Work is reward for full-time Colorado outfitter

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(Photo: Mike Tontimonia)

GUNNISON, Colo. — “Don’t let your son grow up to be a cowboy,” may be wishful lyrics to a three-cord country song, and it may be a string of notes that Jon Sund’s parents danced to. But in the end, that’s exactly what Sund grew up to be, and he couldn’t be happier.

Sund, now a well-known outfitter operating full-time in the shadow of some of mountain state Colorado’s most picturesque peaks, is living a dream shared by countless horse lovers and free spirits who fight the urge to live on the own terms.

Early riser

Up early every day, and some days earlier yet, Sund is seldom caught loafing, but his mental list of chores is nothing short of a labor of love.

On any given day, especially in the fall when elk and mule deer hunters demand his attention, Sund may spend a bucket full of hours tending to them, delivering camo-clad parties to their assigned drop camps, some of which require saddling inexperienced riders and balancing mules with gear fit for a week into and out of a wilderness that is located exactly in the middle of nowhere.

The reward is that he also gets to spend those hours on the back of a horse. To be sure, a “Sund-day” isn’t complete without a whole lot of rock and roll atop a wilderness-fit trail horse.

But make no mistake, life without a set daily schedule may be a cowboy’s life, it’s far from being a care-free song with the clip clop of horse shoes keeping the beat. It’s more like doing what needs done, finding time to do what didn’t get done the day before, and juggling the realities of operating a business with real responsibilities.

And in Sund’s case, doing it all with a grin on his face. That’s the choice Sund made when he followed a successful career as a dude ranch kind of guy at a resort up north by diving into the outfitting business he now owns, runs, and enjoys. According to Sund, life is good.

Base camp

Sund’s base camp, a simple row of camp tents and a couple of one room cabins, one for Jon and Karen Sund, one for cooking and occasional socializing, and another more basic one with a crescent moon cut-out, just big enough for a person with a need, sets on the edge of the West Elk Wilderness, just east of Gunnison.

That’s where Sund stages riders and gears for their week on a mountain top. It’s also where he tends to tack, maintains a few dozen horses and mules, balances the logistics of moving the day’s hunters and gear, and if he’s real lucky, finds time to eat a meal in a chair that’s not strapped to a horse – as if he cares.

Rugged retreat

On a recent October day when Sund guided this group of Ohio and Michigan hunters to Soap Basin Camp, named for its remote location near the very beginning of the Soap Creek watershed some 10, maybe 12 rugged miles from base camp, he had already packed out a party led by Karen.

Balancing mules loads, tacking horses and matching them with riders takes time and Sund never rushes what can be a problem in the making if not done right. The ride to camp is four hours of hard riding on trails too narrow and steep to pass anything larger than a mouse on.

Jon Sund
Outfitter and full-time cowboy Jon Sund.

Great life

Once there the group and Sund must spend a couple hours repairing the tent canvas and gear that had been the playground of a bear.

But getting to camp is just one half of the trip for Sund who then must lead his string of stock back to base camp — a rather primitive place a world away from pavement, car horns, and balance sheets, where Sund spends his summer and fall until the deep snows of the mountains drives him out and keeps him out for the slowest of slow months called winter.

To a cowboy, a guy not driven by a clock but by what needs to be, it’s a great life, a way of life indeed, a perfect fit for Sund, a well-grounded man who could ask no more of life.

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Mike Tontimonia has been writing weekly columns and magazine features about the outdoors for over 25 years, a career that continues to hold the same excitement for him as it did at the beginning. Mike is a retired educator, a licensed auctioneer and marketing consultant. He lives in Ravenna, Ohio and enjoys spending time at his Carroll County cabin. Mike has hunted and fished in several states and Canada from the Carolinas to Alaska and from Idaho to Delaware. His readers have often commented that the stories about his adventures are about as close to being there as possible. He is past president of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Mike is also very involved in his community as a school board member and a Rotarian.

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