Packing Goop

By Gerard Gilliland

My brother recently asked about a summer I spent packing ‘goop’ for the Forest Service. This was north of Pinedale, Wyoming in 1962. I had qualified for the job having worked a team of horses daily during a previous winter feeding cattle from a sled (or wagon during mud season).

Here are some highlights...

The ‘goop’ was (I think) a methyl bromide / water mix. When sprayed on the beetle infested trees it killed the larva. My job was to deliver the goop to the trees that had been inspected, and marked as containing the bark beetle larva so the sprayers could spray it on the trees.

There were about seven or eight crews with about seven or eight people on each team. A boss, a forester to mark the bug trees, and two to three 2-man spray teams - (one would pump the other would spray – then they would trade off.) And each team had a packer with a saddle horse and three pack horses. One team had 14 workers supplied with a string of seven horses. Each pack horse carried four 5-gallon cans of ‘goop’ (two on each side) hung on the pack frame with a short rope (piggin’ string). Each can weighed about 45 pounds when full. We had rubber blankets over the pack saddles and under the cans incase a can leaked the goop wouldn’t get on the horse. It caused burns if it did.

Our crew won a prize for the most trees per person for the summer. We sprayed almost as many trees as the 14 man crew did.

Each day, the forester would disappear into the forest with his lunch, hatchet and paint can. The sprayers would walk to where they left off the night before and the packers would pick up the string of horses at the wranglers corral, ride about a mile or two to a large tank by the river where the goop was mixed and poured into the cans. There we would load the full goop cans onto the pack horses and head off in different directions to our crew. They moved the tank about once a month.

At the crew location I would drop off a can or two at each place the boss told me. Sometimes a can would stretch to 3 or 4 small trees. Other trees took more than one can. When I got within the general area, if I didn’t know exactly where to unload the cans, the boss would magically appear and take me to where they would need the goop. If I was ahead they might not get to there to spray for a couple days. If I was barely ahead they would be within sight. And if I was behind they would be waiting for me. Patiently I might add - they liked that the best. After dropping the full ones off, I would go back to where they had finished spraying and pick up the empty cans. You could double them up and put up to 8 empties on each pack saddle. Then you would rattle your way back to the tank.

On a typical day I could get two loads or 24 cans of goop delivered; one load in the morning and a second one in the afternoon. If I was working close to the tank or a trail had been established, I could take a third load. Some days I ran out of time and dropped the second load part way out where I could pick it up the next day.

Some days I got no loads out. There were a lot of things that could go wrong. The trails were helpful close by the tank. They were built by a crew of Indians (Arapahoe I believe). They made some high quality trails. Further into the forest, you had to pick your own way. There were many obstacles such as creeks, shrubs, rocks, cliffs, and downed timber. You could ride an hour and still be no closer to your goal. Other areas were open and easy riding.

I learned a very important rule early in the season. The wranglers are always right! If you questioned their treatment of horses, they would give you a bad horse, a bad string, and / or bad equipment. I inherited the saddle horse that got the last person fired (or quit – I don’t know which.)

So, my saddle horse was very nervous. She would take about eight steps to the pack horses’ one. By the end of the summer she was actually walking most of the day. And she would buck whenever the lead rope (to the first pack horse) would touch her. By the end of the summer she only bucked when the lead rope got under her tail and she clamped down on it. They were never buck-you-off bucks just drop-the-lead-rope-and-grab-the-saddle-horn bucks. She was a good horse – just nervous. One time she bucked her self into a tighter and tighter circle with the pack string following (the lead rope was under her tail) and I had to lift my legs up to keep from being hit by the goop cans hanging on the pack horses.

I think I had a great pack string. They tracked great. I was foolish one day and thought they might enjoy being strung up in a different order. Two frustrating hours later I had learned not to mess with success.

My most memorable day was one that I got no goop delivered. Well maybe one load partly delivered. The trees were getting further and further from the tank and they had used a helicopter the previous day to carry a bunch of cans from the tank to the top of a mountain. I was to take the pack string up above timberline to the top, load the goop cans, and bring them down into the forest. It had been a challenge to work my way up a pretty steep slope and back down and I was glad to be getting back into the forest. It was already late morning. Little did I realize that the crew was above me near the top of the mountain on a large snowfield and one member decided to “ride” an empty goop can down that snowfield. I didn’t know what was happening, but I vaguely heard a shout and a thump, thump, thump of a can on the snow. The horses started running. Obviously (to a pack horse) a snow demon was out to slay them. I lost my hard hat. I was dodging goop cans, and ducking tree limbs. One goop can literally cart-wheeled over my head. Another seemed to go past me in slow motion within reaching distance (not that I planned to reach out.) The pack string overtook me as I was finally able to rein my horse in. They were in a full run and soon gone. I found the pack string about an hour later grazing in a meadow. All three horses were there (not tied together but still in their “proper” order.) None of them were injured. Two pack saddles and one halter were broken. Two cans were still attached to one of the broken pack frames. The other ten cans had been randomly “delivered” somewhere back up the mountain. I dropped off the two remaining cans and let my saddle horse graze with the string for another couple of hours while I worked on equipment. Then I tied the pack string back together, loaded up the pieces, and headed back to the corral.