MADERA COUNTY – Warning: be careful what you read about Sierra Freepackers. You may just want to become one.
The Backcountry Horsemen of California Sierra Freepackers Unit is comprised of a cross-section of volunteers who work in concert with the Forest Service and others to keep public riding trails open and safe for horses and their humans. Many of the group are women.
For nearly two years, a core of Sierra Freepackers has been working on a restoration project for Kelty Meadows Public Campground in the Sierra National Forest. Now, members are planning a Kelty Meadows Campout Friday, Aug. 15 through Sunday, Aug. 17. Trailboss Cathy Miller brought us up to speed on work the nonprofit organization has done at Kelty, to date.
“We have been doing a meadow restoration project,” said Miller of the effort underwritten in part by a grant to repair damage done by repeated trampling of the creek channel from riding stock and cattle. “We planted willow seedlings and sod plugs in eroded areas of the stream bed. We also put up an exclosure fence to keep livestock out of the area where the restoration is happening.”
Much of the challenge is about preserving the stream bank. Sierra Freepackers have installed a water trough for the cattle that wander up that way in summer. It’s generally cattle-damage that requires the restoration of stream beds there to begin with; having water in a trough helps keep thirsty cows away from the stream so the bank suffers less wear. The water system is great for horseback riders, as well.
“There’s a solar pump that takes water from the stream and into the trough,” Miller explained, adding that among their greatest triumphs is the addition of bear-boxes.
“We installed bear boxes in all twelve campsites at Kelty.” The bear boxes came out of Yosemite and were donated to the Sierra Freepackers, who restored them and added the bear-resistant food storage boxes to the dozen sites so future campers have a chance to keep their meals safe.
Besides the restoration and added amenities, Sierra Freepackers have also put up six horse corrals and a bunch of tie rails.
After all that work, the group is heading back up mid-August to do a little more hard labor and then spend some time enjoying the trails they help to keep in shape. They’ll come in on Friday, go for a short trail ride, scope out what work needs to be done and then Saturday morning, they get really busy. By the end of the day, they’re ready for a little more riding, some delicious food around the campfire and lots of friendship and conviviality.
The old adage for camping used to be, “leave the campground better than you found it.” Nowadays, the motto is “leave no trace.” That’s what the Sierra Freepackers do when they spend time in the forests with livestock. Linda Sadler is part of the group, helping with publicity and on the trails.
“When camping with horses, they dig up the ground, and you rake it back up,” outlines Linda of the responsibilities that come with traditions. “If they scatter feed, you clean it up. You scatter the manure. It’s a public campground and you want it to look nice when other people come in. We do what we can.”
That’s quite a lot. Kelty Meadows isn’t the only place Sierra Freepackers have been active this year: Granite Creeks has been the recipient of their labor, as well as other clean-up, fix-up sites around the mountains.
Sadler, like many of the other Sierra Freepackers, is experiencing some of the best days of her life, working with a like-minded group of people who love the outdoors, volunteering, working with tools and with their hands. Plus, they all seem to like having an excellent time.
There are men involved closely with the group, but for much of it, says Linda, “we are women who like to ride. We like to go in the mountains, we enjoy packing and learning about it, and packing our mules. We cut logs that have fallen, and cut back bushes, and maintain the trails. We’re working hard to bring Kelty Meadows back into a full-bloom horse camp.”
Sierra Freepackers meet monthly, with the next meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 19 at the Oakhurst Branch Library, starting at 6:30 pm.
Interested parties can tentatively save the date of Saturday, Oct. 11, for an arena trail trial fundraiser to support Sierra Freepackers. That’s basically an obstacle course for horses and riders, which may include opening gates, backing up, going over a bridge or engaging in other sometimes-challenging activities.
Sierra Freepackers Mission Statement is to perpetuate the common use and enjoyment of horses and mules in America’s back country and wilderness; work to ensure that public lands remain open to recreational stock use; assist the various government and private agencies in their maintenance and management of these public lands; educate, encourage, and solicit active participation in the wise use of the back country resource by horsemen and the general public commensurate with our heritage, and to foster and encourage the formation of new units of the organization. For more information, visit them online or give one of the officers a call.