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Fake mine, fake mining company provide funds for Peckerneck Horse Trail
by Pat Underwood

Peckerneck Horse Trail

It started as a primitive, barely accessible, and little used horse trail on the south side of Harlan County Lake.

It was described by a recent visitor as one of the finest riding experiences in the state of Nebraska.

Moreover, Peckerneck Horse Trail also now stands as an increasingly celebrated, inspiring, and just plain fun example of roots-level volunteerism at its most genuine.

Nominated by riders from across the state, Peckerneck Horse Trail volunteers Dave Wolf of Alma and Alan Zastrow of Kearney were the 2011 recipients of the Nebraska Horse Trails Committee and Nebraska Horse Council's Friends and Ambassadors Award, which is inscribed that it’s for their "hard work, countless hours and dedication to establishing, maintaining and improving Peckerneck Trail for all users who have enjoyed and will enjoy the trail in the future."

The phrase "all users" is particularly appropriate because the trail is now becoming known to and used by not only horseback riders, but also hikers, hunters, birdwatchers and other nature enthusiasts. The phrase "hard work", though, only begins to tell the story, and does not come close to finishing it.

Jumping the first fences

Peckerneck Horse Trail

Dave Wolf first rode the old trail sometime around the year 2000 along with another rider and volunteer, Dave Horton, also of Alma. Although they saw the poor condition and inadequate accessibility of the trail, they also saw its possibilities, and began a conversation and commitment they probably had no idea would last more than ten years, with still no end in sight.

The horse trail is located on federal property, though, so they first had to jump the right fences, in a manner of speaking.

"We asked the Corps of Engineers' Operations Manager, Jim Bowen, for permission to make a few improvements and do a little upkeep, and thankfully he agreed," Wolf said. "He didn't have to do that for us, but he did."

Zastrow seconds Wolf's obvious gratitude to the Corps.

"We really owe them great thanks for their permission and support and encouragement," Zastrow said. “I understand this is only one example of many ways in which the Corps at Harlan Lake has worked to help the local community enhance the activities and recreational opportunities available in the area. Not all government offices are as rewarding to work with."

A long, uphill ride

Peckerneck Horse Trail

Permission in hand, they began shoring up an inaccessible crossing at the trail entrance and marking the trail with over 500 flags indicating the best riding area. Over the following years posts were installed — many, many posts — hand carried to their location and marked with arrows and other signage. A number of those original posts as well as newly added ones are now adorned with cleverly painted cow skulls and other thematic items giving directions or information and adding to the riders' visual enjoyment.

In more recent years the work has included ongoing mowing along the entire 14-mile length of the trail, adding improvements to stream crossings; installing tipi-style decorative enhancements; mounting three large trail map signs along the riding route; and creating rest stops out of natural materials found in the area.

The parking lot and trailhead, located just off Highway 183, immediately south and east of the bridge crossing Harlan County Lake, are currently maintained by the City of Alma under contract with the Corps, but the volunteers have done and continue to do all other work at the trail.

Natural and man-made assets

Peckerneck Horse Trail

Wolf says some of the best aspects of the trail are that there is not a single gate to open; that there is an abundance of wildlife in the area including eagles, turkey, deer, coyote and many other species; and especially that riders can see the lake during the entire time they are riding. Smaller interior trail loops have been created so the riders can create their own timeline.

"You can ride for an hour and a half, or four hours, or six hours and still have time for lunch," Wolf said. He and the other volunteers created two picnic areas to enhance that part of the experience.

Zastrow and Wolf both credit early volunteer Dave Horton for creating a superb lake-view trail design with different levels of difficulty, from easy to intermediate, with a few steeper challenges at the farthest end of the trail, which beginners can avoid if they wish.

So, just where did the strange name of the horse trail come from?

"From Dave Horton's warped little mind, of course," Zastrow jokes, then asks that he please be quoted on at least that one remark if no other.

In fact, an entire legend surrounding the trail name was created by Horton, who Wolf describes as "something of a cowboy poet, sort of." The legend, as passed down by Horton for public usage, is included below.

