Back Country Horsemen Without Horses?

Did you know BCH of Washington has a number of members that don’t have horses and don’t ride?   We now have a growing horseless trail work crew. Due to muddy weather conditions in the winter time, the local trails are closed to stock and the high country is snowed in, so some folks put their horses away for the winter and sit around and watch football. A small group of folks decided they could still get out on the local trails in the winter months and clear logs over the local riding trails, fix tread, and tend to bridge repairs on foot.  With land manager support, many local trails have maintenance access from nearby roads.   It didn’t take long for this group to figure out that they could meet at the local greasy spoon at 6AM without hitching up the big rig, tacking up horses, and loading tools in saddle bags. While having breakfast, they would have a safety meeting, make a plan for the day’s work and be out on the trail working breakfast off by 8:00AM.  I liked the idea of breakfast and a good day’s work so I joined in.  As we worked on the trail, often times winter hikers would stop and see what we were doing and end up working with The Crew. Trail work pictures are shared and talk of weekly projects caused The Horseless Crew to grow and new folks would join Back Country Horsemen.  At the monthly BCH meetings the word spread.  More horse people would occasionally join us along with spouses of riding members that didn’t care to ride. The horseless members of the BCH families began to feel more included in BCH.

Once the local trails opened in the Spring, those on The Crew who have horses will gleefully ride already clean local trails until they get word from the Forest Service that the Washington Wilderness area trails are beginning to melt out but are still too muddy for stock. Its back to work for The Horseless Crew. We load up our vehicles with chainsaws, cross cut saws, various tread tools, camping gear and head for the Washington Wilderness area Trail Heads. In general, The Horseless Crew can log and clean up to 4 miles into the wilderness trails.  We usually base camp at the trail head. You may notice that I mentioned chainsaws which are not allowed in the Wilderness areas.  Many times, the trail heads are located outside of the wilderness and we can chainsaw up to the wilderness boundary and then switch to crosscut saws. By the time we get the first 4 miles of wilderness trails cleared, the trail is usually in good shape for stock trail crews to get in and take over where we leave off. This really gives the pack stock trail crews a headstart on the yearly maintenance of these trails. The Horse trail crews can work out about 8 miles and come back to camp that makes a 16 mile day with work.

Our Horseless Crew was Packed in to the remotest areas and left to work for 3 days where they could get a lot of trail brought cleaned in a short time

Back Country Horsemen of Washington has a week-long statewide work party in a different wilderness area every year.  The Horseless Crew and Jason Ridlon, the Coordinator of the State Wide Work Party (SWWP) got together and figured out that if our Crew was Packed in to the remotest areas and left to work for 3 days, they could get a heck of a lot of trail brought back to standard in a short time.  In 2018, the SWWP was held in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The access road to the horse camp and trail heads was disabled because a bridge was washed out for many years.  When the bridge was re-established we had our work cut out for us. You couldn’t get a rig into any of the camp sights because they were so over grown.  From this camp there is a 22 mile main trail loop of which 6 miles was impassible.

Before the SWWP could happen, many things had to take place.  Jason set up a work party a month before SWWP to open up the camp so that we could accommodate the rigs that come from all over the state to participate. That took 3 days of chainsaws, weed whackers, chippers and 60 plus BCH  volunteers.  The six mile impassible section needed to be scouted prior to sending in a full work party. My husband and I backpacked to that part of the trail loop and spent a week with a GPS, flagged it and recorded log restrictions and trail conditions. Each side of the trail loop had to be made passable to stock to get to the non-existent trail from both sides of the loop. Then the big job for Jason was to coordinate all of the trail work that needed to happen.

When it was time for SWWP 2018, the Horseless Crew’s assignment was to reestablish 4 miles trail where it had been flagged.  We knew this was going to be an elite assignment which required camping on the ground and 3 long work days in rugged country.

There were 6 of the Horseless Crew that were  crazy enough to sign up.  Jason arranged pack stock to get the 6 of us in 8 miles, set up our spike camp, and started working that afternoon.  After a delectable freeze-dry dinner, we were in our tents by 8:00.   The next morning after a breakfast of granola and Starbucks Via coffee, our boots were on the trail at 6am. We had a very good recon of how many and the sizes of logs needed to be cut in the 4 miles that was flagged. There were 68 logs in that section ranging from 6” to 40” and a lot of slide alder and vine maple. Because of this recon, we were able to bring only necessary tools and minimize what we needed to carry each day.  We divided up into 3 groups of 2. The two groups closer to camp carried the heavier (and better) Royal Chinook bucking saws.  The pair going out the farthest carried a lighter felling saw which worked fine. We had the 68 logs out in a day and a half.  We also had time to repair some of the steeper narrow tread. We made it back to camp between 6 and 7PM each night, in time to do a freeze dry dinner and roll into bed.

Jason had the horse crew of 16 working the other side of the loop. 6 miles of the trail was clear of logs.  2 miles needed to be found and had some very technical tread work and, of course, a lot of logs. This crew never made it back to camp before 10PM each night.  Bottom line is our Horseless Crew of 6 were able to get a lot more work done than our younger stronger Horse Crew got done because we didn’t have to take care of horses and we were spike camped at the job sight. Let me qualify that and say that the Horseless Crew would not have had the energy to get to this remote area with tools and camp and do the work we did without pack support in and out. Now, all of the BCHW State Wide Work Parties along with most of the Hot Shot (smaller, more intense) work parties include The Horseless Crew.

We have gotten folks from different hiker organizations, such the Washington Trails Association, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association to Join BCH.  These folks are seeing the benefit of being packed into scenic remote country to work trail. Sound interesting?  Talk horseless up at your Chapter meetings.  Start small with a winter work party in your local area. What spouse in BCH who doesn’t ride might like to get out and work trail? We need youth members!  What High School student needs a community service project?  Take him or her on a Horseless Work Party. When you are out working and hikers stop to see what you are doing, ask for help, loan them a tool and get their contact information. The Horseless are an untapped resource for BCHA membership!

Story by Barb Talbot
Photos by Bill Kehner 

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