They're nimble. They're hardy. They'll carry your food, water and tent during the day and hang around the campfire with you at night. Friendly as dogs and mule-strong, pack goats are becoming popular trail companions.
Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt of Willow-Witt Ranch had been raising goats for food and fiber for years when a Sierra magazine article turned Suzanne on to their potential as trail animals.
"I said to Lanita, why don't we try that?"
They began their enterprise by crossing Cashmere bucks with Alpine does, then started selecting for specific characteristics. The ideal pack goat is tall with a straight back and strongly curved hind legs, which help the animal spring.
"There's also an ideal personality," says Suzanne. "They have to be willing."
Most pack goats are wethers, or castrated males. Though it takes diligence, training them is a straightforward process.
"You want them to bond to humans right away," says Suzanne. "Then they'll follow you anywhere."
She and Lanita start bottle-feeding the kids at two weeks. They first train the young goats to follow, using a bit of grain as an incentive. They also teach them not to jump, butt or press their heads against you.
"Manners, basically," says Suzanne.
Though it seems like harmless play in a kid, a pushy adult goat can topple a person. To discourage bad behavior, Suzanne holds the animal's head and blows air into its face — the equivalent of a goat reprimand.
"If that doesn't work, a squirt bottle usually does," she says.
At nine months, the kids begin carrying light loads; in their second year, small packs weighing 20 to 25 pounds. A fully grown adult male like Andy can carry 25 to 30 percent of his body weight — up to 65 pounds.
The pack assembly consists of a wooden crossbuck saddle, twin panniers and blankets to keep the wooden saddle from rubbing against the goat's body and the packs from slipping around. The goats adjust to the extra girth, learning which spaces they can squeeze through and which to circumvent.
Suzanne and Lanita use their Ashland-area ranch as a training ground, but load their animals in a truck and head to nearby Grizzly Peak for true trail experience. Goats are allowed on BLM land, national forests and parts of the Pacific Crest Trail, but they are not on the list of approved pack animals for national parks. They're also restricted in some wilderness areas and state parks.
Even so, government agencies are starting to see the potential of pack goats. Last summer the Bureau of Land Management hired Suzanne, Lanita and a team of four goats.
"I had a volunteer crew doing log-out (removing logs that had fallen onto the trail over the winter) on a section of trail in the Soda Mountain Wilderness," says Ian Nelson, regional representative for the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
The goats carried the volunteers' water and first-aid kits. Nelson typically uses mules or stock horses for heavy-duty, back-country trail-building, but the goats were perfect for the two-day outing, he says. A pack mule can carry up to 150 pounds, but can't match a goat's friendliness.
"They wanted to be everywhere we were," Ian says of the goats. His wife, Amy, who served as one of the volunteers, had met some of these same goats while an instructor for a summer camp hosted by Oregon State University Extension. The week-long camp gave Jackson County kids the chance to explore the area and included a hike on Grizzly Peak. Willow-Witt pack goats carried their lunches. The goats were "super-friendly" and revealed individual personalities throughout the day, says Amy.
"There was one that always had to be in the lead. Another that was like a sheepdog, keeping everyone together."
Goats are typically gentle with children, though Suzanne and Lanita were sure to teach the fifth-graders proper goat etiquette.
"The kids learned never grab a goats' horns," says Amy. "That's an invitation to play."
Several breeds make good pack goats. Janice and Dave Rogers of Rogue River assembled a team of four, including Oberhauslis, a Toggenburg and a Saanen-Boar cross, which they used in their talc-mining business in Southern California. The goats, a mix of males and females, carried between 20 and 40 pounds.
"They were so bonded to us; they'd follow us anywhere," says Janice.
Goats also are light on the land.
"They're browsers," says Janice. "They nibble here, nibble there."
You don't have to pack extra food for them unless you take along a doe for fresh milk, as Suzanne and Lanita often do. Like deer, goats browse in late afternoon and early morning, although they will occasionally encounter something irresistible on the trail and stop for a snack.
"They will stop on the trail for corn lilies when they're at their peak," says Suzanne. "Then you just have to wait until they're done."
If visions of weightless backpacking tempt you, Willow-Witt offers pack goats for sale.
"I would recommend them to anybody, but keeping them requires good fencing," says Suzanne. Goats also require three-sided shelter from the elements and the companionship of their kin, so plan on having at least two. And even trail veterans require "maintenance training" and will likely emerge from a winter in the barn somewhat resistant to taking on a pack.
Resources abound, including online forums and clubs such as the North American Pack Goat Association. There's even a magazine, called Goat Tracks, devoted to goat packing.
Suzanne recommends "The Pack Goat" by John Mionczinski as a guide. She also invites anyone interested to join her on a hike this summer to experience the pleasures of backpacking with goats firsthand.
"They're perennial teenagers," she says. "And wonderful company."
For information, call Willow-Witt Ranch at 541-890-1998 or see www.willowwittranch.com/farm-goods/packgoats
Juliet Grable is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.