Pack goating up the River Trail with the ‘Greenbrier Goat’

By Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV

We met on the Keister trailhead of the Greenbrier River Trail. I had my small backpack containing bottled water and raingear. With my back to the trail as I closed the door to my truck, I heard him before I ever saw: a friendly voice calling out my name, and the sudden rush of striving movement quickly halted.  I turned around for a first glimpse of Aaron Coleman and his goats.

Although I have traversed the GRT many times over many years, on this day I would experience it in a new way. And I would be the first: the very first guest on the inaugural trek for the Greenbrier Goat.

After he and I exchanged pleasantries, Coleman introduced me to his three American Alpine goats: Ragnar, Athelstan, and Floki. On the trail, Ragnar leads, Athelstan rolls in the middle, and Floki earns his nickname as “the follower,” keeping close abreast of his two brothers.

This gentle amble down a portion of the river trail with two people and three goats represents the first fruits of a long-incubated dream for Aaron Coleman. He has cultivated and watered, cultivated and labored over the soil for a long time.

“We have prepared, geared up and trained for this day with these special animals, and it’s really going to work out,” Coleman said as he gently guided the goats toward the middle of the trail.  

The son of a nautical engineer and an Appalachian storyteller, Coleman came to Greenbrier County through marriage. He met Emily in art school, and together they decided to return to her home and create their legacy of art—art reflecting and celebrating and showcasing homeland.   

The spark of the genesis of the idea for the Greenbrier Goat came to Coleman with both the history and the perpetual promise of Emily’s family’s farm.

“Ben Buck Farm has a huge history in our county of agriculture. For sixty or more years, they milked eighty head of cow twice a day, and they were a working dairy farm,” Coleman recounted. “We improved our fence line and became a grazing cattle farm and that’s when we got our goats.”

Coleman explained that his mother-in-law, Lynn, had a herd of Alpine dairy goats. She encouraged him to raise a goat from birth. By that time, Coleman already had the spark of an idea to raise a pack-goat, but his first goat, a Nubian, didn’t have the right temperament.   The next year, he acquired three baby Alpines. 

Aaron raised Ragnar, Athelstan, and Floki from birth. “I bottle fed them, so they bonded to me. Now I have pack- goats that are following me anywhere,” he reflected as he looked down upon his goats and smiled.

Ragnar, Athelstan, and Floki are brothers. “You can never just have one goat,” he explained. “I couldn’t bring myself to separate the goats, so I got all three.  I love to keep them happy and safe.”

In time, Coleman recognized his little goat family could potentially have a life beyond the farm.  “I was looking at things from the eyes of a West Virginian, going, ‘How can we make the most of what we have on the farm? From there, I looked at our history of agriculture. I looked at how we were surrounded by a supportive family with a tradition of agriculture, and I just had to give this a try,” he said.

Aaron Coleman sought out the specialized help of a caring mentor out in Idaho, Marc Warnke, who raises goats and trains them to be pack animals for treks in the western wildernesses. Warnke also designs and sells all the necessary gear for easy trekking for the goats and their human companions.

His mentor also gave Coleman helpful knowledge about training Ragnar, Athelstan, and Floki to become pack-goats. This advice included never being too far away from the goats, and never letting them be in any kind of distress. Honoring Warnke’s instruction, Coleman keeps his goats on a tandem lead, and they are always attached to him when they are on any trek.  Coleman keeps handmade silver  bells on the three brothers at night, and any time they get frightened or spooked, he comes to them quickly.  At base camp on the trail, the goats rest under a sturdy tarp Coleman erects for them.

“That’s one thing that my mentor really impressed on me. He also emphasized that if you go somewhere, your goats come, too,” Coleman remembered with a laugh.

As Marc Warnke pioneered “pack-goating” out west, Aaron Coleman takes great pride and love introducing it to the Greenbrier Valley, and beyond. Coleman and his little “band of brothers” goats truly are creating something new.

“We’re the first pack goats in West Virginia, and on the East Coast,” Coleman noted.  “I’m here to introduce the emerging sport of ‘pack-goating’ to West Virginia.”

