Horsepower: Where it all Started

Packers still play an important role in backcountry trail development.

by Guy Zoellner, USDA Forest Service


Chris Eyre from Stevensville, MT and volunteers to pack for BMWF because of the great work they do. Chris and his string of long ears are pictured here at the Monture Trailhead getting ready to pack up for another BMWF trip.

Horsepower. The term oozes petroleum, big diesel pickups, Harley’s and cut-off flannel shirts in the garage. In an age where television is riddled with ads for vehicles boasting “the most” and “the strongest”, we often forget where it all start-ed from; the horse.

By definition, horsepower is what it takes to lift 33,000 lbs one foot in height over the course of one minute. A healthy human can sustainably produce approximately .1 hp, not very much by any standard when the big trucks on television tout 300-500 horsepower. Now contrast that to the Wilderness where motors are no longer allowed and the options for accomplishing work and moving equipment are limited to either manpower or horsepower.

Moving downfall off the trail, digging new tread or building turnpikes are examples of work that must be done without the assistance of motors. In order to accomplish many of these tasks, backcountry managers use horses and mules. While livestock can’t pull a crosscut or swing an axe, they can provide the needed torque to move heavy objects around in the backcountry. The majority of the gear necessary to work and recreate in the Wilderness is packed in on the backs of horses and mules. However, what most people don’t see is the work that was done and still continues to occur using mule teams to drag and skid objects.

In the early 20th century the Forest Service used draft stock to aid in the construction of numerous airstrips within the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The logs necessary to build the cabins were harvested from nearby stands of timber, but inevitably found their way to the site behind a mule. The folks building the cabins even used the teams of stock to help pull the logs onto the cabin walls. There are spots miles from the current cabin locations where a person can still see evidence of shake mills that supplied the rooftop shakes for the cabins. These shakes were skidded, split and then packed to the various cabins all thanks to mules.

Trail plows were constructed and used to lay in many of the trails that are still in use today. This was a simple plow pulled by one mule, followed by another mule pulling a small grater that set the bench and outslope of the trail. For the curiousWilderness visitor there are still relics of many of these tools lying around the decommissioned airstrips or in Ranger Station barns.

Today’s Forest Service mule teams receive slightly less but nonetheless important use. Both remote workstations at Big Prairie and Schafer Meadows have a working team of mules. They are used to skid firewood, haul materials for fencing, clean corrals, and skid timber for use in trail projects. An example of this was a thirty-year-old puncheon structure that had rotted out near Mud Lake in the South Fork of the Flathead drainage. The puncheon was approximately 150 feet long and bridged a wetland area that was otherwise unsafe to cross with stock. The location is on one of the most well-traveled trails in the South Fork, so public safety and resource damage were of utmost concern. In order to fix the problem the entire structure was removed and a new one assembled. This required a team of mules to skid in larch logs for use as the sill part of the structure. Doing this using human strength was out of the question. So two mules, Punch and Judy, were brought in and neatly accomplished the task in a few days. This provided both longevity to the structure due to the rot resistance of the larch logs and greater efficiency of the crew’s time.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness is often times noted for its stock use. Although a large percentage of horses and mules that enter the woods are carrying a saddle with either rider or freight, it is the indefatigable nature of stock in harness that sets them apart on the work scale. Finding and funding a crew of people that can provide the horsepower of two mules is a daunting task. It is the quiet, patient and proud nature of both team and teamster that makes them an invaluable resource in the backcountry.

U.S. Forest Service contract packers lead a string of pack mules into the Klamath National Forest with supplies for firefighters during the Happy Camp Complex in 2014. Photo by Kari Greer.

U.S. Forest Service contract packers lead a string of pack mules into the Klamath National Forest with supplies for firefighters during the Happy Camp Complex in 2014. Photo by Kari Greer.

Today’s Forest Service mule teams receive slightly less but nonetheless important use. Both remote workstations at Big Prairie and Schafer Meadows have a working team of mules. They are used to skid firewood, haul materials for fencing, clean corrals, and skid timber for use in trail projects. An example of this was a thirty-year-old puncheon structure that had rotted out near Mud Lake in the South Fork of the Flathead drainage. The puncheon was approximately 150 feet long and bridged a wetland area that was otherwise unsafe to cross with stock. The location is on one of the most well-traveled trails in the South Fork, so public safety and resource damage were of utmost concern. In order to fix the problem the entire structure was removed and a new one assembled. This required a team of mules to skid in larch logs for use as the sill part of the structure. Doing this using human strength was out of the question. So two mules, Punch and Judy, were brought in and neatly accomplished the task in a few days. This provided both longevity to the structure due to the rot resistance of the larch logs and greater efficiency of the crew’s time.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness is often times noted for its stock use. Although a large percentage of horses and mules that enter the woods are carrying a saddle with either rider or freight, it is the indefatigable nature of stock in harness that sets them apart on the work scale. Finding and funding a crew of people that can provide the horsepower of two mules is a daunting task. It is the quiet, patient and proud nature of both team and teamster that makes them an invaluable resource in the backcountry.