Keeping it wild: how mules help preserve the last untamed places in the US

·10 min read

Here’s a partial list of things you cannot, under any circumstances, take into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, in Montana: chainsaws, mountain bikes, ATVs, tractors, wheelbarrows. If it has gears, it stays home. If it’s mechanical in any way, it’s a no-go.

Those are the rules deemed necessary to protect the United States’ 803 federally designated wilderness areas. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, with its 1,849 miles of trails, happens to be one of the biggest.

The Bob, as it is affectionately called by Montanans, is home to wolves, grizzlies, elk, moose and mountain lions. The pristine territory is more than 1.5m acres, roughly eight times the size of New York City.

And thanks to the 1964 Wilderness Act, it is not crossed by a single road. Drones and bush planes are also, today, strictly forbidden.

But here’s what you can take along for the ride instead: the humble mule.

Interactive

The law – a visionary act of environmental legislation for its time – banned modern transportation, including bikes, but made an exception for animals with hooves.

It’s easy for the general public – weekend warriors and summer hikers alike – to forget that those wilderness areas need serious upkeep. Trails need to be kept clear of fallen trees. Bridges and ranger cabins must be built and taken care of. This is where mules’ ability to carry loads really shine.

Interactive

The backcountry is not a universe of convenience or comfort. But there’s freedom to be found there. Wanting to witness it myself, I contacted the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, a non-profit that coordinates volunteer groups of public land stewards. Veteran mule packers sign up to train the next generation so traditional skills can be passed on.

I called their program director, and asked if I could tag along.

“Do you know how to ride a horse?”

“Not really,” I answered, sheepishly.

“Well,” she said, “you better take lessons then.”

So I did.

‘Stubborn’

Mules have a long list of superpowers – it’s no wonder their nickname is “the four-legged Jeep”.

Because they’re the progeny of a male donkey and a female horse, they benefit from what is known as hybrid vigor, which makes them hardy and disease resistant. They’re sure-footed on uneven terrain, have exceptional peripheral vision and a gait that allows them to carry loads better than other stock animals. They are steady, covering on average three miles an hour. Those attributes make them uniquely suited to long hikes – or “hitches”, in the packing parlance – in the Rockies.

They also tolerate heat exceptionally well – for decades, mules were put to work in the Borax mines of California’s Death Valley, where temperatures climb as high as 125F (51C) in the summer months. And they have a storied history of being first in line to help put forest fires down.

As I listened to their joyful clunking and stared at the line of long fuzzy ears ahead of me, I couldn’t help but think that mules are also quite endearing.

For Frank Vitale, the 70-year-old veteran packer who lets me tag along, mules are the perfect pack animals. He particularly respects their intelligence, memory, and instinct: when faced with danger, they usually stop and think, while horses tend to spook or bolt.

He’s keen to highlight the fact that, contrary to stereotype, mules are not stubborn; they just have a strong sense of self preservation. A joyfully biased book called The Natural Superiority of Mules explains it: “A horse can usually be intimidated and forced to do things that he perceives to be senseless or potentially harmful. However, a mule may become ‘stubborn’ when asked to exceed her capacity to perform.” (This is why the Oregon trail was littered with the bodies of horses who were pushed past their limits, yet the same did not apply to mules.)

Frank moved to Montana from New Hampshire 45 years ago because he wanted to see the west. While rugged and more capable than most of us – he wears leather chaps made from an elk he killed himself – there’s an undeniable hippy vibe to him. He often laments how disconnected we are from the natural world. Without a connection to something bigger than us, he believes, we will end up losing ourselves.

Preserving the west’s packing heritage, then, acts as a vaccine protecting the wilderness, with traditional skills as gatekeeper against modern forces (helicopters, heavy machinery) that knock the door open for more destruction.

Frank is keen to pass down his knowledge to the next generation – and the clock is ticking.

This is where Demi Sullivan comes in. At 29, she is one of two apprentice packers this year. A former rafting instructor, she’s used to standing her ground in a world that tends towards the masculine, navigating big muscles and bigger egos. She radiates competency and none of the backbreaking work seems to phase her.

She wakes up at 5.30am and doesn’t stop until the check list is complete. She lifts 70lb hay bales without batting an eyelid, and doesn’t expect you to be surprised at her strength either. As I watch her wrestle with a stubborn mule, I decide I wouldn’t want to take my chances against her in a bar fight.

She and Frank make a strong team: he’s firm but attentive, and never patronizing. He lets her take risks so she can learn, trusting her to lead the entire mule string.

If the next generation of mule-packers face one hurdle, it’s financial.

