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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011

Gila Back Country Horsemen

Page: 2

Michele McGorky, the Gila chapter's current chairperson, picks up on that theme: "On horseback, we can get farther into the forest, 10 miles or more. We can clear an area 20 miles out from the trailhead."

It's not just logs and brush, she adds. Being on horseback also makes it easier to pack out trash that other people have left. "A couple of us took out 10 bags of trash last year," McGorky says. "I'd say 90% of it was beer cans."



A trail-clearing project can be a major undertaking, involving up to seven or eight members and their horses over as long as five days. Sometimes expeditions to remote areas such as in the Black Range take place in stages, with an initial trip just to establish a campsite that can serve as headquarters for subsequent trail-clearing work.

horsemen

Steve Libby and Rawlings Lemon figuring out how to safely use a chainsaw to cut a large tree off the East Railroad Canyon Trail.

"It's a big deal," says Engel. "Sometimes we'll pack in the feed for the horses ahead of time. Feed weighs a lot."

And you have to be prepared for all contingencies. As McGorky puts it, "Things do happen to horses in the wilderness."

Though the group has never lost a horse (much less a rider), there have been some close calls. Engel recalls one particularly snakebit (though not literally) expedition to Squeaky Springs where two horses got spooked and went through a fence, a pack horse fell into a hole, one horse tripped over another's lead rope, and pack loads toppled multiple times, requiring repacking. After all that, he adds with a chuckle, although the weather was sunny both going in and coming out, it rained all three days they were hoping to do trail work.

Bee stings are probably the most common hazard, both to horses and humans. But they've also encountered rattlesnakes as well as "feisty" bears. Engel tells of one trip where he'd been making a lunch of pouch-packed tuna, spreading it on a sandwich and a little on his pants as well. "We'd seen droppings from a really big bear around camp, and I thought, 'Hmmm. Maybe I'd better not leave these tuna-flavored pants in my tent.'"

Just in case, members are trained in first aid — both human and equine — as well as crosscut-saw and chainsaw safety. Some have also trained to lend a hand with search and rescue efforts. McGorky, who's been working with local search and rescue for about six months, recently packed out a hiker with a broken ankle some 15 miles. Where helicopters can't go, she notes, horses can.



Not that the Back Country Horsemen want you to be able to tell that horses have been there. "We try to highline horses so as to leave no trace in the trees," Engel explains. "We'll pick areas where horses will make the least impact, then try to minimize that impact. We'll rake over the manure and cover impacts with pine needles."

"We try to educate people," adds Lemon, who gave a seminar on "leave no trace" horse camping in conjunction with the Forest Service. "We don't want to create any enemies."

They do make friends, however, when hikers or motor-bikers encounter the Horsemen and the fruits of their trail-clearing labors. "We run into a lot of hikers," says Engel. "They'll tell us how much they appreciate not having to haul over or around logs."

That log-clearing effort will begin again next month, weather permitting. Over the past two years, the Gila chapter has cleared 125 miles of trails. Last year alone, the group put in 777 hours of human labor and 119 hours of effort by horses and mules.

It's an ongoing chore, however, thanks to wind, snow and other weather that topples trees ranging from towering pions to slender saplings. Despite his three decades of Forest Service experience, Engel says, "I never realized how many trees fall down on trails. You can be out there on windy days and hear them falling!"

He adds with a twinkle, "It's never-ending. There's a lot of job security."

"It pays real good, too," Lemon puts in with a grin.

"Plus you get lots of fresh air," says Ken Poole, "and good food. And good people."



The Gila Back Country Horsemen meets the second Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. in the conference room of the Gila Regional Medical Center. Because of possible changes in dates or locations, such as outdoor meetings, check before attending. For information, contact Fran Rawllins at (575) 536-2953 or Michele McGorky at micmcgorky@yahoo.com For information on the state organization and other chapters, visit www.bchnm.org


David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.


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