Animals on the Trail
No, we are not talking about wild animals. Those are a blessing. We are talking about people who bring their animals along. And in this case, we're really only talking about two kinds of animals:
Yes, we know that there is a long tradition (and booming business) in horse packing trips into the Sierra. And there are many very reputable packers who make a serious effort to keep their impacts on the wilderness at a minimum. We've camped near some of these groups, and never gave it (of them) a second thought.
And there are also people who would never be able to get into the backcountry if they didn't do it on horseback. We welcome anyone in that category, because we think the wilderness needs all the friends it can get.
But if you are considering a horse packing trip, here are a few things that we would like you to keep in mind.
1. The fact that you were able to pack in beer and steaks does not give you the right to entertain the rest of the valley with rebel yells in the evening. Yippee Yo Kiy-yay may be appropriate on a cattle drive, not a wilderness trip.
2. The fact that your packer left you alone in the wilderness does not mean that you don't have to follow the rules. It does not mean you don't have to know what the rules are. It does not mean that you can break the rules as long as you cover up the evidence before your packer returns.
3. Finally, we've done a few simple calculations on how much a horse impacts a trail vs. a hiker on foot. If you take the overall weight of each, and then divide by the area of the footprint of each animal, it's pretty clear that a horse does more damage to the trail than many, many hikers. (A 200 pound hiker puts about 6 pounds per square inch of pressure on the trail, cushioned by socks and vibram. A 1000 pound horse puts closer to 100 pounds of pressure on the trail, with a steel shoe. Another way to look at this is that one horse is equivalent to 15 hikers. And a pack train with eight horses does more damage to the trail than 1000 hikers.)
This is partcularly obvious in a couple of very difficult trail situations. One is when a trail traverses a meadow--the horses really do pound that trail into a deep rut very quickly. Sure, hikers will also do that, but read the facts above. And when the trail is wet or muddy, it's even worse. And the other situation is when the trail crosses a moraine or other rocky section, and the horses kick cobble after cobble into the trail. These are murder on hikers. and can twist an ankle in a second.
We don't really have a solution to this problem. But we can't help thinking that the fees that these packers pay don't come close to repairing the damage the horses do to the trail.
When it comes to the wilderness, man's best friend isn't always the best choice. (A note of disclosure here--we had a lovely dog as a pet, and we are certainly not dog haters!)
There are four kinds of dogs on the trail:
1. The tiny lapdog that rides in the pack and shivers at his own shadow. OK, fine, bring this one along, but please don't let it spend the afternoons chasing squirrels. It may end up chasing a squirrel into a bear. Or raccoon. Or something else that might eat it.
2. Well-trained people-friendly dogs who enjoy the trails as much as we do. We've had some lovely encounters with happy dogs who wag their tails at every hiker and joyfully hike the trails. Heck--we've even run into a few people who had very well-trained dogs and who insisted that their dogs get off the trail and sit while other hikers walked by. It was a bit excessive, but if we had been hiking with smaller children, it would have been deeply appreciated.
3. Dogs who may well have learned a few simple commands in the suburbs, but who are completely out of their element in the wild. They are a little afraid, a little aggressive, and don't listen very well. Leave them at home, please. We've had too many encounters with dogs who take an aggressive stance and growl at every hiker on the trail...and whose owners know the problem all too well. They panic and try to grab the dog and make a sudden attempt to teach the dog discipline on the trail. The dogs bark at every sound in the campground. Bad idea. Dumb owners.
4. Hunting dogs who feel that the wilderness is their true calling, and defend their owners against all threats, including other hikers. Leave these dogs at home. No discussion. We were once faced with a furious hound about three miles from the trailhead--a father and young son were fishing, and had left the hound to entertain himself. While the father tried (with no success) to capture the dog and allow us to pass, the dog maintained a very aggressive posture. And once we had finally passed, the dog then caught up to us about 200 yards later to do the same thing. No excuse. (The owner explained that he thought it was wilderness, so it was OK to bring a dog off leash. We explained that wilderness doesn't mean that your dog can attack hikers.) On our way out, we passed a number of other groups of hikers, so we can only imagine that they, and the dog's owner, repeated this experience many times. What a jerk.
So our rules for dogs:
If they are illegal on the trail, leave them at home.
If you can't keep your dog quiet, don't bring it.
If your dog's first reaction to meeting someone new is to growl, leave it at home.
If you haven't trained your dog to obey your commands to sit and stay, don't bring it.
If dogs are legal, and your dog can behave like other hikers on the trail, then go for it. There is a real joy in seeing a happy dog on the trail, enjoying the hike along with its owners, and greeting other hikers with a wag and a smile.