Travels with Willie: Goathead Warriors

by Willie Weir

Editors Note: This article was originally published on the Adventure Cycling Association website on 12/21/20 about an organization we care for and believe in that is local to the Wenatchee area, the Goathead Warriors. Summer time is the time that the goathead plants take off, so this is the perfect time to be hunting for them in neighborhoods near you. Visit the Goathead Warriors website for identification tools and for how to get started becoming an official Goathead Warrior. 

Sixteen flats! I hope that’s a record I never break. It was my first cross-country bike trip, and twice in eastern Oregon I had emerged from my tent in the morning to discover that both my tires were flat. The cause of 10 of those 16 flats was Tribulus terrestris, a noxious weed known to many touring cyclists as goathead or puncture vine, but more appropriately named devil’s weed. It’s found throughout the world and listed as a noxious weed in nine U.S. states.

Designed by Satan himself, goatheads creep along the ground, growing from seed to sometimes over 10 feet in diameter in one season. The leaves are soft and supple, but as this weed matures, its fruit produces seeds contained in burrs with sharp spines that resemble a goat’s head. They are diabolically designed like a jack, so no matter how they lie, a sharp spike points straight up, waiting for a shoe, a sandal, a dog’s paw, or a bicycle tire to transport it and the seeds contained therein, all while inflicting pain and misery.

One mature plant can produce thousands of burrs.

The scope, spread, and tenaciousness of this plant is terrifying. Better off to buy Kevlar or tubeless tires for your bike, leather booties for your dog, and give up any thought of a barefoot existence where goatheads reside. You can’t get rid of them. They’re here to stay.

Or so I thought. Until I learned about the Goathead Warriors.

This band of volunteers has taken the eradication of this most noxious of noxious weeds to the next level.

Their mission statement on their excellent and informative website (goatheadwarriors.com) states: “Converting Wenatchee, East Wenatchee, and our riverfront trail system into ‘Goathead Free Zones.’ No more flat tires. No limping paws. No more spreading seeds.”

I traveled over the mountains from Seattle to join leader and Goathead Warriors founder Doug Pauly and a half-dozen volunteers on a hot Wednesday in July at Eastmont Community Park in East Wenatchee.

Doug Pauly is 63 years old with white hair, the build of a drill sergeant (though he’s never been in the military), and the demeanor of a beloved high school coach. His enthusiasm is infectious.

He showed us on a map the streets we’d be covering, splitting us into groups of two or three, and gave each group an assignment of streets on the grid so no ground goes unsearched. He introduced the tools of the Goathead Warrior: a long-handled pointed shovel, thick cowhide gloves, and a supply of heavy-duty plastic garbage bags.

Before we went our separate ways, we walked down the street and Doug showed us the technique to sever the taproot on a patch of six goatheads growing in the sandy soil on the street’s shoulder. He lay his shovelhead flat on the ground and, with the quick, sharp motions of a noxious weed assassin, dispatched all six plants and stuffed them into his thick garbage sack. It was as if he’d done this a million times. And, in fact, he had.

“I’ve never met anyone who wants to have goatheads on their property,” Paul announced as he scanned both sides of the street. Paul can spot one a block away. I’d swear you could blindfold him and he’d sniff them out.”

Goathead Warriors began when the invasive weed threatened the jewel of Wenatchee’s bike trail system, a 10-mile loop along both sides of the Columbia River and an extension out to the Rocky Reach Dam. As with most civic projects, there’s always more money for construction than upkeep. But let a noxious weed like goathead spread unchecked for years and decades of advocacy and millions of dollars of capital improvements can be lost. The trail system was too valuable an asset to lose.

Doug lived near the trail and cleared out goatheads on his own for 30 years. In 2015, when the new Rocky Reach Dam segment was added, there was no civic budget to fight the goatheads and the vines were quickly growing over the path. In 2016, Doug and a dozen trail enthusiasts took on the task. They divided up the 20 miles of trail into sections and committed to tackling the problem.

They got the results they were looking for — a huge reduction in the infestation of the dreaded weed and, with it, fewer flats, fewer limping dogs, and many happy trail users.

Once an area has been cleared of goatheads, you can’t declare victory. You must revisit that area every six weeks during growing season (June to October). That’s how long it takes for a sprouted seed to grow, mature, and create more viable seeds. Keep this up successfully for a full season, and you still can’t declare victory. Goathead seeds are viable for five years or more.

