They tried to keep it low-key. But a 6-foot-11 Michael Doleac in sneakers and T-shirt is a hard man to miss, even more so when he's followed by a half-dozen equally tall Ute basketball players heading into Ute country.

Ferron is a town nearly as true-red-Ute as Salt Lake City. That fact comes across to anyone driving down Main Street and seeing the brightly lit red "U" on the roof of a corner hamburger stand. It's lit, said a man standing nearby, for big games and when the players come to town . . .A block away, just off the main drag, in the cinder block building on the town's fairgrounds, players and guests were fed a typical cowboy meal - steak and potatoes - while a local cowboy poet recited some of his favorite verses.

In the background, the poetry was occasional broken by the whinnying of a horse. The stock was noticeably restless. Game day - Western style - was close at hand.

The next morning, a parade of trucks and horse trailers headed northeast of town toward Buckboard Bottom, smack in the heart of the San Rafael Swell and alongside the San Rafael River.

Last year, Jeff Judkins, assistant Ute coach, had taken this very ride with cowboy hosts Cash Winn and Tom Harrison. Judkins, an avid horseman, called it one of the most spectacular rides he's ever taken.

"Jeff asked if he could bring his team along next time. We said sure. I never thought he'd do it. But he called our bluff. . . . And we're happy to do it. We love to show off our country. And we're happy to have the players here. There are a lot of Ute fans in Ferron," said Harrison.

When head count was taken it totaled more than 100 - half horses, half riders. It was far more, said Winn, than they had expected.

"I didn't sleep all night. You get this many unfamiliar riders and unfamiliar horses, and you're bound to have a rodeo sometime. Horses are just like people - some of them just don't get along," explained Harrison as he stuffed lunches into a pack on one of his mules.

First in the saddle were the players. And, sure enough, Keith Winn, a local cattle rancher, was right.

During the evening meal he quipped, "We've been lettin' out stirrups for two days now, and after lookin' at these boys I'll bet they're still not long enough." He was right. Western saddles aren't made to fit college basketball players.

Doleac, Britton Johnson, Greg Barratt and Jon Carlisle rode with the most bend in their knees. Alex Jensen, Drew Hansen and Trace Caton had a few inches to give and rode the saddles more comfortably.

Then the wranglers took their seats. No rodeo yet; no one unseated who didn't want to be.

Strung out for more than a long city block, 50 horses and 50 riders left the Bottoms for "The Box." By dropping down two steep side hills, riders descended into a canyon that appeared to have no exit. The river cut deeply into the red-orange sandstone to make an exquisite rock canyon, with an occasional sandbar dotted with cottonwood trees.

One such spot served for the lunch stop.

Still no rodeo.

True to predictions, there were some dunkings in the river. Doleac has a passion for water and introducing people to it. Johnson was the first to go in, then, to show he's a good sport, Doleac. Carlisle, Jesnen and Hansen followed. It was a sore lesson, however.

"Ridin' in wet jeans ain't that comfortable," said one cowboy as he watched from a distance.

After lunch the group rode a few more miles down the canyon, then turned around and headed home, upstream, back to the Bottoms.

It's true, Harrison said, that Butch Cassidy did ride through this country.

"(But) If he were headed for Hole in the Wall or Robbers Roost, he couldn't have come this way, I don't think. It's too far out of the way. Mainly this is cattle country. Ranchers graze their cattle here. For me, though, this is one of the most beautiful rides you can take," he said.

Along the way three desert bighorn sheep were dislodged from hiding. If the group hadn't been so large and noisy, offered one rider, "You'd likely see more wildlife. But with this group we're lucky to see anything."

The route backtracked along the river, over the narrow trails along the ledges and through the patches of tamarisk. Then up a narrow draw, two steep hillsides and along the flatlands to the Bottoms. Still no rodeo. Still no one off their horse against their will.

After the horses were unsaddled and trailered, and Doleac had a chance to rest for a minute, he said the ride was better than he had expected.

"This is the first time I've been in this country. It's beautiful . . . the canyons, the river and the chance to see it all from the back of a horse."

Hansen felt the same.

And which sport - basketball or riding - came more easily?

"Basketball," said Doleac. "You gallop a horse and you can fall off. You don't have to worry about that in basketball. Falling off, that is."

"Basketball," said Hansen. "These guys have a lot more courage. I mean, jumping down cliffs and over rivers and rocks. It takes more courage to do that than it does to make a layup."

At the end of the ride, though, no two people felt better than Harrison and Winn. It was a good ride. No rodeos, no injuries and only a handful of saddle sores.

Following the ride, they admitted to having even more respect for the Utah basketball team. And the tale they'll be telling around future campfires is that "they rode like real cowboys."