Horseback riders repair Iowa’s trailsGroup serving 10-county region will meet this weekend to discuss goals for the year
BY ANDY HALLMAN
Ledger news editor
FAIRFIELD – Maintaining a trail is no easy task, since many do not allow motorized vehicles to enter, and portions of it can be far from paved roads. That does not present a problem to one particular group of trail enthusiasts, who patrol the trails on horseback.
The Southeast Chapter of Back Country Horsemen of Iowa is a local division of a nationwide nonprofit organization. Residents formed the group in 2016 to “perpetuate the common sense use and enjoyment of trails within our area of southeast Iowa,” according to its mission statement.
The group formed on May 22 in Fairfield, considered the central hub of the 10-county region that stretches from Oskaloosa to Burlington and includes Jefferson, Washington and Henry counties. At its first meeting, the volunteers adopted two county parks for trail maintenance: Lake Belva Deer Recreation Area near Sigourney and Big Hollow Recreation Area near Mediapolis.
Officials at Keokuk County Conservation were appreciative of the group’s offer to improve Lake Belva Deer Recreation Area, and suggested it spread lime in the horse stalls at the park so they wouldn’t be so muddy. On June 18, club member Chris Kuckes of Burlington transported a skid loader to do the job, and he was joined by about half a dozen other members who spread the lime, pulled weeds from the stalls and trimmed branches on the trails that interfere with horseback riders.
According to a press release from the group, “We received great feedback from both the park and the equestrian riders that use the trails.”
The group dedicated two days to working at Big Hollow Recreation Area. On July 16, the group was asked to widen the drive into the equestrian parking lot so that large trucks and trailers could enter easily. A press release said the six volunteers who made the trip worked in 100-degree heat, and came from Fairfield, Mt. Pleasant, Washington and Burlington. The volunteers cleared brush and removed some signage so park officials could add fill and gravel. Club member Wendel Smith of Burlington brought a uni-loader to help do the job.
The second work day at Big Hollow was Oct. 16, when members set barriers and hung gates to prevent motorized vehicles from using the trail. Eight volunteers came from Fairfield, Sperry, Burlington and Mt. Pleasant that day. Once again, a member brought a heavy piece of machinery to assist the project. Mark Lieurance of Sperry brought his tractor and post-hole digger to the site. The club used it to set four posts in concrete and hang four gates.
The organization is having a membership drive Jan. 29 in Mt. Pleasant. The public is welcome to bring a covered dish, non-alcoholic drink and table service to the potluck from 1-5 p.m. at the Fellowship Cup. Group members will elect officers, discuss last year’s projects and the ones coming up. They will also have a silent auction and a guest speaker who will talk about “leave no trace” principles.
The group’s president or “trail master” as she is known in the organization is Melinda “Mendy” Wenke of Fairfield. She has three horses, and rides them as often as she can.
“We hope to ride them this week when it’s in the 50s. I’m 52, and it’s got to be warm enough that my toes don’t freeze for me to go for a ride,” she joked.
Wenke said she and other equestrian enthusiasts in the area saw a need for trail volunteers, and wanted to do their part to beautify trails they use on a regular basis. She said government funding for parks and trails, whether on the state or federal level, has gone down, and that some have had to close for lack of funds.
“We wanted to take the burden off county parks in our area by helping with the trails,” she said.
Back Country Horsemen of Iowa has about 100 members throughout the state, and about 35-40 in the southeast chapter. Wenke said the national organization put in 304,000 volunteer hours in 2016 fixing trails, which saved local parks about $11.2 million. Iowa’s clubs did about $50,000 worth of trail work that year.
Wenke said horses are ideally suited for transportation on trails because motorized vehicles are not allowed on them. Horses allow volunteers to turn a long walk into a quick trip.
“It’s never the beginning of the trail that needs work. They always need work far away in the middle,” she said. “Trails aren’t wide enough for four-wheelers anyway, but they are wide enough for a horse.”
Wenke said the group has not done any volunteer work in Jefferson County yet, but she has sent informational packets to all the parks in the 10-county region offering help with trail maintenance. She has heard about an opportunity to help at Turkey Run Wildlife Area near Birmingham, which the group would be more than happy to do.
The group hopes to have more work days in 2017 than last year, which was marred by too much rain. The riders don’t take their horses on trails after a rain because the horse’s hooves leave divots in the ground that could be treacherous to a cyclist or runner once they’ve hardened.
Benefitting hikers and bikers
Mt. Pleasant resident Connie Waters Krieger is the assistant trail master and the liaison to Big Hollow Recreation Area. She joined the group because she loves horses and volunteering, and this club was the perfect marriage of the two.
“Not only are we assisting land managers to maintain park trails for the horseback rider, but it also benefits bicycle riders and hikers as well,” she said.
Krieger owns a horse and rode horses daily as a little girl. When she got married, she gave up riding because her husband didn’t care for horses, but since his death she has began doing it again.
“That has been very therapeutic to me,” she said.
Krieger likes to ride at many parks in southeast Iowa such as Big Hollow and Shimek State Park near Farmington, and she goes with a group on week-long trips in Illinois and Missouri.
Helping land managers
Pearl Lloyd of Brighton joined the group after learning how tight the funding was for land managers to maintain trails. She wanted to help them improve the trails so they would be beautiful and functional for everyone who sought to use them.
Lloyd has a horse, as does her daughter-in-law. She loves riding through the Brighton Timber just down the road from her house, and at Sockum Ridge between Washington and Wayland. She and her family ride the horses in local parades, too, and sometimes just for fun on city streets.
Lloyd said she is excited to see the club’s membership continue to expand in 2017 and the years to come.
“The more we grow, the more we can help the other trails,” she said.
The organization will be holding its first annual meeting/potluck on Sunday, Jan 29, from 1 to 5 p.m., at the Fellowship Cup, in Mt. Pleasant. Organizers will be discussing plans for the upcoming year, setting work days, fun days, meet and greets and deciding on the club’s projects for next year.