vivre for nature, fly-fishing and life.
“Granddad started me fly-fishing at age 7,” he says. “He taught me so much; I’ve been fly-fishing for 64 years. I’m still aspiring to be really good,” he jokes.
Our clinic begins on the lawn, where Mike teaches us the elements of casting: the correct stance, the best fly-rod grip, and the graceful arm and hand movement that powers the line onto the water and into the mouth of a fish.
“Takes years of practice,” he counsels. “But I can tell you and Kenny are naturals.” Yes for Ken, who is an expert golfer. Maybe for Sharon, who has wimpy wrists, but lots of enthusiasm.
An hour of practice casting our lines into a hoop and Mike awards us a B-plus for form and effort. We pull on Gortex waders over four layers of shirts and fleece, and ride in Mike’s truck to the Hoback River to test our skills.
Buck and pole fences lining dirt roads, meandering toward a perfect powder-blue sky, painterly clouds and grand mountains. The beauty stuns us all into companionable silence.
“Nature and quiet, this is the place,” Mike sighs.
Knee-deep in the Hoback River, still running fast and brown with June’s snowmelt, we cast for an hour. Over and over, lovely long casts, helped by Mike’s coaching.
“Great form, Ken!” he calls. “Nice wrist action, Sharon.”
Our heartbeats increase with nibbles from what we imagine are big trophy cutthroat trout. The line slackens. Nothing. Sigh. Although we did our best, no fish were fooled by us.
Yet we felt euphoric. We’ve figured it out: fly-fishing is not always about catching a fish. It’s about listening to a wild rushing river, watching clouds dance over mountains, napping in a field of bold yellow wildflowers. It’s about being happy together, at Jackson Fork Ranch, on this wild Wyoming day.
After another great Chef Brad breakfast, we drive down the road outside the ranch to Sleeping Indian Outfitters. Alix Crittenden is saddling up our horses for a two-hour ride in Wyoming’s backcountry.
“Alix, please give me the horse for kids,” I beg. “I’m scared and I haven’t ridden in years.”
Alix grins, a gorgeous blue-eyed blond, newly married to her sweetheart, Sam. A young lady from North Carolina who moved to Wyoming, and seems like she was born on a horse. Feral, yet feminine.
“Let’s go, Sharon,” she says firmly. “I got some pretty country to show you and Ken.”
My horse is named Chocolate, and all she wants to do is eat. Kenny’s is named Smiley-perfect, since he is always smiling.
The next two hours, we wade through thigh-high rivers, holding tightly onto the reins, hoping not be washed away in the muddy waters. I have no choice but to trust Chocolate to swim over to the other side, and she does. Kenny and Alix are far ahead, climbing the steep trails.
Chocolate and I follow straight up the mountains into fields blazing with purple larkspur, yellow balsam root and pink geraniums. Our horses trot through thick forests of quaking aspens and stately lodgepole pines, never losing their balance over slippery boulders or stepping into thick, sticky mud.
On the stunning plateau, Kenny and I pose for a horse-and-rider photo, just as the sky turns steely gray. Click of the camera and we’re drenched, not just by rain, but by pelting hail. The cold ice is annoying, but Alix acts like the sun is still shining.
“Don’t like Wyoming weather? Wait five minutes,” she calls out. This woman is too damn positive, I think.
Ken is telling jokes; the horses are eating grass, and I realize how dumb I am to be scared. I pat Chocolate’s ice-covered ears. I follow my cowboy Ken, and Alix, straight down the mountain and again, across the deep, muddy river. Now I’m smiling, big as Sky Country. New courage is emerging. All the way back, I mutter my new mantra: “I ain’t afraid of no mountain, no steep trail up or down, no rivers, no hail. Cold, wet, I ain’t afraid of nothin’ nobody no more.”
Guess Wyoming has brought out my inner wildness, and I’m likin’ how it feels.
©Sharon Spence Lieb