Origin of the Peckerneck Mining Company

Peckerneck Horse Trail

Legend has it that a group of raw-boned hillbillies from Tennessee came to the mining district of southwestern South Dakota in the 1880's. These men were extremely adept at running the hammers and steels (rock bits) used to drill the holes in the mine face where the blasting powder was placed in order to break up the ore. The speed and agility these men had was said to make a sound that echoed through the mine tunnels resembling that of a woodpecker. Other miners claimed that only a man with the strength and agility equaling that of the neck of a woodpecker could accomplish such a task. Thus the term "peckerneck." was given to this group of men.

In about 1998 a group of trail-riders from Nebraska were riding in that area of South Dakota and came upon an old abandoned mine. After doing some limited exploring one of the group asked the question: "wonder what was the name of this old mine?" Another member, knowing the legend of the Peckernecks, jokingly claimed "The Peckerneck Mine". Later that evening around the campfire, with some lively discussion, the Peckerneck Mining Company was formed with those present becoming Board Members.

In 2000, when the riding trail was re-established on the south side of the Harlan Reservoir in Alma, Nebraska by a couple of the Mining Company's board members, it was only natural to continue the name.

"In other words," Wolf said, "it was made up out of thin air. Mostly." And he will say no more, only smile, about the "mostly".

To complete the package, Tennessee Mule Artist Bonnie Shields donated a pencil-drawing of a harnessed mule, to use for a logo which now adorns t-shirts, caps, and anything else anyone will let the volunteers stamp it on.

Yet no package may ever be quite complete for these guys.

Fake mining company, fake mine, why not fake stock?

Peckerneck Horse Trail

After the statewide award for the trail volunteers had been announced, local coffee-shop talk turned — as local coffee-shop talk will — to what else these already hard-working people might want to do to improve on their improvements.

"Someone came up with the great idea that since we already had a fake mining company, we might as well have a fake mine to go with it," Wolf said.

So they made one. The simple facade of an old mine shaft was created along the side of a shale bank near the trail, decorated with old bones and tools, and seeded with fake gold.

"Then another person said we should sell fake stock in our fake mining company to raise funds for more trail improvements, so we partnered with the Harlan County Community Foundation to make sure we could legally raise funds for this purpose," Wolf said. Up until then, the volunteers had paid for every improvement out of their own resources.

While he and local graphic artist Brandi Nissen collaborated on a design for a "totally worthless" stock certificate someone else suggested they sell Certificate #1 at silent auction during a — yes, also fake — "initial public offering". It was placed in the auction with a minimum bid of $20. It sold at a final price of $290.

In the two weeks following, 38 more "totally worthless" stock certificates were sold, and the Nebraska Horse Trails Council, encouraged by this fundraising success, jumped in with a $500 matching grant for additional trail improvements.

Even cowboys are sometimes humbled

Peckerneck Horse Trail

"That's when I stopped being simply incredibly surprised--which I was, and started also being completely humbled by receiving that sort of support," Wolf said.

Zastrow said the outcome of the fundraising effort shows that people want the trail here and will support the trail and volunteers. He also said all the recent attention to their work has prompted even more people from around the state who have not previously visited to start calling and making plans to ride the trail.

"It isn't about us, though," Dave Wolf said. "The best reward for us is the enjoyment people have on the trail."

"Especially if they go on a moonlight ride," Zastrow said. "The moonlight rides are...are..." words failing, he makes an expansive gesture, and adds, "well, just a whole different experience."

"The moonlight rides," Wolf chimes in to help, "I can't begin to tell you how beautiful it is out there in the moonlight, it's just...it's just...," but he, too, cannot quite find the words, and they both grow quiet, obviously simply re-living a moonlight ride in their memories.

Oh my, misty-eyed cowboys.

Now that's a sweetheart of a way to end any story, but especially this one.

Peckerneck Horse Trail riding information is available from dbwolf@megavision.com or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Harlan County Lake, 308-799-2105 or Harlan.County@usace.army.mil. A trail map is available at www.harlantourism.org by clicking on the "horse trail" link. Motorized vehicles are not allowed in the Peckerneck Trail area, and the volunteers do not loan or rent horses.

Pat Underwood is a resident of Alma, Nebraska, where she does grant writing, fundraising and other development work as an independent consultant for government and private non-profit organizations and serves part time as Harlan County Tourism Director.  She is a former resident of California, Hawaii, Guam, and Florida, where she graduated from Florida State University with a degree in Philosophy.  She can be reached at 308-928-8992 or underwoodpat@ymail.com.

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