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Riding Rowdy

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A horseback adventure into the Cabinets


I have a childhood memory of getting on a horse at a county fair when I was maybe ten or 11 years old. I don’t really remember riding the animal; seems like I just sat there. But I suppose some cowboy led the horse around an arena for a few minutes with my mom and dad looking on. I also suppose I had fun, but apparently not a lot. In the 36 years or more since then, I have not been on a horse again; that is, not until Sunday, July 6, when Rus Willis invited a friend and me for a ride.

Barb Perusse brought her two nieces, Kelsey and Courtney, who happened to be ten or 11 years old, from Sandpoint and the four of us headed up Bull River to Rus’ place. For several days my anxiety had been growing. Horses are big animals and the mountain trails around here are often steep and narrow. I was told not to wear shorts and a fellow worker at The Hereford kept offering me the use of her spurs. I wasn’t at all certain I was in for a good time.

We arrived at Rus’ and the horses were already saddled, ready and waiting for their passengers. I looked them over, trying to hide my apprehension, but you can imagine my consternation when Rus informed me the horse I would be on was named Rowdy, and for good reason.

Well, for good reason at one time but Rowdy, at 25 years old, had grown into a trustworthy, gentle steed with the sure footing of a mountain goat. So Rus assured me.

Rus showed us how to mount the animals and I was first in line. Rowdy stood unmoving, looking straight ahead. I knew I was going to fly right over the saddle and land unceremoniously on my head on the other side, with everyone watching. That, or my foot would get hung up in the stirrup and the horse would go galloping off into the woods, dragging me like a sack of oats bouncing off rocks and logs.

It didn’t happen like that, though, and there I sat, about three stories above the distant ground, it felt like, as the others mounted up.

It was a little after one o’clock in the afternoon and already the mercury must’ve been pushing 90 degrees. We had thought we’d ride up Berray Mountain, but those south-facing, open slopes would have been brutally hot on horses and riders alike, so Rus chose Pillick Ridge instead. The trail climbs and meanders through a dense forest, and it did not take us long to appreciate the shade.

Just as I had been told, Rowdy moved fluidly and confidently along the rocky trail and I soon settled into the pleasure of climbing a mountain without breaking a sweat. The others – Barb, Kelsey, Courtney, Rus, his wife, Deb and Rus’ partner, Chuck Hall – filled out the string of horseback riders strung out single file in the dark timber. All I had to do was engage in casual conversation with the others and gaze out between the interwoven branches of the trees at the fantastic scenery unfolding beyond the forest canopy as we gained elevation.

Three miles out we came to a rocky outcrop with an incredible view of the Bull River valley with the high peaks of the Cabinet Mountains framing it to the east. There we paused, snacked, and quietly enjoyed the immensity of the wild country surrounding us before heading back down.

I didn’t immediately go looking for a horse of my very own once we finished our ride with Rus Willis, but I must admit to having a wonderful time riding Rowdy. A new appreciation of the power and beauty of these animals was instilled in me during those four hours on horseback. And I was impressed with the professionalism Rus and Chuck exhibited in making sure each of us was comfortable and confident during the ride. They have over 40 years experience between them with horses and the backcountry.

Rus moved to Montana from Virginia over 25 years ago. He attended Del Cameron’s guide school in Victor, then eventually began his own outfitting business, which for a number of years was based at the Bighorn Lodge on the Bull River. Chuck came out west from Georgia in the late 80s, went through Rus’ guide school and has stayed on with Rus ever since. They still guide some hunts – primarily for mountain lions – but Rus’ main business these days is Bighorn Botanicals, whose latest product is a treatment for the SARS virus.

Rus and Chuck are offering horseback rides all summer long and invite anyone interested in seeing the heart of Bull River Country to give them a call. They ride Pillick Ridge, Pillick Flats, Berray Mountain and Lost Girl under the terms of a Special Use Permit from the Kootenai National Forest. And their slogan is true: experienced mountain horses accustomed to inexperienced riders.

For more information and rates, call Chuck Hall at 406-847-5507 or Rus Willis at 406-847-5523.


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Author info

Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

Tagged as:

Barb Perusse, horseback riding, Rus Willis, Berray Mountain, Pillick Ridge, Bull River, Chuck Hall

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