GILLETTE — Who in the world wants to go on a mountain excursion with a bunch of pack goats? Chances are you do, but you just might not know it yet. The father-and-son team of Shawn and Zach Dorr want to change that.
Pack goats contain multitudes. At any number of recent events in town, most recently the WyoGives block party at Big Lost Meadery, people could walk up to a small transportable pen set up by the Dorrs and pet the affectionate and attention-seeking goats like they were at a petting zoo.
The quirky animals are crowd-pleasers. They’re a curiosity, a conversation starter and people can’t seem to help themselves.
They also can be helpful allies in a tight spot. Zach Dorr can attest to that fact.
He took his wife on her first elk hunting trip about two years ago and brought along the goats.
“A cow called a couple of times, and a black bear comes running,” Zach said. “I mean, a big, male black bear.”
The four goats he’d brought along on the trip got defensive of their humans.
“They saw that bear coming and they just made this half-circle in between (us and the bear),” Zach said. “They get really stiff, and they put their heads really high. They tuck their chins so their horns get up high.”
The goats held firm.
“The bear just kept coming and coming and coming, and he got about 20 yards away. They started straight-leg walking, like marching, at him, trying to let him know,” Zach said. “Finally, I say, ‘Hey bear!’ It kind of stops, stutters and looks up and sees those goats power-walking at him, and he’s like, ‘What the heck?!’ And he takes off running.”
Now the Dorrs are offering those gruff-when-needed goats to customers who may like to experience not only the wonders of nature, but the companionship and entertainment of pack goats. The men, both experienced outdoorsmen, are starting a new guide service called Big Horn Mountain Pack Goats where they’ll lead people into the mountains and let the goats do all of the heavy lifting. It will not only make the wilderness more accessible for the non-outdoorsy, it also provides a one-of-a-kind experience with highly individualistic animals.
There’s Steve who gets a bum rap for being the lazy one.
Zig is kind of the trail boss. And his twin brother Zag, who was known as the barnyard bully for a while but has mellowed with age.
Hank’s the bully now.
There’s Donkey, who didn’t like to be touched for more than a year.
And there’s also Shrek, whose mother was named Fiona, like the love interest of the animated ogre Shrek, but that was just a happy accident. The Dorrs didn’t know that when they named him.
“Shrek is our herd protector,” Zach said. “That is what he does. It doesn’t matter if he sees another human that is 3 miles away on a different ridge, he’s like, ‘You’re supposed to be in the herd. I’m going to go get them.’”
Bill is a big boy that once upon a time was a prize-winning 4-H goat, but looks can be deceiving.
“He’s as wide as is tall,” Shawn said. “Put 50 pounds on his back and he can jump 4 feet in the air with it.”
That’s not out of the ordinary. The pack goats can carry about 25% of their body weight and still retain their goat-ness, running up downed trees and boulders to play “King of the Hill.”
Courtney Nicolson, a digital marketing manager for the Outdoor Channel and friend of the Dorrs, calls the goats “endlessly entertaining.”
“They definitely love peanut butter and jelly, and if you have one, they’ll steal it from you,” Nicolson said. “I’m standing there eating my peanut butter and jelly and looking off in the distance, and one of the goats is standing on his back legs and reaching his little lips out trying to nibble on it.”
The reality is that the goats offer much more than laughs. They’re legitimate tools to make the outdoors a little bit more accessible. Nicolson said it was a blessing to have them packing in her gear for a two-day hunt north of Buffalo.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the goats,” she said.
Steve Davin used to hunt out West and got to know the Dorrs through that shared passion. Davin, who now lives in Flippin, Arkansas, said Shawn told him about the goats with the idea of people just like him getting out into the wilderness.
“He said, ‘Hey, man, do you want to go, because you’ll be able to do this stuff now,’” Davin said. “I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll give it a go.’”
Davin loved the experience.
“After doing it once, it’s something I’d like to do every year, at least once a year,” he said.
The next time, Davin said he’d consider bringing his wife and maybe some grandkids.
“It was phenomenal,” Davin said. “The amount of work those goats do allows you to enjoy your trip. Because I’m older; hell, I’m damn-near 60 now, so it was real nice that I didn’t have to pack in a tent and pack in all the sleeping bags and all the food.”
It’s not just age working against Davin. He’s had a number of surgeries, and without the goats he’s unsure if he’d be able to make such trips.
“I wouldn’t trust myself to be able to make it,” he said.
He’s had total knee replacements on both legs and an even more recent back surgery.
“If it wasn’t for (the goats), I probably wouldn’t have been able to go,” Davin said. “I wouldn’t have trusted myself. I wouldn’t want to get out there and then they would have to figure out a way to pack my butt back.”
Between the wonders of the trip and the goats’ personalities, Davin loved every second of the week-long trip.
