Back in the saddle: Local volunteers clear trails, share adventure in mission to serve community

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The backcountry areas of northwest Wyoming offer stunning views and wild adventure unavailable in most of the United States. But without trails, few would ever see them.

One organization, the Shoshone Back Country Horsemen, has devoted its time and resources to maintaining trails in isolated areas of the region that would have otherwise fallen into disrepair.

“The [U.S.] Forest Service doesn’t have enough staff to maintain all the trails,” said Cathy Ringler, a former Powell and Clark elementary teacher and group volunteer. “We want to make sure our kids and grandchildren have a place to ride.”

The organization mixes community service with adventure. While maintaining hundreds of miles of trails a year, adventure is inherent to the commute.

“If we can’t have fun, I’m going home,” said Howard Sanders, service chairman for the organization.

Last week, several members of the group joined three Shoshone National Forest wildlife biologists for a different kind of project. The job, removal of an old fence, offered a trip into the Washakie Wilderness near the South Fork of the Shoshone River. An area unknown to many in the group, the task was a chance to work for the benefit of wildlife.

Few had seen the old barbed-wire fence near Ishawooa Creek. For at least 50 years it stood, once used to divide pastures. Unused, the mile-long fence had become nothing more than a danger for wildlife. The creek is an important wintering ground and migration corridor for elk, deer and pronghorns, said Andy Pils, a wildlife biologist for the Shoshone.

New fence installations are more wildlife friendly, with a smooth bottom strand higher above ground level. Barbs on the lower strand of older fences slice into the backs of critters unwilling or unable to jump over. Even deer and elk have been known to get caught in the fence.

It had to go. Pils came to the backcountry horsemen about two years ago to ask for help.

“Day in and day out, we can always count on them,” he said.

The planning began as Sanders took the lead on the project.

A few days before the trip, a handful of group members trekked to the trailhead to perform maintenance on the parking lot.

“We took on the parking lot project because it needed to be done,” said Sanders.

The group has formally agreed to maintain 100 miles of trails for the Forest Service. Yet they routinely do twice that amount, Sanders said. Two seasons ago, they maintained more than 240 miles of trails. The Forest Service in return offers cost-sharing funds.

“Everything we do is volunteered. Any funding we get goes back into trails, bridges, gates and other projects,” Sanders said.

None of the funds the organization raises are used for members’ personal expenses. The horses, saddles, vehicles and gas to get to the projects are covered by members.

A lot of planning goes into the projects. Sanders, who took a trip down the Ishawooa Creek trail to inspect the fence before, was the only member of the volunteers to see the task ahead.

The trip to the creek is where the adventure began last week, with Sanders in the lead.

About a dozen members of the group (which is 85 members strong), along with service biologists Jason Brengle, Kerry Murphy and Pils, pulled into the trailhead with their riding and pack horses.

The group set out after a safety meeting, immediately climbing up switchbacks and hills between the Southfork Road and the creek, 3 miles into the forest. The Ishawooa Trail wends through a variety of rock formations and along rugged ridgelines offering views of snow-covered peaks and rocky outcrops of the Absaroka Range.

The caravan, carrying tools and lunches, made its way to the creek, only dismounting to work through tough technical parts of the trail — and to tend to Sean Leach, who was thrown into the icy water from his horse, a Pryor Mountain mustang named Willow.

“We’re always concerned with the safety of our riders,” Sanders said. “We make sure injuries are taken care of.”

Leach was only bruised. Sometimes true adventure can result in difficult situations and a few members have been transported out of isolated areas by medical helicopter — including Sanders. Last year, Sanders took a horseshoe-shaped cut to the head after a fall. However, by the end of that day, the 69-year-old had returned to camp and was back in the saddle.

Once at the destination last week there was little delay getting to work. Barbed wire was cut and rolled and metal poles — added to shore up the fence in the ’70s and ’80s — were removed. On the sagebrush-covered flats, work went quickly. Crews had much of the fence down before lunch.

The carcass of an elk with splintered bones was a clue to large predators in the area. A young bull moose lounged in the shade near the creek with its ears up, but he didn’t seem concerned with the workers.

After lunch, crews moved into the marshes. Unwilling to let a single strand of barbed-wire go forgotten, Shoshone Back Country Horsemen president Rick Adair busted his way through thickets in an attempt to get every last strand. He said the sense of accomplishment and the pride coming from community service keeps him going.

“These people are elite stewards of our natural resources,” Adair said, as sweat ran down his face.

Ringler, who has been volunteering for the past three years, said about half of the group’s 85 members are women. Adventures by horseback and community service are a family affair for Cathy and her husband Von. The couple from Clark has children and grandchildren involved with the group — not just on work detail, but also on fun rides and children’s programs thrown by the group.

“We support the mission of the Back Country Horsemen to keep the trails open,” Cathy Ringler said. “But it’s not all work. We enjoy horses and having fun outdoors — we all have that in common.”

Several fun rides and projects are scheduled through summer and fall. The group’s next meeting is scheduled at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 17 at Park County Weed and Pest office, located just west of Powell at 1067 Road 13.

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