As Coleman and I continued our easy journey with his goats down the GRT, I was struck by the seeming incongruity that someone in far away Idaho helped make this West Virginia endeavor possible. I shared my thoughts with Aaron. 

“That’s one thing that West Virginians have to embrace.  We’re in a secluded spot, but now, with the advances in technology and the Internet, the world is at our fingertips,” Coleman responded.

As we walked along the Greenbrier, our steps and the goats’ tromping accompanied by the music of an early spring rush of the river, Aaron and I both looked around.  Each of us attempted to articulate our appreciation, our understanding of the magnitude of the beauty of our surroundings and the blessing of the Greenbrier River Trail.

“This old rail bed from the railroad giants of the past has given us a really nice footpath. The crushed limestone and gentle grade over the whole trail just makes it accessible to people and really good for goat-packing and equestrian use. It’s safe. It’s safe for cyclists, it’s safe for families and I think it’s a binder of the community,” Coleman reflected.

Connections within the community and the state are helping make the creative idea of The Greenbrier Goat an evolving reality.  Coleman stressed the importance of his partnership with the Forest Service, the West Virginia Department of Tourism, and the Small Business Development Center.  The Department of Tourism linked Coleman with Cranberry Adventures, whom he sites as his “in-state mentor,” as they also use animals to help people explore Appalachian forest trails. 

The Greenbrier Goat aspires to open up the majesty and wonder of the Greenbrier River Trail to all people, helping to make the trail and a day camping excursion experience accessible to those with physical disabilities. In the business plan and in our conversation walking down the GRT on a blossoming spring day, Coleman stressed all the new opportunities his goats bring to a large group of people who may not yet feel the freedom to experience the trail.

“We could give a chance for a group of people with less mobility, younger or older, a destination on the river trail that they could strive for that’s accessible, and they could roll into the goat powered base camp and have a safe haven, first aid, cold water, and just a place to have shelter. And meet a pack goat.”

Meeting a pack goat.

In our early conversations planning my excursion to research this story, Aaron would send me texts: “Hey Jeff, are you ready to meet a pack goat?”  On the day I finally did meet “the boys,”  their doting human dad shared with me stories of children and adults meeting a pack goat for the first time—walkers and cyclists whose path converged with him, Ragnar, Athelstan, and Floki on some of their early training trips.

“They are good with children, good with dogs. They just connect and bring peace,” Coleman reflected

Perhaps Coleman’s most tender memory thus far with the pack goats revolve around a veteran who has been in pain for many years, living with his memories of the suffering and the death of war.  Walking along the trail with his goats, Coleman met a group of local veterans who were taking a day to do community service, cleaning up liter on the trail.  Of course, this tall, bearded gentleman with his three goats in tow captured the attention of the veterans, and introductions and conversations ensued.

“One of the veterans in particular really connected to the goats. He petted them, just spent some time with them. He told me that the goats brought him more peace than he has known in many, many years.  That’s why I am doing this, Jeff.  That guy gave so much for us, and there he and his friends were giving more—helping to clean the environment we all enjoy.  I was happy the goats and I could give something back to him—a time to relax, a space to know peace,” Coleman shared.

With Ragnar, Athelstan, and Floki, Aaron Coleman both lives, and continues to pursue, a very creative aspiration.  That aspiration has roots in the agricultural history in Lewisburg and Coleman’s own family. That aspiration has roots in the burgeoning tourism focus in West Virginia. That aspiration has roots in Coleman’s own love of animals; in both his love for the land and of his deep connection to space and home, particularly the Greenbrier Valley.

We finished the wonderful breakfast Coleman had prepared for us at the base camp at the McCutcheon Shelter-fresh eggs from the farm, coffee, bacon and goat cheese, all from either the Lewisburg Farmers Market, or other local businesses. Articulating his emotional processing of his journey of starting The Greenbrier Goat enterprise, Coleman smiled, and looked toward the gently gurgling Greenbrier.

“When I felt isolated, I would look north to Droop Mountain. I would realize the Cranberry still runs wild and the fishermen were out there, somewhere on its banks. The mountains call.”

Aaron Coleman, Ragnar, Athelstan, and Floki answer that call. They invite others to go with them.

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