The ability to "pack a mule" so the animals can safely carry anything from beans to bolts is perhaps as much art as science, and it's a skill that's still in demand in backcountry areas, especially in the West.
There are many locations in parks where access by motorized vehicles or helicopters isn't possible or appropriate, and pack animals can haul necessary supplies for activities such as trail maintenance, resource management projects and emergency operations.
The ultimate judge of a mule packer's skill is whether the cargo arrives at its destination safely, in good condition and on schedule, and more than one amateur packer has found that both rough trails and the mules themselves can place some serious demands on a load and the wrangler's patience.
In addition to those real-world on-the-trail tests, there are also some organized contests to determine who has the right stuff in the world of mule packing. A team from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks recently won a number of awards during a competition to determine the World Champion Pack Team.
Venue for the contests was the 41st annual Mule Days Celebration in Bishop, California. The event, held on Memorial Day weekend, is described as "a rite of summer and kick-off event for the outfitter season in the High Sierra." It's a big draw—thirty thousand people attended the celebration, which includes more than 700 mules competing in 181 events. Among the events are contests in a variety of equestrian skills to determine the World Champion Pack Team, along with individual honors.
The pack team from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks competed in—and won—many of the events. Team members Nick Knutson and Dan Baker of Sequoia and D.J. Fiske and Robert Hall of Kings Canyon took first place on the Pack Team Scramble and Team Packing Contest, qualified for the final pack-off event, and won awards in parade events.
Members of the park team also excelled in individual contests. The individual honor of World Champion Packer was won by Knutson, a third-generation High Sierra packer who has been with the NPS for over 15 years. Fiske earned second place, while Baker took fifth. Greg Feltis, head of the park’s livestock program, was recognized for his contribution to the team’s success.
The team's participation in the competition was made possible by their fellow employees at Sequoia-Kings Canyon; costs of participating in the event were offset by a Mule Days BBQ and dance organized by park employees, their spouses and volunteers.