First, you need land. This might have been easier decades ago, but decent acreage is now out of reach for most young people. A single working mule costs thousands of dollars. A decent saddle goes for $1,500. A farrier needs to re-shoe the animal every eight to 10 weeks, which will set you back around $120 each time. And of course you need hay, and a lot of it. With the west being in a constant state of drought, feed prices are becoming unaffordable.

Those who keep their eyes on the prize will find a way to make it happen, with a bit of luck. They will continue to apprentice for free; trade or barter; put every single penny they have aside to provide a good life for their animals. All this, for the privilege of crossing a terrain rarely seen by most Americans. For a taste of freedom and self determination, and the comfort that comes with the belief that you are capable of handling yourself and your stock come hell or high water.

An exercise in trust

You do need to have a lot of grit to work in the backcountry. Packing, I learn quickly, is not a job for impostors.

When I attend a mule packing class at the historic Nine Mile Ranger station near Missoula earlier this spring, I hear plenty of intimidating stories. A person was bitten on the shoulder so hard that it tore open their muscle. Another got kicked in the face and had to be helicoptered out of the backcountry. A ranger referred to his many kicking scars and bruises as his “mule tattoos”.

A mule’s head alone weighs more than 200lb. If you’re unlucky enough to stand in its way, you can kiss your front teeth goodbye. One second is all it takes for a mule to knock someone flat; a single kick to your leg can break bones.

The only way to avoid a worst-case scenario, explains lead packer Robin Connell, is to always keep safety in mind and build a relationship with your animals. Packing is a conversation, an exercise in trust.

Interactive

This point is brought home to me very quickly on my first hitch. As Demi leads the string of mules and cajoles the pack into crossing a waterfall on a sharp trail turn, one of the mules trips. I hold my breath as I watch the animal struggle to find its feet, wondering if it is going to tumble down the cliffside to its death.

The mules behind do an immediate U-turn and start running towards Frank and me, who were at the back of the pack. Mayhem ensues, and the only reason no mule or human was injured isthat the animals came to their senses and trusted the team to calm down and keep going.

We eventually manage to complete our mission: to pack material and food for a group of five trail volunteers.

The trail volunteer is composed of a ragtag group of fresh-faced 19-year-olds, all of whom can talk about climate change with more passion and clarity than most politicians.

One of them, Issac Slevin, explains their week so far: they widened and evened out 525 yards of trail by carving into the mountainside with pulaskis and picks (remember, no mechanical tools allowed), starting at 6am each day. They also used handsaws and crosscut saws to clear fallen trees. On a good day, they can clear 70 small trees; on a difficult day, they stand in front of an imposing 2ft-wide one, which guarantees a very sweaty morning of hard labor.

An escape from the modern world

There’s another benefit to packing up your life for a few days in the backcountry on top of mules: perspective.

At 88 years old, after spending an estimated 22 years of his life sleeping outdoors, Smoke Elser, the uncontested titan of the packing world, is now begrudgingly retired. During his career, he taught Navy Seals and FBI agents how to work efficiently with mules to track fugitives in remote landscapes, or in war zones. (Mules were widely used by the Allied forces during the first and second world wars, and some were sent to Afghanistan by the US in the war against the Soviet troops in the 1970s and 1980s.)

Still, Smoke worries packing will soon become a lost art – and for this reason, cannot seem to stop teaching. He helps host a wilderness and packing class led by Eva-Maria Maggi at the University of Montana.

Frank says that to be able to break away from technology for days at a time is critical to his sanity. “When I get too old to put my foot in the stirrup and swing into the saddle,” he once said, “I’m going to make one request: just wheel me up to the edge of the wilderness so I can look in one more time to a place and a time where I found true freedom.”

Likewise, Smoke argues that traversing the wild country “helps us escape from the fast pace of our modern world, with its mania for efficiency”. When asked once what advice he would give young people to live a good life, his answer was simple:

“Pack up a sleep bag, and get with somebody who’s been [in the backcountry] lots of time, man or woman. Go on a trip with them with a horse, and listen to their life story,” he said.

“Then take another trip by yourself, and have a vision. Go sit by a big ol’ ponderosa pine, a stream or on top of a rocky mountain, and just think: what am I gonna do with the rest of my life? This is just the first day of the rest of my life. No better place to do with nobody around, no beep beep beep of the telephone … Just you.”

Perhaps going slow is all the medicine the world needs right now.

• The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is located on the ancestral lands of the Amskapi Piikani (the Blackfeet Nation of Montana), the Niitsítapi (the Blackfoot Confederacy), the Séliš (Salish), Ql̓ispé (Pend d’Oreille or Kalispel), and Ktunaxa (Kootenai) tribes.