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

Happy Trails

The Gila Back Country Horsemen celebrate a decade of clearing trails for use by the four- and two-legged alike.

By David A. Fryxell



Gerry Engel gleefully recalls a horseback trip last year to clear logs from trails along the north fork of the Mimbres River — a trip that involved a fallen tree, some serious sawing action, a gigantic rootwad and a neat little physics lesson. "We had to be really careful," he says, "because the rootwad was so heavy. Once we cut the log and there was no longer the weight of the rest of the tree counterbalancing it, the stump just sat right back up."

horsemen
Michele McGorky packing a chainsaw to remove logs blocking the Continental Divide Trail.

He demonstrates by making a levering action with his hand and a sort of "woop" sound effect. Then he grins.

Engel spent 31 years with the US Forest Service, serving as a district ranger in Silver City and Mimbres. Now, as a member of the Gila Back Country Horsemen, he rides out into the forest to help keep trails accessible — -not only for fellow riders, but also for hikers, backpackers and motor bikers. It's strictly volunteer work, but nearer and dearer to what he joined the Forest Service for in the first place.

"I knew that once I retired, I was interested in trail maintenance," Engel explains. "I'd seen the funding for trail maintenance decline over time, so there was an opportunity for a volunteer group to help fill in. I'd held mostly administrative jobs with the Forest Service — not a lot of hands-on work. I tell people I do more now with the Back Country Horsemen of what I wanted to do than when I was in the Forest Service."

The Gila chapter, based in Silver City, will mark its 10th anniversary this month. It's affiliated with a national organization that began in 1973 when four horseback riders by a campfire in Montana decided they and their fellow back-country riders needed to band together to protect trails and access to them. Now based in Graham, Wash., the Back Country Horsemen boasts 17,000 members in 32 states. In 2009, the group contributed 345,690 hours to trail maintenance, working with agencies including the Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.



New Mexico has eight chapters, including groups in Silver City, Las Cruces and Socorro; riders in Ruidoso are working to organize a ninth chapter. The Gila chapter was launched in February 2001 by Gerry Thompson, a transplant from Michigan, who died last year. Almost all the members moved to Southwest New Mexico from someplace else, usually motivated by their love of horses and desire to live somewhere with plenty of room to ride, nearly year-round.

Colleen Poole, an original member, moved here from Massachusetts. She recalls what led her to that first meeting: "I just wanted somebody to ride horses with on the trails. I wanted to find other horse people."

horsemen

Doug Dexter and Rawlings Lemon cutting logs along the South Fork Mimbres River Trail.

Husband Ken Poole had joined the Lower Rio Grande chapter in Las Cruces a few months before, then saw a notice in the paper about Thompson's efforts to start a local chapter. The Gila chapter quickly took off, zooming to about 80 members within a couple of years before leveling off at about 50 members for the past five years. Members come from an area ranging from Glenwood and Buckhorn to Deming, and there's even one from Las Cruces.

You don't have to be an expert rider to join. Stan Rawllins, who joined three years ago with wife Fran, jokes, "We range from dumb to expert."

A few members don't even own a horse, at least not yet. Stan and Fran Rawllins were members for a year and a half before getting their own mounts, and she says that the Gila chapter meetings and fellow members were a big help in picking the right horses.

Education is a big part of the group's mission. Besides monthly meetings, mostly indoors at the Gila Regional Medical Center, the Gila chapter is trying to schedule more outdoor seminars and classes. Last year, program topics included search and rescue, saddle fitting, horse training and tack cleaning. Veterinarian Dr. Kevin Brown talked to the group about first aid when horse camping. NMSU Extension Agent Amy Star demonstrated riding with a garrocha, a long pole used to work with cattle in a style developed in Spain and Portugal.

Advocacy for trail access is another core activity for the Back Country Horsemen nationally, although local members downplay its importance locally. As member Rawlings Lemon puts it with a wry smile, "We don't demonstrate."

The group enjoys a good rapport with local government agencies, Engel adds. "We try to work with the agencies like the Forest Service, so we know where they're coming from and vice versa."



That relationship is also important to the activity that members most enjoy talking about — trail maintenance and clearing. Lemon explains, "They call us and tell us where we need to come work."

That cooperation even extends to erecting signage for the Forest Service. "The Forest Service doesn't always have enough funding or manpower," says Engel. "We'll put up signs in areas that are difficult to get to."

Going on horseback where others can't — because it's too far to hike in or because motorized vehicles are prohibited — is key to the effectiveness of the Gila Back Country Horsemen. "We can carry tools more easily than somebody on foot can," Engel goes on. "We can carry gear like crosscut saws for inside the wilderness or chainsaws for outside. We'll ride until we come to a log that's blocking the trail, tie the horses up and clear it."

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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