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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?

My mount, Chief, is a 17-year-old Appaloosa gelding standing 16 hands high. Like most of the 30 or so horses Clark owns, Chief was rescued from an old-time outfitter.

“Once pack horses started getting on in years, the owner sold ‘em to the dog-food factory,” Clark said. “I’ve bought a lot of horses that were headed for tin cans.”

Chief has spent his entire adult life doing one thing: walking in a line behind other pack horses. No matter how hard I try to modify our trajectory, Chief wants only to walk with his nose about 2 inches from the tail of the horse ahead of him, and I eventually realize that holding the reins is just a formality.

As we make our way cross-country though the sage, Clark tells us to fan out to minimize impact. We find a grassy spot in the middle of a cottonwood grove with a creek nearby as the sun begins lowering behind the hills. After 6 hours of playing Roy Rogers, I can barely lift my leg high enough to get out of the saddle.

We hobble the horses, build another low-impact fire, and cook the kind of meal I’d expect on a horsepacking trip: pork chops, corn on the cob, and biscuits.

“I think most people who do this like a bit of stereotypical authenticity,” Clark says, referring to the cowboy ways. “Sure, we could lighten our loads even more by carrying nylon gear and freeze-dried food, but most people who go on horsepacking trips like the leather, wood, and rope, and they like real meals.”

Even so, Clark says that impact-lessening compromises can be made while still retaining that old-time flavor. “When I first started doing this, we had one or two packhorses for each person. Now we use one pack animal for every two or three people.”

Elsewhere, horse enthusiasts like Kathe Hayes are taking the minimum-impact ideal as far as it can go. Hayes, an employee of the Durango, Colorado-based San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit USDA Forest Service support group, coordinates dozens of volunteers known as Ghost Riders who preach responsible horse ownership.

“We started the Ghost Riders because we figured it’s better to have horse people talking to horse people,” she says, “but we also try to make backpackers better understand that horsepackers can practice low-impact camping.” For instance, Hayes and many Ghost Riders carry their supplies on the horse they’re riding, instead of sitting astride one horse while another, gear-laden beast follows–as new-school a notion as there is in the history of horsepacking.

“We’ve learned a lot from backpackers,” says Hayes, who is also one of us. “We carry lightweight tents, water filters, camp stoves, everything weight-conscious backpackers carry. We need to carry some horse-specific gear, like brushes, but with all the lightweight equipment on the market, I can go out for 4 days and carry everything I need on my horse.”

“Things are definitely changing,” says Pete Turner, a fifth-generation rancher who owns and operates Turner Guides in southwestern Colorado and a recent LNT Master graduate. “Guided horsepacking trips used to include huge canvas tents, massive campfires, and extravagant meals. Not any longer. Most of us now take only small parties into the backcountry. We go as light as possible, trying to carry everything on the horses we’re riding. We’re even starting to eat freeze-dried food to save weight.

“A lot of (clients) who are familiar with the principals of Leave No Trace expect us to do these types of things,” he continues. “And those who aren’t usually buy into it as soon as we explain that we’re protecting the resource through lightweight travel. I tell them we’re adopting an outlaw mentality, trying to make it so no one even knows we were there.”

Back at our camp, I waddle off to my tent as the sun is setting. The morning’s snow melted, the clouds are gone, and the sky is perfectly clear. It’s a tad chilly, but I’m comfortable. Too comfortable, I think. As I had packed for this trip, I’d reasoned that since we’d have horses, I could bring everything. I have a thick, superwarm sleeping bag, a liner, several jackets, long johns, a fluffy pillow, three books, and a portable CD player–I brought twice as much gear as the other three members of the party, who’d all worked hard to trim weight from their duffels. Live and learn.

The next morning, once again, the hobbled horses have to be rounded up. I volunteer to search with Clark simply because it feels good to stretch my legs.

“You know, you’re okay for a backpacker,” he tells me, laughing. “I think we could make a horsepacker out of you.”

I ponder this pronouncement while we round up the recalcitrant horses and ride them bareback (ouch! ouch!) back to camp. Could I ever become a horse person? It’s a good question, and one without an easy answer.

Over the past few days, I’ve prayed we wouldn’t pass any backpackers, since I don’t want them looking at me the way I’ve always looked at people on horseback. I don’t want them to think I’m cheating or lazy or contributing to the destruction of the backcountry. Recently, though, I’ve talked to many horse people preaching and practicing the LNT dogma with a near-missionary zeal that I’ve heard echoed by few of my fellow backpackers.

But then again, most backpackers (not all, but many) have a minimum-impact consciousness built into their backcountry DNA; it comes with the turf, so to speak. Such does not seem to be the case with a large portion of our horsepacking brethren. I applaud their recent efforts and successes, and wish them Godspeed in their mission. But these LNTers have a long way to go, and further advances may be slow in coming and hard-fought, considering how firmly entrenched most outfitters are in the “good ol’ ways.”

“I don’t know,” I finally say in reply to Clark. “Maybe if I could do something about this throbbing behind problem, maybe I could consider becoming one of you.” But, glibness aside, I know I’ll never be a horsepacker. I’m just too fond of seeing the wildlands from my own eye-level, and of getting there by my own limbs. Call me crazy, just don’t call me Roy Rogers.

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