Western packers (wranglers and cowboys who move gear on the backs of sturdy animals) love a good mule and it’s easy to see why. A creation of planned outcross breeding, a mule is the result of crossing a mare and a donkey; and a mule, typically anyways, is a fine beast of burden indeed.
Pack mules are preferred over horses in many ways and good, manageable pack mules are coveted by experienced western outfitters and that’s nothing new. Mules are often highly ranked as foundations of the settlement of the states, especially as the U. S. population stretched westward into and beyond the mountains.
Interestingly, mules come in all sizes, shapes, and characteristic by design. By selective pairing, breeders have at one time or another, bred not only packing mules but those intended and well suited for work as riding mules, railroad building chores, specific farming duties and mining. The preferred cross for pack animal is between a donkey and a mare with draft horse blood in her.
On western hunting trips I’ve listened to cowboys, wranglers and hunters spew great tales of favorite mules and I overheard negotiations between dealers and buyers for broken riding mules and started packing mules. Even when well behaved grade pack horses brought several hundred, steady and easy riding mules demanded a few thousand dollars.
Pack mules are sure-footed, patient and perfectly happy to plod along anywhere in a line of animals and they recover quickly from a day’s hard work. Those are important traits for a pack animal. Sure footed is required of horse or mule when a trip on mountain trails is on the schedule.
Mountain trails like those in the rugged and steep Rockies, are often narrow and covered in loose shale or stone. Patience is also a virtue as animals are loaded, adjusted, and loaded some more. Patience is also asked for when a sting of packed mules are stopped for any reason.
Mules, more than horses, are most apt to stand still in their tracks instead of tangling the leads that go between animals. And too, a mule’s ability to recover from a hard day is another big plus because during the hunting season packing is daily duty. A conditioned mule can usually work for several days before needing a rest.
While mules can be stubborn at times, for the most part they don’t display an attitude, but they don’t like to be alone or left behind.
I’ll never forget a red hot August day in the peaks of Idaho’s northern panhandle when our group decided to ride to a lake for trout fishing instead of packing on to a new camp location. Although we were on a looping “progressive” trip with no set destinations, we also had no time table restricting a two day stay. We would stay at the same camp for two nights and a crystal clear lake just a short distance away would provide a welcome swim.
Of course we left the pack mules back in camp as we rode into the timber. We couldn’t outdistance ourselves from the noise as one after the other mules bawled loudly, complaining about being left behind. The racket of discontent echoed off the mountains, though the canyons, and probably on to Canada. It was comical leading to annoying but whatever it was it never ended until we returned to camp.
A group of us is soon heading west to pack into the Rockies for an elk hunt and surely our outfitter will be waiting with a mix of mules and horses to carry our gear. We’ll be limited on weight and we are expected to pack in a way that we can share our loads equally on both sides of our pack animals.
The value. Our outfitter, values his pack mules and never loads them to their limits. That’s part of keeping them ready and willing day after day, he explains.
With luck and decent weather we’ll be pushing them a bit harder when they carry elk quarters back to base camp.