PAGOSA SPRINGS – When a remote wilderness trail needed extensive repairs last month, a team of giant mules came to the rescue.
The U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Specialty Pack String, made up of 10 giant mules bred from Percheron mares and mammoth jacks, is based in Bailey. Each mule weighs up to a ton and is able to carry 20 percent of its body weight.
When the San Juan National Forest and the Backcountry Horsemen of America needed to transport 15 tons of gravel two miles into the rugged Weminuche Wilderness – where motorized and mechanized equipment is not allowed – the mule string and its professional packers were the answer.
The Williams Creek Trail north of Pagosa Springs had a problem section, where a mud bog with no natural drainage had been literally sucking the shoes off of horses for years. A turnpike was needed to make passage safe for stock travel and prevent further damage.
Wilderness areas are protected by Congress as rustic reminders of America’s frontier legacy and natural beauty, as well as a retreat for those seeking backcountry solitude unmarred by the modern world. Not only must visitors travel by foot or stock in wilderness areas, the agency must also conduct itself under the same restrictions.
The Pagosa District trail crew used its backcountry skills to hand-fell trees on-site for the 200-foot-long structure, but the big job was moving 15 tons of gravel two miles up the trail. Professional packers Glenn Ryan and Trepper Osburn took the reins leading loaded mules up the trail three times a day for a week to the remote work site.
“Traditional-skills work on bigger projects like this in wilderness just wouldn’t get done without the expertise of the Specialty Pack String,” said Ryan, who has been lead packer for 26 years.
The San Juan Back Country Horsemen stepped in to cover the costs for gravel, food and campsites to support the volunteer effort. The chapter received a $1,500 grant from the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance, and matched it with $1,500 of its own money. Volunteers from three Backcountry Horsemen chapters – the San Juan, Four Corners and Front Range – joined in the effort.
“There was no way we could have done it without our partners,” said Tyler Albers, Pagosa District trail crew boss. “They did the majority of the work; we just went in and did our normal job of trail maintenance and provided technical and logistical support.”
“A dozen volunteers worked for five days weighing gravel, shoveling it into buckets and loading 160 pounds onto each mule,” said Backcountry Horsemen volunteer Bob Volger of Durango. “We also helped feed the animals and people, hauled water for stock and pulled weeds in Palisades Campground.”
The pack string is made available to national forests in the Rocky Mountain region annually from May to November.
“Some of the best parts of our job are also the most challenging,” Ryan said. “We never know what’s around the next corner because we always work in different places with different people.”
In addition to delivering sand and gravel for trail maintenance projects, the Forest Service mules are also used to transport building supplies for historic cabins and lookouts, scientific equipment for research, timbers for bridge repair, fish for stocking remote waters and camp supplies for backcountry crews.
“It takes a skilled and fit pack string to safely and effectively haul the awkward and often unconventional pack loads these animals routinely take on,” said Brian White, San Juan National Forest recreation manager.
In addition to delivering materials into national forests and wilderness areas, the mules also haul out tons of trash.
“The pack string is integral to the agency’s mission,” said Paul Cruz, the Forest Service’s recreation business program manager for the Rocky Mountain Region. “Not only can it do the work of many as the only way to haul heavy things deep into the wilderness, it also serves an important function in teaching the public about the heritage of their public lands.”
The packers offer free packing clinics for the communities they visit, including one earlier this month in Dolores before they headed over to Pagosa. The pack string has worked on San Juan National Forest projects for the past four years and is always a hit at the annual Durango Cowboy Parade, where the team will again play a starring role this fall.
“CEOs for Fortune 500 companies are a dime a dozen, but we’re one of only five such operations worldwide that do what we do,” said Osburn, who’s been packing with the team for five years. ”We’ve got a great office view, but the roof leaks a little.”
Ann Bond is the public affairs specialist for the San Juan National Forest. Email her at [email protected]