Most horse and mule folk get together to do trail maintenance at some point during the year (National Trails Day on June 1st is a great excuse if you need one!) and we generally do it with other like-minded equinophiles while we complain about other trail users, (those damn ---- insert user group here). I’ve recently been exposed to a better way. I was invited to participate in the ninth running of the Great Gravel Pack-in. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest you’ve most likely heard the name and it is well worth attending if you get a chance. This remarkable annual event gathers together a wide assortment of trail users for a day of trail maintenance, food, and friendship. From cowboy hatted mule drivers to spandex clad bicyclists, and hikers, and ATV operators the Great Gravel Pack-in is an all too rare chance to work together for the common good.
If each piece of gravel in the 32 cubic yards of material that was hauled and applied during the 2013 Great Gravel Pack-in were laid out in a single row, that row would stretch for a very impressive one hundred and sixty miles. To put the amount of trail improvements that were made on April 13th into another frame-set, those 32 yards of gravel would weigh about the same as ten fully grown elephants. Just as the oft repeated quote “when eating an elephant take one bite at a time” suggests; this ten pachyderm equivalent was transported slowly and methodically by a small army of volunteers aided by 27 mules and horses each packing about 120 pounds of gravel per trip as they traced and retraced a circular route of about a mile from the gravel pile to the trail areas that were being improved.
Much more impressive than the amount of work that was accomplished was the camaraderie of the 89 people who braved the rain and sleet that is a hallmark of this yearly occasion. Starting with a hearty breakfast supplied by the Friends of Capitol Forest bike club to the finishing afternoon meal provided by the Pierce County Chapter of Backcountry Horsemen, the day was filled with people from various user groups congregating together and more importantly learning from each other as we shoveled, hauled, dumped, and raked those ten elephants worth of gravel. It was very inspiring to watch experienced horsemen and women teaching bicyclists and hikers how to be safe around mules and horses. You can bet that every one of the hikers and bikers that worked alongside us that day have a new and better appreciation of equines on the trails now. Nor would it be a stretch to suggest that the equine community made more than a few good friends and supporters in era where we too often hear about trail restrictions and closures. I’d venture to say that those new friends will be quite handy when we need the support of other user groups.
Leading this year’s event were BCHW members, Ed Haefliger and Bob Stover, who built on the lessons learned from nearly a decade of wrangling support and participation from biker, hiker, and ATV groups as well as the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. The GGPI has grown through the years from just a few people to nearly a hundred enthusiastic volunteers slinging gravel, and is now used as a model of multi group cooperation by the DNR. Certainly this is a model to replicate everywhere we can.
The challenge that the Great Gravel Pack-in offers each of us is to replicate this event in our neck of the woods. This can be as simple as inviting a local bike club to your next equine club trail day to share some experiences, a good meal, and some insights into how together we can preserve our trails and favorite outdoor activities.