Shasta-Trinity Forest Service's Mule Team
By Laura Christman
Photos by Sarah Marie Spectrum
Packer Ken Graves is leading the U.S. Forest Service’s past into the future. Behind him are inquisitive Ivan, friendly Big John, aloof Heywood and other rusty-red and dark-brown mules.
“They’re awesome,” Graves says of the mules.
Graves, 62, has been a packer in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest for 40 years. Leading mules started as a summer job and became his life’s work. He postponed retirement so he could be part of a new effort to keep the Forest Service mule program on solid footing.
Mules bring food and supplies to trail crews, firefighters and others working in the national forests. In the early 1900s, the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region 5, which covers all national forests in California, had some 2,000 animals and more than 100 packers. By 2012, only about 100 stock and eight packers remained. Eighteen forests with stock dwindled to five, Graves notes. Modern vehicles and road development, along with budget pressures and attrition, led to the decline.
Determined to keep the mules from fading into history, Region 5 established the Pack Stock Center of Excellence in 2013. The effort includes:
- attracting and training new packers through an intern project
- replacing stock
- spreading the word on the benefits of using mules in the forests
- coordinating the use of mules between forests.
Graves is northern director of the Center of Excellence. He’s optimistic about the future of Forest Service mules. “It’s a really good program that supports a lot of really good parts of the Forest Service,” he says.
A mule string has five mules led by a packer on a horse or mule, or 10 mules and two packers. Each mule carries about 150 pounds of timber, tents, sand, gravel, rebar, food, fire hose, pumps or other materials and supplies. Mules typically do the heavy lifting in wilderness areas, which prohibit motorized vehicles unless there is an emergency.
“Mules are good for the slow and sure. Helicopters are for if you need to be there now,” Graves says. “There’s a place for both.”
Tough, surefooted and clever, mules make ideal pack animals.
“Mules are very smart, that’s why we use them,” Graves says. “They are more careful with the loads and take better care of themselves than horses.”
Each mule has a distinct personality.
“They are just like people. Some are playful, some are serious. Some you can trust all day long and some you’d better keep your eye on,” Graves says.
Not every mule is suited for every load. Graves recalls needing to pack in 16-foot timbers for a project. Only a few mules were willing to shoulder the load, which extended beyond their heads and required a tricky stopping, backing and turning procedure on switchbacks.
Trails can be narrow with steep drop-offs, so it’s critical for the mules to be a team. An important part of the packer’s job is deciding which mule goes where.
“People see a pack string going down the trail and they don’t realize how much it takes. They think they just follow each other right down the trail. It’s more about finding the right spot, so they all work together,” Graves says.
The animals sometimes get spooked.
“It might be a lion, might be a bear. It could be something as goofy as a shiny gum wrapper,” Graves says. “You have to be ready.”
He enjoys the work. “I like being outdoors in the mountains and working with the stock, and working with all the people who want to be in the mountains doing the projects we do.”
A packer’s job is both solitary and public. Graves sometimes spends days in remote areas; other times he and the mules are at events such as Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento and Mule Days in Bishop. Packers are ambassadors for the Forest Service mule program, giving demonstrations and sharing information. In 2015, Shasta-Trinity’s mules were showcased in The Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
“It was very interesting,” Graves says. The mules did well but by the end of the route were amped up by the thousands of parade watchers.
Mules are popular with the public. Shasta-Trinity’s Ivan has a Facebook page (Trinity Alps Mules) and a children’s book about him, “Ivan the Forest Service Pack Mule,” written by Mike McFadin.
Graves says people he meets are happy to know the Forest Service still relies on mule power. Shasta-Trinity’s mules are typically on the job from April into November. In the off season, some pasture at Paynes Creek and others hang out on land owned by The McConnell Foundation in Redding.
“It’s a pretty darn good life if you are a mule for the Forest Service,” Graves says.