Traditional skills are still alive and necessary

The stillness of an afternoon rain shower was recently broken by the jingle of bridles and saddles as the Rocky Mountain Region Specialty Pack String made its way down the trail to Big Teepee Creek on the Bucking Mule Falls Trail on the Bighorn National Forest.  The late afternoon sun backlit the riders and mules along with the heavy loads they carried.  The skilled horsemen and their trusting animals packed over 11,000 pounds of bridge timbers for this trail bridge project.  This endeavor would not have been possible without the commitment the Forest Service has made to keeping traditional skills alive.

The use of horses and mules in the Forest Service goes back to the inception of the agency in 1901 where a good animal was an equal in protecting the forest reserves from timber theft and fire.  The intricate skills of knot tying (hitches), knowledge of packing loads, and working with animals have been passed down for generations.  In 1989, the Rocky Mountain Region, which encompasses Colorado, most of Wyoming, and parts of Nebraska and South Dakota, started the Rocky Mountain Region Specialty Pack String on the Shoshone National Forest. Initially, the string was formed when the demand for traditional skills increased during the Yellowstone fires when air support was tied up by the large number of fires.

In 1992, the pack string moved to Shawnee, Colorado to reduce travel costs to other areas in the region.  During its stay in Colorado, the Region Specialty Pack String provided support across the region on projects including packing materials and supplies for Forest Service and volunteer trails crews for bridge projects and other structures, packing sand or gravel for trail maintenance and reconstruction, as well as bringing in fish to stock remote lakes and streams.  Pack string personnel also played an important role in providing educational outreach during clinics, conservation education programs, and by appearing in parades. 

During its time in Colorado, the pack string consisted of 12 mules and two employees to provide care for the animals and take them around to the region’s projects.  Mules have a donkey for a father and a horse for a mother.  They are extremely strong, agile, intelligent, and have high stamina making them an ideal animal for trail or backcountry work.  The standard packing equipment used by the Forest Service are Decker packsaddles.  Each mule has a custom fit saddle that various sized bags can be attached to carry loads.  The larger bags are called panniers.  Some of the more ingenious panniers have a removable bottom that will allow employees to dump gravel, concrete, or sand on site.  Other equipment includes lumber bunks and swivel bunks that make it possible to haul long timbers.

The Rocky Mountain Region Specialty Pack String was moved back to the Shoshone National Forest in 2018.  Since that move, the forest has taken on the responsibility to care for the animals and their equipment.  Projects like the one on the Bighorn National Forest helps with this necessary obligation.

The Bucking Mule Falls Trail 053 is 17 miles of rugged, challenging trail and without the assistance from the Shoshone National Forest, a key part of a complex project would not have been feasible.  Currently, a crew of six Montana Conservation Corps members are refurbishing the trail’s three bridges with the timbers the pack string brought to the sites.  The Cloud Peak Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen also played an integral part in the project by volunteering to pack in nearly 500 pounds of tools including generators for the crew.  A Bighorn National Forest crew is currently providing crew support by horse packing in their camp equipment and resupplying food and materials. In this project alone, the combined use of traditional skills from Forest Service ranks and their partners saved thousands of dollars while still providing direct benefits to the public.  The Bucking Mule Falls Trail is not closed while the project is ongoing but the trail bridges will not be passable.  The project is expected to be completed in mid-September.