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Horsepacking: A New Breed?

Some well-meaning, leave-no-trace horsepackers are trying to rein in their environmentally uncouth brethren. The question is: can they change practices and attitudes that date back to the wild west days?

“Those must be environmentally conscious horses,” I chide Clark as we scan the countryside for them. “Looks like they dispersed themselves pretty good. By the way, how far can a hobbled horse cruise?”

Instead of tying the horses to trees last night, we’d hobbled them. With hobbles, little straps that restrain the front legs, the horse can hop around and graze over a much larger area, rather than trampling one spot all night. I’m amazed that they’ve hopped clear out of sight like this.

“I’ve had ‘em go 50 miles before,” Clark says. He begins following the tracks in the direction we’d ridden last night, looking as uncomfortable on foot as I do in the saddle.

After an hour or so, Clark rides bareback over the hill, three horses and two mules in tow. He dismounts with a wide smile, accepts a hot mug o’ joe, and asks his students to sit at the fire with him. The very small fire, the epitome of low impact, has been built on a mound of mineral soil, and there’s an abundance of downed wood nearby.

Clark’s students, Russell, a 19-year-old who grew up on a nearby ranch, and Mary Anne, a high-school science teacher from Butte, have spent their lives on and around horses. They’ve been looking curiously at me the whole way, and Russell eventually tells me that I’m the first backpacker he’s ever met. I tell them that I really like horses and consider them among the most beautiful creatures on the planet. I grew up around horses on a farm in Virginia, have worked at two different jobs with horses, and my first serious girlfriend was a professional Thoroughbred racehorse trainer who insisted that I, too, be an enthusiastic rider. Unlike many backpackers, I not only know the bow of a horse from the stern, I also know how to navigate them. I simply prefer to traverse the wilderness on my own two legs, not atop four skinny ones.

As we sit sipping instant coffee around the diminutive fire, we discuss horsepacking philosophy. Clark asks his students what’s important about horsepacking, and Russell replies, “It’s a lot easier than walking into the backcountry,” casting a suspicious look my way. Mary Anne adds that it’s enjoyable, and that she simply likes horses. Those aren’t the answers Clark wants, though.

“Horsepacking is more than simply a four-legged taxi ride into the backcountry for people too lazy to walk. America needs this because it’s an important link to our past,” says Clark, who, despite his academic pedigree, is a good ol’ boy himself, having been reared on an Idaho ranch. He’s also been a licensed horsepacking guide in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho’s Yellowstone National Park for 20-plus years. “We need this link; if guided horsepacking dies out, a lot of ranches will also die out. The cattle industry is dead. Ranchers need financial alternatives to survive so they don’t have to sell their land to developers. Outfitting gives them an alternative.”

Clark then talks about minimum-impact camping, about carrying less gear on fewer horses, about keeping horses away from environmentally sensitive areas, about making only small fires. He tells us about his first employer, an outfitter in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park for decades. The man’s permits eventually were revoked because he refused to get with a low-impact program making its way into the woods and administrative offices of our national parks and forests.

“We need to think about lowering impact, first and foremost to protect the resources,” he tells us. “That’s our bread and butter. If we don’t clean up our act, we’re going to see trails and areas closed to horses. This is a survival strategy.”

When Clark concludes his sermon, he announces that the plan is to ride for 5 or 6 hours today, to Grasshopper Creek. My butt cheeks pucker at the thought. We rode for only 3 hours last evening, and my stiff hip joints hurt. I’d probably like riding horses more if my legs didn’t have to spread so wide around the saddle. I consider riding sidesaddle, but I’ll bet that’s a shootin’ offense in this state.

It takes more than an hour to load up, and that’s not just because we have a fair amount of gear. As part of the class, Clark takes his time showing his students the proper ways to do such things as tying gear onto pack animals, and I quickly realize that it takes a lot more know-how to lead a string of horses through the wilderness than it does to stuff a backpack and walk.

As we pull out of camp, I surreptitiously glance back at the site. Though it was hardly pristine wilderness in the first place (there’s a dirt road and a decaying corral nearby) I want to see what sort of mess we left. It’s obvious that four people, four horses, and two pack mules had been there for a night, but, because of the heavily grassed and hard-surfaced areas, it seems to me that within a few days, evidence of our passing will be gone.

“What do you think, Mister Backpacker?” Clark asks when he notices me looking back.

“I think my ass hurts,” I say.

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