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Confessions of a Trail Rider and Aspiring packer – I have so much to learn

Published in the November - December 2013, issue of The Trailhead News.
Published in the November – December 2013, issue of The Trailhead News.

Confessions of a trail rider and aspiring packer – I have so much to learn

As published in the November – December 2013, issue of The Trailhead News.

What a great time of the year. I love the winter months. Sitting around the hearth is a wonderful time to reflect on the previous summer rides and prepare for trips to come once the snow melts out and the sun’s rays replace the fire’s warmth.

I was recently pondering a trip I took this past August and how it was an honor to be invited to help a group of BHC Montana packers as they ferried a large party of Fish and Wildlife biologists into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. These ponderings rapidly turned into a self-critique of just how much I was actually “helping” and how much I was merely accompanying. I like to think that I’m a fairly proficient back country rider and a budding packer. The truth is there is much to learn.

The various classes that I’ve attended have been wonderful. I can’t go on nearly enough on how much I appreciate the effort of all the wonderful BCHW members that have taken the time to teach these vanishing skills. It’s not nearly enough.

You see, it is one thing to learn the steps of a dance, it’s entirely another to turn that dance into art. Horse and mule packing is art just as much as anything you’d see at the Met. Those in the know make it look so easy, almost effortless. That apparent ease is the result of years and decades of doing, not just attending the classes and practicing at home.

The work that our BCHW trail maintainers do throughout the state prompted this beautiful statement from Beth Boyst, U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Crest Trail Manager, “They have been called living legends, and I’ve been fortunate to meet a few in my role as the Pacific Crest Trail Manager. These legends are the unsung heroes who have the skills and abilities to ride horses and mules, pack tools and equipment into our beloved wilderness, and support trail and fire crews in a variety of backcountry settings.”

As the statement above implies, the key is in the doing. And the question then becomes “can we keep doing it”? Just as the majority of Back Country Horsemen are women, and the majority of trails we ride and maintain are in the front country area, our logo image of a pack horse in tow is stretching the truth a wee bit. The number of packers that we have to learn from is small and getting smaller with each passing year. We need to learn and absorb their knowledge while we can before it’s too late.

It’s not that we all have to keep a laden pack mule in tow. What it is about is preserving a vanishing art and just maybe if we become better at representing that logo on the backs of our trucks we’ll be able to inspire other riders in the same way that my BCHW mentors have inspired me. The skills that these people have taught me go far beyond packing and are applicable to any type of trail ride. They are the skills of being a good stockman and advocate of equestrian use of the trails.

From Ken S of the Tahoma Chapter I’ve learned so much; both of a practical nature and more importantly how the high mountains can touch your soul. From Ed H of the Oakland Bay Chapter I learned rope work and putting theory into practice. From Ron D of the Pierce Co. Chapter I learned the science behind the art. From Jason R of the Alpine Lakes Chapter I learned about advocacy.

Of course there are more than these four educators in BCHW but how many more? Think for a moment about how many BCHW members you know who teach the art of the trail. Did your list use all the fingers on both hands? Mine didn’t. They’re not nearly enough.

My goal for 2014 is to learn more from our BCHW leaders and become more like the logo on my truck. What’s your goal and how will it help to continue the legacy of BCHW?