Goat Packing in Utah
by YVONNE MICHIE HORN
George didn't mind at all, my using him as a backrest as we paused to catch our breath in the shade of a cottonwood tree. George, in fact, was taking a brief snooze, his soft snoring adding a gentle, welcoming, vibrating massage to my leaning. To the right, left, and straight ahead, as far as the eye could see, lay nameless mesas, wind-carved plateaus, sculpted pinnacles and multi-colored cliffs. Formidable terrain, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. To head into its untracked 1.9 million acres, one must be sure-footed and non-faint of heart.
That tested true for at least 12 of our group of 20 - George being one of the sure-footed dozen, along with Frosty, Zuco, Moose, Mo and Curly, Rudy, Alpha, Stripe, Cat, and brothers Precocious and Laser who slept endearingly cuddled up head to tail.
"You mean llamas," my friend corrected me when I told him that goats would be our "sherpas" on our five-day trek into the national monument. "Goats! Really?" (Time out, while my friend recovered from a bout of near rolling-on-the-ground laughter.) Yes, goats. Not llamas, not mules, not horses, not yaks. Goats. To that, my friend added a parting shot, "Watch your pack. Goats will eat anything."
I cannot remember how I first heard of Wind River Pack Goats. I do recall, however, that I was sufficiently intrigued to see if the outfitter had a website. It did, with two trekking destinations offered. One described itineraries traversing Wyoming's mountainous glaciers and snowfields; the other an almost opposite experience, a fall excursion into the high-desert landscape of Utah's Escalante. Wyoming's glaciers and snowfields I dismissed as too slippery, too cold. The Escalante trek in October, timed to escape the region's searing days of summer, struck me as perfect. And deserts, aren't they flat?
It was the ludicrous mental picture of trekking with goats, however, not a burning desire to explore the national monument, that brought me to the itinerary's meeting point in Salt Lake City along with Mike from the San Francisco Bay area, Jude from Seattle, Andrea and KD hailing from Wyoming, and Peter from New York City.
Charlie Wilson, owner of Wind River Pack Goats headquartered in Lander, Wyoming, was on hand to greet us. A former high-school science teacher and leader of wilderness trips for the National Outdoor Leadership School, Charlie would serve as one of our guides. John Mioncynsky, an internationally known wildlife consultant widely recognized as the originator of goat packing in America and the founder of Wind River Pack Goats, would be the other. John and our four-legged "sherpas" had preceded us to our starting point in the Escalante.
A Scenic Byway
Salt Lake City's urban sprawl soon gave way to Utah's wide-open spaces. Leaving the freeway behind, our route joined Highway 12, a Scenic Byway that earns its fame as one of the most beautiful in the West as it traverses slick rock oceans, sweeps of ranch land, red-cliff canyons, and forests of pine and aspen.
Cresting Boulder Mountain, we paused at an overlook for a bird's-eye view of our trekking terrain to come: the knife-edged Straight Cliffs, the jagged double edge of the Cockscomb, the broad tilted terraces of the Grand Staircase, with the Kaiparowitz Plateau barreling through like a huge stone freight train. Two hundred million years of Earth's history in a grand, 2,947-square-mile nutshell.
With a deep gulp I noticed that, although our five-day trek would cover but an inch on the map of its vastness, there appeared not to be an inch that was flat.
Our inch began in a meadow, lush with the sort of vegetation goats love to munch, which translates to most anything. While we transferred our gear into commodious panniers, John and Charlie introduced us to the dos and don'ts of goat packing.
We were told to never, ever touch a goat's horns although they looked like such handy handles. To do so would tend to remind the goat that the primal purpose of its curving scimitars is to butt things around. That would not do. "Knoodling," however, was encouraged - the rubbing of chest, cheek, chin and the little knob behind their horns, while giving repeated reassurance that they were doing a great job.
Although goats have worked as beasts of burden in Europe and Asia for centuries, they only recently have joined the pack-stock scene in this country. For our trek, each goat's middle was flanked with two felt pads, upon which a wooden X-shaped saddle was mounted. A pair of panniers, weight evenly distributed, was slung over each saddle and securely cinched. We were ready to go.
Crossing the Waters
Within yards came our first challenge, crossing the jade-green Escalante River. Off with the boots, on with the water sandals. Goats, which have an innate dislike of water, were knoodled to wade in. Before my boots were re-laced, the goats were nimbly ascending a boulder-strewn, straight-up, non-existent trail. Slipping, scrambling, panting, and just a half hour into our adventure, I was already grateful for the four-legged flotilla carrying our entire kit and caboodle on this parade.
No ordinary goats these. These were trained professionals, bred from traditional dairy stock for even greater strength and agility. The idea came to John in the 1970s while on a research project. After following a band of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep over terrain too difficult for traditional pack animals to negotiate, John's back was giving out.
Because he kept dairy goats, he already had at hand an animal that was strong, hardworking, intelligent, loyal, inexpensive to maintain, sure-footed, totally at ease in out-of-the-way places, and had the potential to be in tune with its instincts. My assessment at the end of five days: Don't leave home without one.
In those five days we did not meet another soul. With developed trails all but non-existent, we made our way over slick-rock expanses, idled while our goats had their fill in willow-rich oases, and clambered up to views from table tops of Navajo stone that left you weak in the knees. The monument holds no centerfold peaks, no beauty-spot "must-sees" to check off on a visit. Instead, "must-sees" were everywhere, beneath our feet, around the bend, making us feel as if we were the first to find our way by whim and wind through its unmarked, unnamed geology.
As if by magic, each day's journey ended exactly where Charlie had planned, at a site with nearby water, a sheltered spot to establish a "kitchen," and a fine choice of secluded places to pitch tents. No need to worry about the goats - their natural desire to stay together and remain in the company of humans would keep them in camp. As for their food, whatever was around for foraging suited them just fine.
We, however, had no need to poke around for dinner. From the panniers appeared the makings for our meals, prepared by Charlie and John - T-bone steaks from grass-fed beef one night, chicken fajitas another, with plentiful red wine to wash it down. Yet another pannier held John's 100-year-old Hohner accordion from which emerged cowboy laments, Swiss yodeling tunes and a repertoire of "goat songs," melodies with plentiful up and down notes that John had composed. Goats had their favorites, and the animals formed a shadowy, constantly appearing and disappearing audience around the campfire.
On our last night in the monument, with a full moon sailing through a star-studded, ink-blue sky, Goat Song Number 7 drifted after me as I made my way to my tent. George's favorite. With a smile I realized it was mine, too.
For Fall 2004, Wind River Pack Goats' five-night/six-day trips into the Escalante cost $1,490 per person. The company also offers other itineraries in Utah and Wyoming. For complete details, contact: Tel: 307-332-3328; E-mail:email@example.com; Website:www.goatpacking.com.
• Because of searing summer temperatures, early spring and fall are the best times to visit the Escalante area.
• Altitude on the goat packing trip into the Escalante ranges between 5,000 and 6,000 feet.
• The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established in 1996. It is the first national monument man-aged by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the National Park System.
• The monument spans five ecological life zones and is home to mountain lions, black bear, bighorn sheep, bald eagles and the endangered peregrine falcon. The monument also contains prime Anasazi archeological sites.