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Copyright 2013 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


Big Creek Hornets

 By Chuck Miller, Montana Back Country Horsemen


July 2013 issue  


Big Creek Hornets by Chuck Miller


     This was the last pack trip of the season for the Bitter Root Back Country Horsemen in their volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service in the Bitter Root Valley of Montana. Part of our mission statement is to assist various government agencies to maintain trails in the backcountry. This year we had already done fifteen other summer pack trips for the U.S.F.S. trail crew, so this trip would be nothing new … or so I thought.

     The project was to pack the tools and camp up to the far end of Big Creek Lake , deep in the heart of the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness and near the Montana-Idaho border. I had been informed that this project would be larger than most, in that the trail crew would be composed of five members rather than the usual three. Usually the plan is to take one pack mule per trail crew member, but because of the September time frame and snow in the high country, I was to take a pack string of six mules so that we could take more cold weather gear for them.

     The trail begins innocently enough on a water grade level, but then one-half mile from the lake it makes a steep ascent that includes sixty steps made either of logs or stone. Due to use and water runoff, some of the vertical steps may be up to two feet in height. In general most of the trails in this wilderness area are somewhat difficult, and there was no need to add to the adrenalin rush that was coming.  

     One other Back Country Horsemen member and one U.S.F.S. person made up the packing crew. We prefer arriving at the trailhead as early as possible, in order to get the mules saddled and all the gear and tools packed into the loads that the animals will carry. The trip is a long one, anyway — seventeen miles in and seventeen miles back out — that’s thirty-four miles to go over tough trails before darkness and makes the job more dangerous.

     On this particular day, the trail crew arrived later than usual, and because of the large amount of gear, we were not able to get loaded and on the trail until 11:30 a.m. The plan, as usual, was to have the trail crew walk in ahead of us and ensure that the trail was clear of downfall.

     The weather was ideal for packing, with the temperature in the 40’s and some overcast. In this kind of weather, the mules can make good time without overheating. Julie, the other Back Country Horsemen packer lady, has always been good help because of her riding ability and experience with pack mules.

     As is the usual custom, I do allow dogs to come along, as long as everyone is comfortable with them. If not, they aren’t allowed. Julie had her three on this trip and I had left mine at home because of the length of the trip. Dogs are of some value as they tend to move some of the troublemaker moose and other undesirables off the trails, thereby leaving more room for the stock on these narrow byways into the wilderness.

     The first couple of miles are always the most trying as the mules get adjusted to their new surroundings and loads. It is not uncommon to have to stop and adjust the packs in order to get them balanced and riding properly. As I have said before, it is best to get a good start and make as few stops as possible because “Idle mule hooves are the Devil’s playground.” After an adjustment or two, we were well on our way without further delay.  

     At the two-mile marker, there had been a forest fire the previous year along the trail. The mules had been there to gather the gear of a trail crew that had to evacuate because of the fire. At that time the ground and stumps were still smoldering, so this area was familiar and proved to be no problem in spite of the “black boogers.”

     Just as we left the burned area, my riding mule did a little jig, which is rather unusual. As I looked back, the mule pack string, as well as Julie, were also dancing and prancing. I could see a few of those little devils of the woods — wasps!

     Wasps are not really uncommon to the mountains, but I thought that the cool weather would make them lazy. We have two main types of wasps in the mountains: one is the yellowjacket variety and the other is the dreaded bald-faced hornet. They call it bald faced because of a white face on the black body, and they are capable of multiple stings.

     Both kinds may live above ground, but yellowjackets usually live below ground and they may attack when they sense the vibrations of the animals above. Most of the time with yellowjackets there will be a few stings and attacks, and as you move away they will not follow. On the other hand, bald-faced hornets were born with the attitude of a one-eyed snake with bad eyesight and a toothache.

     Well, at this point I surmised that these were the yellowjacket variety, and we went on without too much a-do. A couple of mules and dogs got stung, but we had no real problems.  

     I was in the lead with my set of mules, along with the U.S.F.S. packer, and nearing the first pack bridge while Julie and the dogs were behind us.

