MAY 1997 BACK ISSUE
Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 5/1/97; 10:00:00 AM.
Is There Learning Over Forty?
by Sarah Walker
"Where's your horse?" the old guy wanted to know. What he was really saying to me was, who did I think I was, talking to him about low impact stock handling, when I had on a backpack?
I work as a backcountry ranger for the Forest Service in a large wilderness area. The most important part of my job is working with backcountry visitors so that they leave the fewest possible impacts when they camp and travel. We are very serious about a "leave no trace" ethic, for all types of visitors. My backpack was making it hard for me to open the door with the horse people, but traveling by foot was how I felt comfortable. I didn't grow up with stock. My boss wanted me on horseback to relate better to stock users. How was I, who barely knew which end the hay went in, supposed to `teach' experienced stock users? And where would I fit into the tradition of Forest Service stock use?
Try to imagine my reaction when my boss told me that I would soon be riding Paleface (with whom I'd already had trouble) and packing June (kind, but particular), and on top of that, I'd be expanding my visitor outreach to include teaching other stock users low impact techniques! I dreaded appearing like a novice, under the scrutiny of the local stock users I saw every year, who seemed to me to know everything about horses and mules, and were independent thinkers, skeptical of new ideas. To gain any credibility I would need to learn a lot of new skills fast, and I sensed that it would take more than skills to find my place in what seemed to me to be the horse `culture'. And part of that culture seemed to involve great stories -- tales of wrecks, storms, bees, packing challenges involving oddly shaped objects, not to mention tales of hapless dudes whose lack of skill was immediately apparent, and vastly entertaining.
You can probably appreciate my amazement and relief when I made it through my first season with both legs intact (sort of), live animals, and the beginnings of an affection and respect for the hard working horse and mule assigned to me. And the next years after that went pretty well, too. Bear in mind that we're talking small challenges here: my `string' consists of one mule, my saddle horse is older, experienced, and well behaved (most of the time). With my two new friends, Paleface and June, I was open to suggestions and ready to try anything.
I practiced, and practiced, and practiced, by myself, far from critical eyes, while camping and traveling during my regular patrols. I struggled with knots, then learned all over again how to tie and untie them in the dark, or when it was wet and freezing. I tried pickets, hobbles, drags, and a number of other strange bondage techniques. I put up highlines tight and strong and figured out how to get them down the next morning. And since I would be teaching low impact techniques. I studied my new friends' eating habits, their likes and dislikes, what made them relaxed and calm, what got them stirred up. I wanted to learn how to make my iron-shod tramplers with enormous appetites leave the least possible impact. From my years in the backcountry, I knew what happened when careless stock users allowed their animals to paw soil, gnaw bark, trample lakeshores, cut switchbacks on trails, or graze meadows to golf course standards.
I've been doing this for a while now. I'm still learning, but I can talk to stock users better now about ways to improve their low impact practices. And, I have gained 2 other important new things: I have stories to tell, and I have my own point of view. Of course, I don't have "Big Wreck" stories from using just a few animals; but I do have some very funny stories about a middle-aged woman taking on a new skill. And now I know more about how to travel and camp with stock in the backcountry without leaving scars on our wild groundcovers, trees, grass, and trails.
I don't need to go into the nuts and bolts of no-trace stock use as there are so many books, pamphlets, videos, and organizations who teach this. (see sidebar "Learning About Low Impact Stock Use") But, I would like to share with you some of my conclusions about our use of stock in the backcountry.
The best low impact stock users I have seen have learned to approach the land on ITS terms, not their own. When there's not much grazing, they bring supplemental feed. When the weather turns a relaxed summer trip into a snowy, muddy ordeal, they hunker down and wait it out instead of bailing out and leaving behind all manner of stuff lying around under the snow. When their animals are not mountain-wise, they ease them into experiences like narrow trails, encounters with llamas, or just being away from home, before sharing a long trip with them. They practice at home before introducing their stock to portable electric fences, highlines or pickets. They don't tie to trees, and know many other ways to contain their stock. At elevations where a short growing season means vegetation is more fragile and has less time to recover, they choose to camp elsewhere and day trip on foot. They know that letting Pal and Doc tear up the ground is a ticketable offense. And they bring along the fewest possible animals.
That's part of what I've learned. I've also learned about the subtle bonding that takes place between us and our animals as we work together week after week, year after year. The most unexpected thing I've learned is that although I "take care of them" in terms of food, water, shelter, it's they who have really taken care of me over the years, getting me where I want to go safely, dependably and patiently. Thanks, Paleface, June and Sophie, I look forward to our work together in the years to come!
LEARNING ABOUT LOW IMPACT STOCK USE
Treading Lightly With Pack Animals
by Dan Aaland. $15
Packin' In on Mules and Horses
by Smoke Elser and Bill Brown. $15
both published by:
PO Box 2399, Missoula, MT 59806.
Leave No Trace Outdoor Skills & Ethics;
Backcountry Horse Use.
National Outdoor Leadership School.
288 Main St., Lander, WY 82520.
Backcountry Horsemen of America, PO Box 597, Columbia Falls, MT 59912
Professional Guides Institute, PO Box 95, Boise, ID 83701
USFS Arthur Carhart Wilderness Training Center, 20325 Remount Rd., Huson, MT 59846