Trail Ride Attracts Record Crowd
Montana took a fundraising opportunity and turned it into an idea built on horsepower
By Amy Bulger, Wapiti Wire editor
June. Saturday. 8:30 a.m. A procession of traveling horse trailers kicks up a line of dust on the horizon that catches in the sunlight. The air in the tall-grass field where they are headed is already thick with hot snorts of anxious horses and the creak of cranky metal as more trailers protest the makeshift bumpy parking grounds.
The annual RMEF Seeley Lake chapter trail ride is the first outing of the summer for many. More than 120 riders flank the western edge of the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range in western Montana, all in various stages of dressing their steeds. There’s uneasiness in the air as man, woman and beast awaken sleepy wits, test each other, tighten saddle straps and ready themselves for the trail.
“This kind of became an idea of a good way to get your horses in shape and have fun,” says ride organizer Todd Johnson. “It’s a good opportunity to do something this time of year, before the snow is off the high-country trails, for people looking for an excuse to get their horses out and get them in shape before you start riding in the backcountry.”
This unique event draws riders from nearly 100 miles away for a half-day trail ride on the state-owned wildlife management area, followed by a barbecue and auction under the sun. For the $35 reservation, it’s one of RMEF’s more popular second events that attracts a different crowd than the annual chapter banquet. By the time the day is over, the chapter will have netted $9,000 and seen 120-130 riders come through, and another 20 or 30 people who just showed up for lunch.
“You’re out in elk country here,” says western Montana’s Regional Director Jared Wold as he looks at the hills rising into the game range. “When they rode the course yesterday to mark the trail, they saw griz, they saw elk, and deer. It’s cool to have a fundraiser where you’re out where you are making the difference and where the money is going.”
10:30 a.m. Todd and Twyla Johnson and their son Chance are the last riders to follow the flagged trail that jolts immediately up a steep hillside and meanders through the game range wilderness to places only hooves can travel.
They have been key organizers of the trail ride for most of the 16 years it’s been happening. A “perfect storm” of good weather, new advertising in the Craigslist Farm and Ranch section online and in the RMEF Montana Bullsheet newsletter has made this the best year ever for turnout, Todd says.
From its beginnings, the trail ride has been a journey of great timing. The Seeley Lake chapter was formed about the same time the state created a game range on this land. A large part of the chapter’s first endeavors focused on raising funds to help purchase private lands that lay within the range boundaries. The new chapter wanted to do an event like a poker run, but without the gambling overtones. And so the trail ride was born, with riders collecting points at stops along the trail instead of building hands of cards. It was a little unique thinking that has made their event a success for 16 years, long after all the land deals were finalized.
1:00 p.m. Horses stream off the mountain carrying beaming riders. They filter to the RMEF trailer to buy handfuls of raffle tickets and peruse the auction items on display. Stories catch in the air. There’s one about a horse who loved beer so much it would take cans right out of the cooler.
Some here are RMEF members, but some are just friends who enjoy a day on the trail. The ride is open to all, and the RMEF mission is discussed but not pushed on the agenda. Todd Johnson likes it because it gives him a chance to interact with a different crowd of folks than those who come to the banquet.
“We don’t go to other events because we’re about 85 miles away, but we have to come for this,” says Kellie Auchenbach who leaves the kids at home and travels from Condon with her friend Jennie Webb to ride. “We usually trot or gallop our way through it. We like speed… and laughing and giggling. That’s how we roll.”
They wear their own stories of trail rides past like badges of honor.
“We got lost one year because we went on the trail after they had taken the flags down, so we just had to follow horse tracks,” she says, giggling. Jennie nods her agreement. “When we finally got back, there was no more steak left. We were sad.”
They got an earlier start on the trail this year. Using their tailgate for a table, they each carve into a flame-kissed steak as the live auction begins.