After five years of vigilance (which is what the Goathead Warriors have done along the Apple Capital Loop Trail and Rocky Reach spur), they can celebrate — briefly. But the war drags on. People visit the trail from all over the city, and many visitors come from other parts of Washington State and beyond. Some of those car tires, bike tires, shoes, and sandals carry thorny goathead burrs, and those burrs contain seeds. If you let your guard down, your “all-clear area” can once again become a hot spot, and you’re back where you started.

That’s why the education element of the Goathead Warriors’ mission is so important and effective.

“When you see a 60-some-year-old, 6’2” guy with white hair walking down your street with heavy gloves, a black bag, and a shovel, your natural suspicion level goes up,” Paul said with a chuckle.

They have designed informational door hangers to help educate the citizens of Wenatchee about goatheads and the negative effect they have on the community. They have worked with the local utility district to include this information in their billing statements. The more citizens learned how the goathead infestation affected their community, the easier the job of a Goathead Warrior became and the less suspicious citizens were of the tall guy with the shovel.
Paul pointed out a perfect example on our East Wenatchee walk. There was a church that had a gravel parking lot, and it was once full of goatheads. So every Sunday, worshippers came from all over the city and county, parked, and left with burrs stuck to their tires. Just like a virus superspreader, those cars spread goatheads far and wide.Once informed, the church was happy to have volunteers clear their parking lot. And in a real-time example of the success of their outreach, a neighbor came out of his house while we were patrolling and handed one of the volunteers a $20 bill, thanking him for his efforts.

One of the effective tools that the Goathead Warriors have added to their arsenal is a GPS data map (linked to their website) that tracks areas of concern. This way a volunteer can access the map and head out to a “red zone” and clear an area of goathead plants before they drop mature seed burrs.

“I’ve never met anyone who wants to have goatheads on their property,” Paul announced as he scanned both sides of the street. After a couple of hours, I could spot a goathead from 10 feet away. Paul can spot one a block away. I’d swear you could blindfold him and he’d sniff them out.

After the day’s grid had been covered and over a dozen large, thick garbage bags had been filled with the fruits of our labor, I sat and talked with Doug under a row of shade trees at the park.

Doug Pauly is a very busy man. He is the CEO of Northern Fruit, which packs, ships, and exports apples, cherries, and pears throughout the U.S. and the world.

His history with the fruit industry has given him the insights to deal with the monumental problem of goatheads. It takes long-range planning and rapid response.

“We will plant trees and not have a profitable crop for three, four, five, six years,” Doug told me. “At the Northern Fruit Company, if we have five acres of apricots getting ripe on that side of the road, we’ll have a crew out tomorrow. ’Cause you can’t wait a week — they’ll be worthless. I’m used to working at a pace where we respond very quickly.”

So why is he out brandishing a shovel on a hot summer morning, hunting for goatheads?

Doug cycled across the U.S. with a high school friend in 1975, the summer before thousands of people crossed on the newly routed TransAmerica Trail. I didn’t ask Doug how many flats he had, but I’m sure more than one was caused by a goathead.

“I get in the best shape of the year when I’m out goatheading,” he said. “Full bags weigh 20 to 25 pounds!”

But the real reasons are people and community.

He has walked almost every street in Wenatchee, meeting people he would never have known.

“Every time you see a young kid, or a family ride by on a bike, or someone walking a dog, it’s just like this energy that comes. ’Cause you can see that there is a direct benefit to our efforts,” he said with tears glistening in his eyes.

We had cleared goatheads in East Wenatchee that morning around a park with a new pump track built for kids for a specific reason. This is lower-income area. There isn’t any money for manicured lawns and garden services, so weeds (including goatheads) thrive. Doug wanted to focus on this area so the kids could ride their bikes to the park without getting flat tires.

I asked Doug what advice he’d give to organizations and communities that are struggling with the negative effects of goatheads.

1. You can clear any property, any neighborhood, any area — it’s simply about persistence.

2. Keep your initial scope small enough that you can win.

No nonprofit organization can survive without a solid volunteer base. Doug is the first to say that any venture is doomed to fail without a great team and the support of local groups and agencies.

Spending a hot summer morning with Doug Pauly made me understand why Goathead Warriors is such a success. He loves what he’s doing — the exercise, the camaraderie, the goals set and obtained, the positive impact on his community.

I watched Doug sever the root of an enormous goathead plant and hold it up over his head like a Tour de France trophy, his face beaming. The dreaded weed had met its match.

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