A string of hearty pack mules is doing much of the heavy lifting for a trail restoration project on national forest lands north of Rico.
Sporting the classic US FS brand on their haunches, the mules stomp and wicker as they are saddled up by Barrett Funka, a veteran packer for the U.S. Forest Service.
“We use the decker pack-style saddle, custom-made for awkward loads of trail packing,” he says. “They can carry boards, equipment, tools; these mules are versatile and don’t mind the work.”
Gathering in a sunny meadow at the northern end of the Calico Trail, six mules and a lead mare ridden by Funka have been thoroughly groomed and fed for the day ahead.
Balm is rubbed on “hot spots” and one with a balky knee is forced fed liquid aspirin via a syringe, causing a spell of goofy, lip-smacking snorting.
“They all have different personalities, kind of like giant dogs,” says trail crew member Stefanie Welker, of Texas. “They are the favorite part of the job for me. Today, I brought them all carrots for a special treat.”
Bred for calm disposition, the Percheron breed of mules and a lead quarter-horse mare are amazingly relaxed and approachable. The animals are steadfast, but can be spooked by the sometimes unpredictable nature of working remote trails in wilderness country.
Bears for instance, can startle a mule or horse, and so can an elk calf bursting out of the tall grass that occurred on a recent foray.
“I was bucked off and tumbled,” said Funka, a spry 27-year old in his 10th year as a packer. “Just did not expect it, but no harm done.”
Breakaways between each mule come apart if the pack string is spooked to prevent a chain-reaction wreck.
The 1,000-pound mules are more easily controlled than horses, Funka says. During down time, packers will only tie up the mare. The mules bond with her and will rarely stray from her side.
But mules are naturally curious and sometimes rambunctious, occasionally striking out on their own for some excitement. On this day, the urge for romance had a mule named Jimmy sauntering, then galloping over to a group of nearby private horses being prepared for a ride.
He and Tom Rice, a recreation planner for the San Juan National Forest, chase down the wandering mule and coral him back to the group. Love denied.
“He’s a mounter, probably not too appreciated by those folks,” chuckled Funka.
A trail crew of fresh-faced twenty-something’s are working in the San Juan National Forest this summer with the packstring. They are upgrading sections of the Calico Trail and rerouting a portion of the Kilpacker Trail to provide better access to Kilpacker Basin and El Diente Peak, a rugged fourteener popular with climbers.
The crew loads the mules with boards of lumber on each side that will be made into an elevated boardwalk – or “turnpike” in trail lingo – that crosses a marshy, mosquito-swarming meadow a little ways down the Calico Trail.
“Remember how its done?” Funka asks of his crew as they eagerly jump to the task, alternating between fumbling and adept knot-tying of the packer’s hitch, basket hitch, and other specialty rope configurations.
“Investing in improving trails with more sturdy infrastructure saves money because there is less maintenance required over the long term” explains forest recreation planner Rice. “Twelve people per day here is seen as busy. Compare that to the hundreds per day like in the forests on the Front Range. But trail use here is increasing, and we’re seeing impacts.”
The register for the non-motorized Kilpacker trail, which accesses the Lizard Head Wilderness Area, shows 70 visitors in the last two weeks.
Calico is a National Recreation Trail popular with hikers, mountain bikers, horse riding, and single-track motorcycling. Crews have been improving drainage and upgrading the trail in areas where it crosses wetlands, creeks, and riparian areas.
Rice said his trail-maintenance budget was cut by 36 percent to provide additional funds for more popular forests in the state along the Front Range.
Private-public partnerships are helping to fill the budget gap. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Mountain Studies Institute, and Southwest Conservation Corp have dispatched crews to assist with the Kilpacker and Calico trail work.
On Kilpacker, a two-mile realignment will guide climbers to a more accessible, and less steep approach to El Diente. The new route is seen as a solution to a more precarious, near vertical approach from Navajo Lake, that has caused fatalities and has already resulted in two rescues this season and one injury.
The forest service mules are part of the Rocky Mountain Regional Specialty Packstring based in Bailey, Colorado. The mules are a essential part of the forest trail system, and are especially useful in wilderness areas that don’t allow motorized or mechanical devices.
“We love working with them,” said trail builder Ryan Gregson “And what better place to be, working outdoors surrounded by these peaks. I’m proud to be a part of improving trails used by the public to enjoy these mountains.”