Tuesday, July 15, 2014 — Lassen National Forest will have special guests for the fair parade this year in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
Two strings of Region 5 Packers, one from the Inyo and one from Shasta National Forest, are coming to the parade. Each string will have six animals carrying packed loads. Traditional tools continue to be used in wilderness areas because no mechanical equipment is allowed. Thus, mules continue to be the “fleet” of wilderness areas. The Shasta string is all matching mules and is quite a sight to see, even if you’re not horse person.
For Ken Graves, Lee Roser and Michael Morse, leading a pack string for the U.S. Forest Service goes beyond serving the public. It’s a life style of choice. It proves horses and mules are still indispensable in the rugged California mountains. From June to September, the pack string works hard on regional projects, staying on the road two to four weeks at a time. No job is too big or too little, and getting them to take time to come to Susanville is quite an honor, according to the Forest Service.
“The use of stock is part of the Forest Service history and tradition. Today that use remains a vital tool for forest stewardship,” said Forest Supervisor Dave Hays.
The Forest Service has an estimated 1,100 head of horses and mules being used for trail work, range management and other projects on public lands, while the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service have approximately 1,000 animals between them.
Funding for the regional pack string and its services comes from the regional Forest Service budget, which allows viable organizations doing improvements on public lands to receive pack string services at no charge. Packers work with such organizations as the Backcountry Horsemen of California, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Sierra Club and many other partners.
Packers must be able to tie an assortment of knots, such as the double-diamond and barrel hitch. But a primary emphasis is good horsemanship skills, which includes working with mules, to enable the packers to safely go from one place to another.
Many projects involve meeting a crew at a trailhead to pick-up loads that need to be divided into equal loads of between 60 and 80 pounds each. Trail crews that have not worked with packers do not usually know how to prepare their loads, so the task becomes the responsibility of the packers and is quite an art.
When packing, you have to think in pairs since loads need to be of equal weight, shape and size on each side of the animal. The packers use canvas covers known as green manties and ropes, to wrap the loads as intricately and as tightly as wrapping a birthday gift. Then they secure the manties with a rope tied in a series of tight slipknots. From there, each load is hoisted onto each side of the pack saddle and secured with a box, barrel or double diamond hitch. Garbage-bag-wrapped buckets of waste, propane bottles and other tools fit nicely in panniers — which look like large buckets.
Back Country Horsemen of California also use horses and mules as their fleet to accomplish trail maintenance or to pack crews into wilderness areas, thus supplementing the work of the region 5 Packers. Two local units will also be in the parade and doing pack demos, at the Lassen Transfer and Storage Stage, at 7 p.m. Friday, July 18 and at 1 p.m. right after the parade Saturday, July 19.