COUGAR — Driving up a steep two-lane road, Judy Smith’s truck grumbled and moaned under the weight of her extended cab and horse trailer.
After releasing an exasperated sigh, she pulled over to let her truck engine cool, patting her legs until the temperature gauge indicated it was safe to drive again. Smith joked that her two Tennessee Walkers — Nine, 20 years old, and Bliss, 9 years old — were wondering what the wait was for.
The ensemble’s destination, Kalama Horse Camp, seemed to become more distant, and the day wasn’t getting any younger. They had nature trails to clear.
Smith was eager to escape into the comforting serenity of trees and sounds of rushing water, even if it meant cutting and dragging a few bothersome branches along the way. Even if it meant facing her truck’s woes and groans.
“It’s a lot of love,” Smith chuckled. “It’s a lifestyle. A love of getting out in the woods, in the wilderness and on the trails.”
The Mount St. Helens Back Country Horsemen, a local chapter of a nationwide nonprofit, has maintained the region’s backcountry trails for decades, rarely to be seen by the hikers and bikers who benefit from the group’s work.
The chapter has already invested more than 1,800 hours of volunteer work in 2023. In 2022, volunteers contributed 2,772 hours of trail and administrative work, at an estimated value of $115,600. Statewide, the Back Country Horsemen’s 31 chapters provided 61,237 hours to backcountry trails, worth $2.4 million.
Behind the scenes
About 20 minutes later, Smith and a handful of members rolled into Kalama Horse Camp. They saddled up their horses, loading up hand tools, sunscreen and lunches to their packs.
The site, which serves as a home base for the riders, sits in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest just outside the west boundary of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. It connects to more than 50 miles of looped trails that weave through expanses blanketed with moss and brush, between clusters of skinny and old-growth trees and along the Kalama River.
The clip-clopping of horses’ hooves were subdued by soft soil and loose, ashy terrain as they left the graveled campground and stepped onto the trails. Their coarse tails cut through the air, dispelling excess energy and swatting away flies. Canine companions inspected nooks in the forest nearby.
Jim and Teri Anderson took the lead, using a power and hand saw to trim limbs that were hanging over the trail, while Connie and Phil Sari pitched the debris into the woods. Occasionally, the thundering sound of a chain saw would echo from behind a bend, away from the horses to avoid startling them.
“I don’t think people realize everything we do,” Teri Anderson said moments after dragging a fallen tree from the trail.
The collection of riders partners with a mix of federal, state and local agencies to keep parks and forests south of Mount St. Helens clear for recreation. They work with other trail-focused groups, including the Washington Trail Riders Association, Chinook Trails Association and Washington Trails Association.
For hours, Smith, the Andersons and the Saris moved along the trail: Dismounting their horses, cutting and hauling blockages and mounting the steeds again. As the sun rose in the sky, the air became more humid, simple tasks became more arduous and the horses seemed to grow taller — their saddles became harder to reach.
Upon returning to the campsite after trail work, the horses’ thin layer of hair revealed sweat imprints from where they carried loads. They sighed with relief upon eating whole apples and drinking cold water.
Work parties require chapter members to travel throughout Southwest Washington, notably trails surrounding the Kalama Horse Camp, Rock Creek Campground and Battle Ground Lake State Park.
Smith co-founded the local Backcountry Horsemen chapter and Kalama campsite in the early 1990s to address a need for local land and trail stewardship. In the years that followed, the chapter made additions to the campsite: corrals, trails, a log shelter, picnic tables and fire rings.
“It’s something to be proud of,” she said, taking a last look at the site before driving back to her Battle Ground home.
It’s a lifestyle
Riders provide their own equipment for this work, including hand and power tools and spare parts for fixing corrals. They drive their own vehicles, only asking for reimbursements for mileage after a long trip. Owning a single horse itself costs thousands of dollars a year.
Yet several Mount St. Helens Backcountry Horsemen members say that it’s worth it.
The chapter’s camaraderie and care for local lands are palpable, as evidenced by their unwavering devotion to joining work parties and investing their own supplies, said member Nancy Rust, who joined in 1996.
“We do it for the love of the work,” she said.
But they’re an aging organization.
“We need more young blood on the trails, because most of us are in our 70s,” Jim Anderson said, laughing. “People won’t have any trails if the backcountry folks don’t come and work on them.”
Chapters nationwide are attempting to connect with new recruits by hosting fun rides and clinics for younger riders. They can learn how to use high lines for trail work, a method of moving large objects without damaging habitat, or simply how to set up trailers for camping.
Smith acknowledged horse riding is an expensive hobby, and one that requires time, a commodity that can be hard for people to come by if they have families or a full-time job. Yet she remained adamant that it’s worth doing despite the cost.
Southwest Washington’s backcountry is bound to spark an interest in those who wander within it, even those who are uneasy about the adventure. It’s where people learn how capable they are.
“It’s just magic,” Rust said. “I think because we have so many years invested. It makes the trails more special.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.