BE IT A short day-hike or a long trek through backcountry trails, most hikers don’t realize the vital role horses and mules play in maintaining Olympic National Park’s and Forest Service’s vast trail system.
Without their help, trails can become overgrown quickly.
Then, hikers start making their own trails, thus upsetting the already-fragile ecosystem.
“Most park visitors like to think they are viewing pristine forest and something really special,” said Claire Donato, a 30-year ranger and packer with the Park Service, at the annual Mule Barn Day packing workshop.
“We need folks to stay on trails to keep the character of wilderness. Otherwise, folks just make their own imprints all over, and that’s just ugly to look at.”
So, next time you hear a hiker complain about horse droppings or manure on the trail, please remind them horses actually enhance their hiking experience.
For one thing, horses and mules are used to haul in equipment and lumber to build those nice bridges hikers use to walk over frigid and fast-moving streams.
Also, Back Country Horsemen members volunteer their time, horses and equipment to clear trails of downed trees and limbs.
As for Park Service mules, they pack in supplies for research, fisheries and Forest Service work crews.
As such, they haul in lumber, wood shakes, gravel and even wheelbarrows.
Annually, they pack an average 30,000 pounds and cover 1,000 miles on the more than 360 miles of trails open to stock.
The majority of those trails are narrow and steep, with wet, slippery paths, which is one reason the park chooses to use the sure-footed mule.
“If you can tie it on a mule, you can pack it in,” Donato said.
Most of the trails are narrow and steep, with a high incline on one side and a long drop on the other, so Donato stressed the importance of teaching your horse at home.
Given that some hikers are unaware that trail etiquette calls for them to step off to the side of the trail to let livestock pass, she cautioned: “You have to be able to mount your horse from either side because you don’t want to mount up on the downhill side.
“Also, a horse has to be able to back down and turn around with its back feet in place.”
When riding in a group, even the best horse or mule can have a bad day, so Donato suggests putting “greener horses and young kids in the middle of the line between experienced horses.”
At night, horses are either tied up to a high line or hobbled, so home is the place to teach a horse to be hobbled and to stay tied for hours without fidgeting.
The lead horse wears a bell while grazing in hobbles.
What to carry
BCH member Ed Haeflinger talked about always carrying a first-aid kit, flashlights, bear spray, wasp spray and Benadryl or other antihistamines in an easy-to-get, accessible place.
“Toilet paper can be legal tender for riding buddies,” he said with a sly smile.
Other tips I learned are:
■ Plan your trip in detail. One of the keys is just being organized.
■ Always tell your plans to someone else and put a copy of your plans on your dashboard.
■ Always prepare for adverse weather, which can strike with little notice. Hunting season wear orange.
■ Get yourself and your animals in proper shape.
■ Check your horse’s shoes, and carry an Easyboot for emergencies.
■ Balancing the packs is very important.
To prepare the packs, get a large tarp or ripstop fly.
Separate into a couple of piles what will be on your pack animal and what will go with you.
Figure out what you need to take versus what you have to take.
How much to carry
Weigh both loads. Your pack animal other than the pack saddle should not carry much more than 150 pounds, and that includes feed.
Pack all food items in Ziploc bags, as they will be small, weigh less and be more flexible.
Also, pack socks and undies in Ziplocs. Place them in an easy-to-access spot as you can expect it to rain every day.
■ Clip a bell to the horse halter to make it easier to find in case he gets loose at night.
■ Use a rainproof tarp as a pack cover.
If you get caught in a bad storm, get it out first. Get into the trees, get the tarp up, and gather all the firewood you can quickly get your hands on.
■ If wet and cold, you’re in more danger than you might imagine.
Carry waterproof matches. Two things will always help start any fire: a candle or a well-dried-out corncob that has been soaked in paraffin wax.
Once you have a fire going, unsaddle your animals, stow your gear under the tarp, and pitch your sleeping bags on top of your saddle pads so you won’t wick all of your body heat into the cold ground.
Conserve body heat
If someone is freezing, remove all of their and your clothes, and get into a sleeping bag with them.
Your body heat could save a life.
■ To protect the environment, practice Leave No Trace or Minimum Impact principles.
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears every other Wednesday.
If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at firstname.lastname@example.org at least two weeks in advance. You can also write Griffiths at PDN, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362.