Volunteers maintain local forest trails from horseback

The day starts early for the Backcountry Horsemen. First the stock needs to be fed and watered: horses and mules need two hours after eating before they can be ridden. After the horsemen get their breakfast the animals must be tacked, saddled and loaded with tools and equipment. But this is nothing new; it is how forest trails in the west were originally built and maintained.

By 8 a.m. the crews were saddled and heading to Echo Lake and Arch Rock Trail inside the Norse Peak Wilderness Area on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The Backcountry Horsemen’s annual tri-chapter work party brought together 30 people and more than 40 mules and horses. This year’s project was to build a new trail to Arch Rock and repair three puncheon bridges around the lake. To make things run smoothly, the horsemen established a base camp at Corral Pass campground, five miles from their projects. Corral Pass is just off state Route 410, eight miles up Castle Mountain, 32 miles southeast of Enumclaw.

It takes the Backcountry Horsemen eight hours to clean up, brush out and maintain on average three to four miles of trail. It’s harder to create new trail, according to Ron Downing, former trail coordinator for the Pierce County Chapter of Backcountry Horsemen. In three days the work party built three miles of trail and installed three bridges. The crew demolished the east Echo Lake bridge and replaced it in less than eight hours.

“Just in time for our trail crews to use on the way back to camp,” Downing said.

Downing has been riding a horse since 1947. He is no stranger to the Forest Service, having been a smoke jumper, then a pack leader.

“I used to bring a team into trail and fire camps to resupply,” he said. He went on to Colorado for school and graduated with a master’s degree in economics while swooshing down the slopes as a member of the U.S. Ski Team.

Downing’s father instilled in him at a young age to do everything well and give it all you’ve got. “If you can afford it, always go first class, you’ll never be disappointed,” Downing said. He brings that attitude to the Backcountry Horsemen.

To accomplish the work quickly, the horsemen divided into work crews, two on trails and another two on bridges. One trail crew redesigned the trail to Arch Rock. An old pack trail, it was extremely steep at a 30 percent grade and even higher in sections. Installing switchbacks across the hillside brought the slope down to a manageable 20 percent. The redesigned trail with counter slopes, erosion controls and better grading will make it easier for horses and hikers.

“A properly designed and engineered trail is critically important,” Downing said.

In three days the bridge crews removed and installed three deteriorating bridges, replacing the worn out stringers and puncheon materials. The old stringers in the bridges were made out of native silver fir and didn’t have the tensile strength to handle excessive snow loads.

Skilled individuals bring their experience to each trail assignment. Martin Bjornstad helps the crew out with his contracting skills to build puncheon bridges able to support riders. Many members have been professional riders. Rich Worrell from the Pierce County chapter also rides with the sheriff’s mounted posse and Downing has competed in two national rodeos as a saddle bronc rider.

Most are retired. The standing joke at camp is that to join the group you have to be over the hill. Downing said that to them that age is 62. The youngest horsemen at this trail party was 57; the oldest 77.

Building forest trails is hard, difficult work, stripping away thick duff, chopping through tree roots, removing decomposing stumps and contouring and grading a new slope. But for many of the Backcountry Horsemen, it is a labor of love.

Hikers have a lot to thank them for. Congressionally designated wilderness areas impose restrictions on traveling, camping and working. No motorized or mechanical equipment is allowed, so modern construction tools are left at home; even bicycles and wagons aren’t allowed. Backpackers who perform backcountry trail work can only carry small amounts of food, supplies, tools and materials, limiting the distance and scope of work they can perform. Backcountry horsemen can travel deep into the interior, carrying more tools and material for multiple projects.

The tri-chapter work party was comprised members from Enumclaw, Pierce and Tahoma chapters. They have more than 25 years of trail maintenance experience helping out all over Washington. In 1991 they adopted sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, a national scenic trail stretching from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington.

“We have been logging out, brushing, restoring and maintaining the PCT from Chinook Pass to Snoqualmie Pass ever since,” Downing said. “That’s roughly 84 miles of trail.”

Last year the Pierce County Chapter worked 74 days creating and restoring forest trails for the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. The Pierce County Chapter leads the nation in volunteer hours with more than 17,000 hours last year. The Tahoma Chapter is following close behind with 10,000 hours of volunteer service in 2009.

Since 1992 the Pierce County Chapter has contributed more than 150,000 volunteer hours, most on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Olympic, Gifford Pinchot or Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests.

By 6 o’clock, horses and riders were exhausted and ready for dinner. Lucky for them, food was waiting back at camp, prepared by the hospitality crew, a group of wives and friends who look after the camp while they are away.

Each night the riders gathered around the campfire to relive the day’s events and listen to Denny Dargan strum a few chords on his guitar. Dargan has been playing music at backcountry trail parties for 15 years and specializes in folk, western and cowboy music. He was a folk singer in his 20s and is now a respected pack-team leader.

“There is joy in making enhancements to someone’s life,” Downing said. “We do that in our trail work. Our work is slowly changing people’s opinions of horses on the trails. Many hikers stop to thank us.”

The Backcountry Horsemen work parties will continue through October. The next activity is scheduled on Washington state land at Sahara Creek Aug. 21-25.

To learn more about the Washington Backcountry Horsemen and Pierce, Tahoma or Enumclaw chapters go to their website at

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