     Perhaps everyone has heard the terms “Rolling Thunder” or “Sounds like a Freight Train” or “Stampede”? I suggest that you avoid these sounds at all costs, as they cannot do you any benefit at any time in your life! Those are exactly the sounds that I heard just before my riding mule and the pack string got blindsided.

     It seems unbelievable that mules can go from a sedate four-mile-per hour pace to thirty-miles-per-hour in less than ten feet!

     Both Julie and I were suddenly in the middle of a very serious situation — mule and horse panic! Four mules with packs passed me while we were trying to navigate the steep, rocky, tree-lined trail that we were no longer on.

     The reality of terrible speed, tree branches in your face, bashed legs from pack mules passing and pushing your mount were the order and terror of the moment. Visions of being trampled were heavy on my mind. The question of remaining in the saddle or bailing was a consideration!

     The thundering hooves, large rocks, and steep terrain renewed my efforts to stay upright and try to ride out the storm. It seemed that we rode this stampede for days and miles — but it really was for a minute or less and over 200 yards distance!

     The wreck concluded just short of the pack bridge which was very fortunate indeed. At the tally there were four mules with packs under their bellies and loads that were hanging. The other two needed only slight adjustments.

     The mules did not fight the upside down loads that were under their bellies, but waited patiently until we could get their loads and saddles off. Once one of them was taken care of and tied to a tree, we went on to the next waiting mule. Their panic was over and no injuries occurred to packers or mules. Now that they were taken care of, we sat down to access the situation and to get a breather ourselves.  

     Julie sorted the situation out as follows: her dogs were in the brush next to the trail when they disturbed a bald-faced hornet nest. The hornets proceeded to attack the three dogs and as they returned to the trail the hornets had a much larger target — the mule string. Julie got stung and could see the bald-faced hornet cloud approach the pack string. From then on it was every man and mule for himself!

     We were very fortunate that we had no injuries, just a lengthy and tiring repacking job ahead of us, as well as the long journey ahead.  

     The remainder of the trip to the lake was uneventful, even up the sixty-step chute. The crewmembers decided that the upper end of the lake would be their headquarters camp. We unloaded the mules, ate a quick lunch, and headed back to the trailhead.

     In steep mountains and in dangerous situations, it is customary to get off and lead your animal. It’s easier on the stock and safer, too. Once we remounted we pondered the question of how to navigate the bald-faced hornet and yellowjacket nests on the way back. Sometimes we carry “bee spray,” but we had none on this trip.  


     The other obvious possibility was to go around, a tactic we have successfully used before. That would not work this time because of the steep cliff-like terrain above and below the trail. Well, how about sending a small group through, then waiting 20-30 minutes before the next ones go through? Sure, that would work, but there wasn’t too much daylight left, and my preference is not to have a wreck in the dark!

     After considering these options and more, I settled for the “Bunch and Run” technique. In the areas of the trail that were moderately flat and straight, we practiced that very technique. We would bunch the animals as close together as possible and then trot out. It’s quite a feat to do this with nine head of stock that know what’s down the trail. We looked like the Bishop Mule Days Packers’ Scramble! If you could try to organize uncontrolled chaos, this is it.

     After practicing this a few times, we neared the last bridge crossing Big Creek. The mules knew we were in for it as we made the last step off the bridge and hit the accelerator for the next thousand yards!

     I will say that practice made perfect, just like a bootlegger’s run. Those hornets were still in bed when we were 200 yards past them. No attack! The mules went down to their four-mile-per-hour pace, but kept moving because they know those bald-faced hornets will follow you for a considerable distance.  

     That left only the yellowjacket bunch to navigate. Sometimes the terrain doesn’t look exactly the same when you’re coming from another direction, and this was indeed the case. By the time we realized where we were, the wasps were humming and looking for man and beast.

     With a little trick riding and a whole lot of luck everyone stayed mounted, although I can’t say that the previous order of rank and file was maintained!

     Oh, well, it was less than three miles to the trailhead. After unsaddling, there were lots of mules and horses with wasp sting lumps on them, same as the humans.

     Well, that’s the story, and I hope your wasp experiences are less exciting and moving!


Copyright 2013 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;

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