Before he became a professional outfitter and guide in Wallowa County, Jim Workman owned his own business in the Seattle area and went packing and hunting in wilderness areas for recreation. He likes to say, "I used to have fun at it. Now I work." But it's obvious that guiding folks into the back country is a labor of love.
For the past six years Workman and his wife, Mozelle, have operated the Backcountry Outfitters - one of some half dozen outfitting operations headquartered in Wallowa County - from their home near Joseph, where they keep some 25 horses and mules year around.
They take tourists and adventurers into the Eagle Cap Wilderness and Hells Canyon NRA during the spring and summer, and hunters into the remote Snake River unit in Wallowa County and the Walla Walla unit in Washington during the fall and early winter months. For their hunting units they have special use permits from the U.S. Forest Service, while the territory for off-season treks for photographers, campers and other wilderness sightseers is pretty wide open.
Trips into Hurricane Creek
"We have been blessed with probably more work than we need," said Jim Workman about the success of their operation, noting that safety is always his top concern. "He gives it everything he has," says his wife.
Mozelle is an excellent photographer, and some of her work can be seen on the business' Web site. She admits that while she loves to ride, she no longer accompanies her husband on many of his backcountry trips because she is afraid of heights, and some of the trails, while spectacular, are also pretty darn steep.
Her contribution, in addition to taking photos, is making sure all the supplies are packed and ready to go for everything from drop camps to the deluxe camps that come complete with guides, cooks and meals to brag about.
"There's a lot of planning in packing in and setting up a camp," said Workman. "My wife has it down to a science."
"When we started out, we didn't have camp kitchens, so I started putting them together," she said. Now everything needed, for example, for five guys to set up a deluxe camp is packed in a big footlocker. Actually, there are two deluxe camp kits assembled. "They are regular kitchens," said Mozelle. "There's even a rolling pin in one of them."
The Workmans employ a number of excellent cooks who enjoy camp cooking, including Debbie, a chiropractor in real life who takes time off each year, and Susan, who manages the Old Town Cafe in Joseph. The cuisine ranges from down home to more fancy, but good food is always a make or break component of any good outfitter operation.
During the months of May, June and September, Backcountry Outfitters offers rides along the rim of Hells Canyon from the businesses base camp in Hells Canyon for photographers and sightseers; in September, for example, there's a combination elk bugling and photo trip.
Hunting trips range from deluxe base camps where everything (ie., tents, food, cook) is provided but a guide, personal gear, bow or rifle and sleeping bag) to a drop camp in which all that is provided are horses and mules for transport to and from the camp, and at least one check up during the hunters' time at camp.
Since they've been in the outfitting business, the Workmans have earned the friendship as well as the business of many of their best customers. For example, there's the couple from the East Coast that chose Backcountry Outfitters to arrange their entire two-week backcountry honeymoon. They came back to hunt, and the Workmans now display a trophy bull elk head in their home, shot by the groom (try to take a bull head on an airplane). He told his cousin, a dentist from Boston, and he told a buddy, and the next thing they knew, the Workmans have a second trophy bull mount belonging to an East Coast client in their home.
A horsewoman in her 70s, named Roma, bought a deluxe pack trip into the wilderness from the Workmans at a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation banquet. It was her dream trip, something she had never done before, and she became fast friends with the Workmans.
Jim Workman noted that while it is possible to make all vacationers happy on a pack trip, hunters are a little more difficult. "There are hunters and there are killers," said Workman, admitting that in his younger years in competition with two brothers he could have been counted in the latter group.
While the killers depend on a trophy kill for their satisfaction "and some are never, never happy," the true hunter comes for the total experience of the camp, the rugged setting, the adventure, the hunt. Visit the Backcountry Outfitters Web site for a full list of services and prices available.
In addition to Backcountry Wallowa County is the home to many other fine outfitter and guide services. Contact the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce, 541-426-4622 for a complete list.