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|October 23-29, 2008
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The original city slicker
From barnyard bad boys... to backcountry bellhops
by Dave Philipps
This man-meets-goat story can be seen as a question of who saved whom.
True, when Steve Galchutt (the man) met Gotta Love ’em Rooster Cogburn (the goat), Rooster was an unneeded male dairy goat headed for the carniceria.
“He was damn near to barbecue,” Galchutt (pronounced “galshoot”) said.
But Galchutt, 63, had looming problems of his own.
“I’m an old jogger whose knees can no longer take a heavy pack. So I guess you could say he rescued me as much as I rescued him,” the Monument resident said when he pulled up his Toyota pickup to a trailhead on the edge of the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness recently for a three-day backpack trip with friends.
Rooster is a pack goat — one of two with whom Galchutt regularly hikes. Each 200-pound European dairy goat can carry about 45 pounds, letting Galchutt go on long journeys without much in his own pack.
“I’m the original city slicker. I grew up on a surfboard in Los Angeles,” he said as he opened the covered back of the pickup. “But these guys are amazingly easy. It’s like having dogs, but they don’t bark, bite or chase.”
Rooster and his partner, Peanut, nudged their heads out like golden retrievers anxious for a walk. When Galchutt dropped the tailgate, they jumped gracefully down and ambled around the truck, nibbling the grass on the edge of the woods.
The goats are perfect trail companions, Galchutt said. They have no halters or leashes, yet they never wander. They don’t balk or scare. They’ve been up fourteeners and down canyons. They’ve trudged through deep snow in little homemade ponchos.
“They think I’m lead goat,” said Galchutt, “So they’ll follow me anywhere. They’d sleep in the tent if I’d let them.”
There was some contention over the lead-goat title two years ago, when Galchutt got Rooster. The goat butted Galchutt when he wasn’t looking. Galchutt turned around, held the goat down and sat on him for a few minutes to let him know who was boss.
“It only took one time,” Galchutt said. “Now these guys are so lovable Rooster will come lay his head in my lap by the campfire at night.”
Not exactly the image most people have of goats.
“They have a terrible reputation in the United States,” said Carolyn Eddy, author and former publisher of Goat Tracks Magazine, “The only magazine of the working goat.”
At best they’re seen as ornery, randy, aggressive, stinky beasts — bad boys of the barnyard that will eat anything from tin cans to laundry off the line. At worst, they are a symbol of Satan himself.
Maybe all the bad press goes back to ancient Hebrew practices of heaping the community’s ills on a sacrificial scapegoat, or to early
Christianity’s demonization of the half-goat Pagan god Pan. Maybe it’s a xenophobic remnant of America’s first immigrants, who were mostly cow-tending English, against later goat-tending immigrants from the Mediterranean.
Or maybe some goats are just jerks.
“They definitely can be aggressive,” Eddy said. “But not if they are used to humans. If they think you are one of the herd, they’ll follow you anywhere.”
Since Eddy started breeding pack goats in the early 1990s, she’s seen demand explode, mainly from “Sierra Club backpacker types,” such as Galchutt, “who are getting too old to carry a pack.” Numbers are still small compared with horses or even llamas.
There are no local commercial outfitters who offer goat-pack trips.
But for individuals, they can be ideal.
“The learning curve is not as steep. You don’t have to know a lot about pack animals to handle these guys,” she said.
Galchutt headed up the trail with friends Christian Nowak and Reed Dominik. The goats trotted behind, their little goat panniers bouncing at every step.
“This is certainly a luxury,” said Dominik, as he watched Peanut pad past. “He’s carrying my whole tent.”
They followed a trail up a gorgeous mountain valley fringed with golden aspens glowing against dark firs.
While the men savored the view of the landscape, the goats savored the actual landscape, taking a small bite at almost every step.
Wild roses putting out their last September blossoms? Chomp.
The slender, red branches on willows by the creek? Chomp.
Invasive thistles? Chomp.
Pine bark? Chomp.
The strap hanging from the lead goat’s backpack? Chomp.
“Hey, stop that,” Galchutt said.
Because goats take little nibbles from nearly everything they pass, there is no need for packers to bring extra feed. (Galchutt brings a bit of grain as a treat.) And because goats browse on nearly everything, they’re easier on meadows than horses, which tend to focus on grass. In fact, in many places, including Colorado Springs, goats are seen as so beneficial to wild areas that land managers use them to get rid of invasive weeds.
In almost every way, Galchutt said, goats are a cinch compared with better-known pack animals such as horses. Galchutt picked up both his goats for $140 from hippy goat-cheese outfits in the San Luis Valley. Even a pedigreed pack goat goes for a modest $300. And since goats don’t need horseshoes or a trailer, eat a fifth of what a horse does and need no regular vet care beyond annual shots, they are relatively cheap to keep.
There are concerns among land managers that taking goats into some backcountry areas could spread parasites to bighorn sheep, but since Galchutt vaccinates his goats, he said the risk is minimal.
On the trail, his companions’ nimble hooves seemed designed for hiking. They followed Galchutt up rocky climbs and trotted across streams on wobbly logs that had the hikers flailing for balance. When they encountered a dog, they stood and stared, alert but calm.
Galchutt packs a pistol in case a mountain lion attacks, but he said if a mere Labrador gets up in Rooster’s grill, “He’ll butt them right off the trail.”
And if Rooster occasionally tried to nibble the map in Galchutt’s hand, he never actually took a bite.
“It’s pretty impressive what they can do,” said Dominik, who had never hiked with goats. “I’m sold on it.”
That night they set up their tents on the edge of a high meadow. The goats knelt down in the grass, placidly chewing their cud, and perked up occasionally at unseen wildlife passing in the woods.
When it was time to turn in, Galchutt staked the goats to rope tethers, not to keep them from wandering — they would never leave the head goat — but to keep them from trying to crawl in to sleep with him.
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