MOUNTAIN AREA — An easy-going group of like-minded, ultra-competent individuals, the Sierra Freepackers unit of the Back Country Horsemen of California (BCHCSFP) is comprised of a small but committed unit of volunteers, currently 50 members strong. Despite their moderate size, the group consistently ranks among the highest per capita for volunteer hours in trail maintenance, public awareness and education, logging over 5,000 hours last year, alone. They work hard, and they know how to have fun.
That’s exactly what a bunch of Freepackers were doing when we caught up with them — specifically, volunteering time to make improvements to the Snow Play area off Highway 41 south of Yosemite, in an agreement with the Sierra National Forest. Starting first thing that morning, the group installed a hand-built public information kiosk, picked up trash in the forest, and dismantled dangerous campfire rings. Their overall effort is to keep trails open for public use, and they accomplish that goal by working on several fronts.
The Freepackers come prepared, with trucks, trailers, horses, tools, equipment, and dogs. They’re not messing around: five members hold USDA cross cut saw certification, and seven members are chainsaw certified. BCHCSFP unit members have numerous years of trail conservation, past grant and project completion experience, volunteering thousands of hours in the Sierra National Forest each year.
This isn’t the first time Freepackers have made helpful changes at the Snow Play Area. They’ve already invested hours in trash clean-up and removal, hauled away seven hazard trees that were down, and trimmed 15 miles of trail. This is all done with permits, permissions and partnerships. Four members are partners in the Wilderness Riders Program in conjunction with the National Park Service, the USDA Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Wilderness Riders are trained stock users committed to the training and educating of others in the value of wild lands and the importance of Gentle Use / Leave No Trace Skills.
The new kiosk at the Snow Play area is made from downed cedar gathered at Bass Lake’s Cedar Cove, propping up a hand-built display cabinet recycled from another location where it was unused. The frame was built off site and easily assembled — well, easily if you’re one of these capable volunteers.
The purpose of the new kiosk is to display important public information when welcoming visitors to the forest. The group on hand was quick to point out that Sharon Seslowe, not present that day, helped considerably with construction of the kiosk. As posts were sunk and the frame was secured, some worked on the project and others walked or rode the adjacent landscape.
It turns out that Patricia Vallentyne is a self-proclaimed, award winning trash-and-poop-scooper. She laughs when she says that, but her services are critical to the environment. Sierra Freepackers don’t like trash, and they’ve picked up plenty of it. Once, Patrician recounts, they filled eight big black trash bags with remnants which included human waste. People had just left it behind. Bears had gotten into it.
“Pick up trash!” says Patricia the world. After all, she has a horse who knows how to do that.” Patricia’s trash bag is cleverly fashioned from a feed bag, machine stitched to up-cycled perfection.
Whatever it is, Patricia says, “if you have enough room in your car to bring it in, you can bring it out.”
Another thing the Freepackers don’t like is outlaw campfires, accurately citing unattended or illegal campfires as a not-infrequent cause of wildfires.
“Campfires are a fire danger,” says Patricia. “People may not realize that the forest floor is covered with duff — not dirt. If you bury the fire it burns into the duff,” she explains.
As Patricia picks up trash, two other women are busy dis-assembling fire rings which should not have been assembled in the first place. The heave the rocks far off into the bushes and grass.
“We love the forest and we want to see it taken care of,” Patricia explains.
Club president Cathy Miller says deciding how to remove downed trees from a trail is actually easier than working as a cohesively organized unit, though the Freepackers manage to do both. She says one of the benefits of working with a group is that everyone has different strengths.
“I have really enjoyed spending time with others that love horses and the outdoors as much as I do,” says Cathy. “They love it enough to put a lot of effort into learning more and teaching others.” She notes again that not only are the members good horsemen, many are trained in the Leave No Trace principles.
“It is very satisfying to make improvements on trails so others can safely enjoy them, or to clean up trash so the forest is more beautiful, or to put out a campfire left burning so nothing is destroyed. I think we all need to feel like we have made a positive difference somehow. We love riding and spending time in the forest and this is a way we can do both in a very positive way.”
Last year alone, Sierra Freepackers together volunteered 5,539.35 hours on local trails and projects, valued at some $195,687.73. Interested in joining? The group meets in the community room at the Oakhurst Library. Visit Sierra Freepackers on Facebook for more information.
In addition to Snow Play area, Sierra Freepackers’ local stewardship projects include but are not limited to the following:
Kelty Meadows Horse Campground, Willow Creek and surrounding trail network
The project goal was to restore and mitigate cattle and riding stock impact to riparian habitat along Willow Creek, improve meadow hydrologic conditions at Kelty Meadows and upgrade the Kelty Meadows Campground infrastructure. Beginning 8/2012 and completed in 12/2013, in conjunction with Bass Lake Ranger district (SNF) the BCHCSFP completed the following: 350 feet of denuded stream banks were replanted with native sod and willow and one-rock grade control structures were built. A permanent buck and pole enclosure fence was constructed to protect the creek restoration. An off-site water trough and solar water pump was installed to provide water for cattle and stock users. A few of the resulting benefits are increased annual water availability and quality to riparian-aquatic dependent systems, wildlife, and livestock. In Kelty Meadows Campground improvements were made to infrastructure and campground safety by the installation of bear boxes and tie rails at 13 campsites. Our stewardship of Kelty Meadows is ongoing. In 2016 we worked over 15.7 miles of adjoining trails, removed 5 trees and trimmed trails. We continue to maintain the solar water pump and 253 gallon water trough.
2016 – Local trails, camping, parks and recreation areas maintained:
Granite Creek Campground and adjoining trails – Annually, the BCHCSFP installs and removes corrals, hitching rails and completes trail maintenance in the Granite Creek Area. In 2016 our week long work party covered over 10 miles of wilderness trail and 26.6 trail miles were cleared of 23 trees and white thorn. Trails included Soldier Meadow to Clover Meadow, Isberg, Norris Cutoff, Fernandez and the Chetwood Cabin trail to Cora Lake.
Bass Lake – 4 miles of trail were trimmed and 1 large was tree removed.
French Trail – 4 miles of trail were recovered and trimmed, 8 trees were removed and 10 trail signs were reinstalled after recent fires and logging due to tree mortality.
Hensley Lake and Eastman Lakes – In association with US Army Corps of Engineers the BCHCSF assists with removal of illegal bike jumps, downed trees, trash removal and trail repairs.
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area – In association with the Bureau of Land Management, BCHCSF assists with the removal downed trees, trash removal and trail repairs.
Ahawhnee Hills Regional Park the BCHCSFP has established new trails equestrian trails in the park. In 2016, BCHCSFP developed and tagged 4 miles of new trail. These newly established trails are open to hikers and equestrians alike.