When the U.S. Forest Service decided to restore the historic lookout tower atop Harney Peak in September, they knew it would be a major challenge to get supplies and equipment to the 7,240-foot summit.
The only viable option was to go old school — and use horses and mules as pack animals, just as it was done in 1938 when the tower was built at the highest point in the Black Hills.
That's when Doug Bechen, president of the Black Hills Back Country Horsemen, came to the rescue. During the restoration, Bechen and his fellow horsemen hobbyists made more than 40 trips up the mountain, loading animals with supplies that included tools, scaffolding, windows, concrete and water.
"They came in with a two-ton truck with all of the supplies we would take up, and then we started loading," Bechen said. "Packing livestock is not easy, and we were bringing all sorts of supplies up with us."
Their work paid off, not only with the successful installation of new windows and doors for the aging tower, but now with a top award from a national horsemen's association.
This spring, the Black Hills Back Country Horsemen received the Double Diamond Award from the National Back Country Horsemen of America. The award recognizes volunteer projects that benefit the general public on public lands, and it was presented April 26 at the 2014 national meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn.
A main goal of the Back Country Horsemen is to keep trails open for future generations. The Black Hills chapter was started in 2010, and last year, Bechen said, the organization donated over $115,000 in labor, time and mileage since that time.
The Harney Peak effort was an adventure for the horsemen. Group members rode their horses and led numerous pack animals up the steep climb to the peak where the supplies were then unloaded.
Jim Allen was a crew member on the project. He said although the project was fun, there was a lot of work involved.
"The thing with packing anything is that you've got to have your load balanced — equal within 1 to 2 pounds on each side — otherwise it'll slip off the animal," he said. "A lot of it was helping get the loads balanced and weighing and reweighing and getting it packed on the mules."
The journey to completion was not without difficulty. The day before the crew left, a thunderstorm with 70 mph winds hit, leaving fallen trees on the paths.
"We got up the next morning and left early, and a mile out of the camp we had to start cutting trees," Bechen said.
The crew was able to use chainsaws until reaching the edge of the wilderness. After that they had to use hand saws to clear the paths.
Bechen's crew was there a total of six days — one day spent clearing trees, the other five hauling supplies to the tower.
"It was a long first day," Bechen said. "We didn't get up to Harney Peak until 5:30 p.m., and then we had to come back down. We got back around 6:30 p.m. that night."
Bechen, who has been riding to Harney Peak for 30 years, said he had long noticed how time and the elements wore down the tower.
"The stone and mortar have all deteriorated," he said. "It was very exciting to be able to help."
Bechen said he was impressed with the restoration, which was five years in the planning and a yearlong in execution. He was hopeful it will help in the future.
"The masons walked down to find the exact rocks that were missing out of the walls and replaced them," he said. "Hopefully now with a window in there it will stop the moisture from getting inside the tower."
All of the hard work made receiving the award special, Allen said.
"It was such a unique opportunity to be able to help," he said. "It really fit with the mission of the Back Country Horsemen. You want to have people enjoy things in the back country, and Harney Peak is definitely one of those places."