“I don’t know how else to explain it other than to say it was just fan-damn-tastic,” Davin said.
Make no mistake: Big Horn Mountain Pack Goats is a labor of love for the Dorrs. Both have full-time jobs, and this is something they’re hoping to squeeze into already busy schedules.
It seems like a perfect fit for their passions.
“I like to be out more,” Shawn said. “This just gives me a reason to be out. It’s just a good time. When you get people who’ve never been out, it’s just life-changing.”
For Zach, it’s the people.
“Just meeting new people and being like, ‘Hey, let’s go on an adventure; let’s go have some fun,’” he said. “You get to meet people, but meet people on a different level than if you just met them on vacation.”
The Dorrs have secured 16 permits in three areas of the Big Horn Mountains, which allow them to customize trips to fit specific needs of customers.
There are easy trips for those not in great shape. There are intermediate outings that start with a grueling incline but then ease up.
“We’ve got some areas that are going to be, like, 10 miles one way in, all the way up and over a boulder field to get into that area,” Shawn said of the really hard trips.
The duration of the trips also are highly customizable.
“If a couple wants to go out for a picnic, for a day hike, we’ll charge them $700, and we’ll take everything they need,” Shawn said. “We’ll take tarps to put up for shade, we’ll take picnic baskets, we’ll take all the food, we’ll supply everything. I’ll stay out there until sundown.”
Permit uses go quickly, Shawn said. A trip for a couple costs the Dorrs two of their permits. If the couple stayed overnight, it would cost four.
“After that, if we’re going to do an overnight trip, basically it’s $1,200 per night, that’s for two,” Shawn said. “Then any additional person on any trip is $250 per day.”
The customers are getting a lot for their money.
“We’re supplying a 12-man teepee, cots, air mattresses, all the food, camping gear, lanterns — everything you’d need,” Shawn said. “Basically, you’ll need to bring a sleeping bag and your toothbrush and your binoculars or camera.”
There have been numerous challenges to getting started, Shawn said. It’s not been a cheap endeavor.
“Liability insurance, permitting, liability waiver from a lawyer, with every business you have startup costs,” Shawn said.
Not to mention the costs of a dozen goats and caring for them, including feed, saddles and panniers and other equipment, none of which is cheap.
The price of the permits wasn’t the toughest part. They required jumping through a lot of hoops, because the U.S. Forest Service wasn’t sure it wanted pack goats in the Cloud Peak Wilderness.
Silas Davidson, a recreation specialist and wilderness manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said the challenges for permitting were two-fold.
The first was concerns about overcrowding. He said there are mandates in the Wilderness Act for the Forest Service to provide “opportunities for solitude and primitive types of recreation.” He said that opportunities for solitude don’t exist like they used to.
“We’ve cut back on the number of outfitter guides that we allow to operate in the wilderness,” Davidson said.
There also are restrictions on how much commercial activity is to be allowed in the wilderness, he said.
“The reason we do authorize outfitter guides to have a business or commercial enterprise in the wilderness is to help others realize the benefits of wilderness that wouldn’t otherwise be able to get in there to do it on their own,” Davidson said.
Davidson said it became important to find areas inside Cloud Peak Wilderness that had some capacity for more use.
The other concern Davidson mentioned was the goats’ impact on other species, namely wild sheep.
“There’s a bunch of research out there, some of it conflicting, depends on which research you look at, but there is potential for domestic goats to transmit diseases to wild sheep,” Davidson said. “So we were being pretty sensitive to that as well, so we were trying to find areas that we knew would not have potential for that kind of interaction.”
Ultimately, permits were issued and Davidson is interested to see how well the Dorrs do with their venture.
Davidson said he really appreciates outfitters who are trying to make the wilderness more accessible for folks who might otherwise struggle.
“We do want to promote as much access and cover as many types of people as we can to utilize the wilderness,” he said. “But it also needs to be its fundamental purpose of being this difficult, challenging thing that people get away from the easy parts of their lives and go challenge themselves and succeed in showing that they can do stuff on their own out there.”
In other words, it’s a delicate balance between access for all and concerns that the mountain will have lines like rides at Disney World.
The Dorrs hope to thread that same needle with the help of their goats. Their love of the wilderness is apparent from only a few minutes of talking to them, and they have no desire to contribute to cluttering up its slopes and depriving people of the joys of nature’s solitude.
But like the best evangelists, they cannot in good conscience keep the wonders of the wilderness to themselves. They will proselytize and seek to convert those who’ve never experienced those fundamental truths.
“There’s experiences we could show people that would blow most people’s minds,” Zach said, looking out over a field of his goats. “This is what we’ve always done. We’ve got the experience. We’ve got the knowledge. There’s some things that we can show people.”