REDDING, Calif. — Some of the U.S. Forest Service's hardest workers finally got to go on vacation.
After months of trudging up and down steep trails in the backcountry carrying heavy packs of supplies, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest's string of horses and pack mules finally got cut loose for a little rest, relaxation and green grass.
The mules and horses were hauled from Weaverville, Calif., to Redding in trailers and released in a 400-acre pasture. Once the halters were off, they cut loose.
They didn't care that it rained on their first day off.
They ran around and nipped at each other, kicked up their hooves and took turns having a good roll in the grass.
"These mules have worked hard all summer, and this is their vacation time," said Mike McFadin, the Shasta-Trinity's wilderness and trails program manager.
For the second year in a row, the Forest Service is wintering the stock on pasture owned by the McConnell Foundation of Redding. The foundation lets the agency use the property free of charge.
McFadin and the Forest Service make a ceremony of releasing the mules, inviting officials from the California Conservation Corps, the Backcountry Horsemen of California, Shasta Trinity Unit, the McConnell Foundation and the media.
McFadin gave a speech and presented certificates of appreciation to the foundation, Backcountry Horsemen and the CCC. The Forest Service set up canopies to shelter guests from the rain and served fresh hot coffee and Dutch oven fruit cobbler.
The animals stay in Redding from November to May. During the rest of the year, their main job is to haul in supplies for CCC crews who spend five months in the backcountry areas such as the Trinity Alps and Yolla Bolla wildernesses. The crews build and maintain hiking trails and do other work where trucks and motorized equipment aren't allowed, McFadin said.
Along with volunteer help from the Backcountry Horsemen who lead the animals into and out of the wilderness, the pack animals do the work a lot more cheaply than if the Forest Service had to contract out the work, McFadin said.
"These animals leverage hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work," McFadin said.
In addition to the Forest Service mules, the Backcountry Horsemen supply up to 40 mules and horses to haul supplies for the CCC crews and carry in fish to be planted in high-country lakes.
Alan Hill of Redding, a board member for the horsemen, said his group has been donating time and stock to the Forest Service for 20 years.
(Contact Damon Arthur of the Redding Record Searchlight in California at DArthur@redding.com)