Climbing high on a trail at dizzying heights, four hooves move steadily on a narrow path across a steep wall of shale rock. At the top of...

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Climbing high on a trail at dizzying heights, four hooves move steadily on a narrow path across a steep wall of shale rock. At the top of the ridge, the horses and mules are reined to a stop, and the scenery explodes.

On one side, Mount Rainier appears like the top of a giant ice-cream cone. To the east, cliffs of craggy rock plunge into a bowl of green meadows and trees.

The afternoon sun bouncing off an airplane flying thousands of feet above is the only clue that a hectic metropolis is just an hour away.

This moment, the feeling of being completely removed from everything, is what defines the Backcountry Horsemen.

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A national service club with some of its most active chapters in Southeast King County, the Backcountry Horsemen maintain hundreds of miles of local trails and work to protect open space. With continual budget cuts, the keepers of Western Washington’s public land increasingly depend on such organizations to keep trails open and accessible.

The members are real-life cowboys and cowgirls who simply love to ride the backcountry and want to ensure that their grandchildren will have the same opportunities.

“You get back here and you get away from all the people and it’s just unreal,” said Russ Sieck, of Covington, a member of the group for more than 20 years.

Maintaining trails

From the sections of the Pacific Crest Trail to wooded open space just outside of Ravensdale, club members are out every day to work on one trail or another. The Tahoma and Enumclaw chapters work closely together, volunteering their time to clear trails for horseback riders, mountain bikers, hikers and anyone else who uses open space in Southeast King County.

For big projects, the club sponsors work parties where members clear trails by day and enjoy Dutch oven cooking under the stars. But the smaller maintenance projects — shearing brush, clearing trees — make a difference, too.

Greg and Maggie Putnam have been taking care of the trails behind their Ravensdale home since they moved there 17 years ago.

“Every time we go riding, we bring the clippers,” Greg Putnam said.

Trails deteriorate a little each year and need to be maintained often, especially after storms. Hillsides erode, and fallen trees block trails. Whenever a trail is blocked, people forge a second trail to get around, causing erosion that can damage the land overtime, Sieck said.

The Enumclaw chapter works with the Enumclaw Forested Foothills Recreation Association to maintain trails in the foothills, chapter President Scott Gray said.

Necessary partnership

For years, the Back Country Horsemen have partnered with public-land owners to keep trails open. Now, their help is needed more than ever.

In the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest region, the maintenance budget has been cut by 40 percent in the past five years, Forest Service spokesman Tom Knappenberger said.

“We depend upon partners to help us maintain the national forest,” Knappenberger said.

Nationally, the club has 16,000 members in 23 states, said Peg Greiwe, executive secretary of Back Country Horsemen of America. Clubs in Washington state and California have the most members, Greiwe said. Wherever they work, Back Country Horsemen members volunteer their time.

“We just do it because we love it,” Greiwe said.

Backcountry Horsemen say they’re not the only ones who work hard to keep open space maintained and usable.

Hiking, biking, cross-country and snowmobile groups also partner with public-land owners, Knappenberger said.

The backcountry experience

On a perfect summer day in the mountains, five Backcountry Horsemen — Russ Sieck, Kenny Schulz, Bub Dennis, Gene Brent and Ray Ewing — set out on a favorite ride in the high country near Crystal Mountain. They are part of an unofficial club, the “Over-the-Hill Gang.” Membership is granted only to those who are retired and have all the time in the world to ride.

“Sometimes we get home before dark, sometimes just before sunrise,” Brent said with a sly smile.

The men all assert that they’re not real cowboys, but a day on the trail with them tells a different story. They wear crisp Wrangler jeans, worn flannel shirts and red bandannas to keep the dust off their faces.

They know the country well. At an overlook on the trail, they gaze out and spout off the names of ridges, valleys and hills in the distance.

“We just get confused, never lost,” Schulz said.

Leaving from a hitching post at the base of Crystal Mountain, they ride their mules and horses high up into the wilderness. The trail zigzags through the trees, up into the alpine and along narrow ridges. Along the way, the men tell stories of the backcountry trails they ride often. They boast about new grandchildren and remember friends who’ve recently passed away. Sometimes they don’t talk at all.

The destination is Basin Lake, a clear mountain pool where the men hitch up the animals and take time for a brown bag lunch on a log beside the lake.

Preserving the land

As residential and commercial development rapidly swallows up rural land, trail riders fear that experiences like this will become extinct if something isn’t done about it. Besides maintaining trails, the Backcountry Horsemen focus on saving open space.

On the Enumclaw plateau, where a building moratorium soon will be lifted, the group worries about what will happen to the trails.

While some developers build without thinking about people who use the rural trails, Gray said, others are amenable to accommodating the trail riders. But there’s no guarantee unless the land is formally protected.

“We’re so concerned that our children or grandchildren may not be able to ride in those lands,” Greiwe said.

The Tahoma chapter has partnered with other land conservation groups and land owners to earmark more than 700 acres of open space near Ravensdale and protect trail system from development. The club aims to designate specific parcels to an equestrian park.

If they succeed, it will be the first county-owned equestrian park, said Joan Burlingame, the Tahoma chapter’s legislative liaison.

On the downhill trek back to the base of Crystal Mountain, the Over-the-Hill Gang comes across a fallen tree that is blocking the way.

Trampled plants are signs that a replacement trail has been forged around the downed tree. The men tie their animals to trees alongside the trail. One man pulls out a saw, and they get to work, each taking a turn.

Within 15 minutes, the tree is in pieces and hauled off the trail. Satisfied, they’re on their way, traveling silently down the mountain, with Mount Rainier peeking through the trees.

Lauren Vane: 253-234-8604 or lvane@seattletimes.com