Mule Packers from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Prove They're Among the Best in the Business

Park packer in contest.

Packer D.J. Fiske and a "co-worker" compete in the contest. NPS photo

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.

Comments

Mr Burnett, Thank you for the article. That is my son in the picture. A little story for you. 11 years ago, DJ wrote a letter to Dick Marten, who was the superintendent at the time, to see if their Park could compete in Mule Days. The first year they had to use Yosemite mules and horses. That was quite a deal when it came to the pack scramble, not knowing your mules. So the next year he wrote another letter asking if they could use their own mules. They have been competeing for all those years and having fun. The last few years they have gotten more serious about it, and it paid off this year. We haven't missed a year watching them compete and cheering them on. We are proud of all of them. There have been many different packers though the years. DJ has been there all 11 years with Nick Knutson close behind with 10 years. With the addition of Robert Hall and Dan Baker the 4 packers worked very hard this year and the results are their reward. Thanks again. Sarah Fiske

Sarah -

Thanks for the additional background on the packers. They and others like them perform a valuable service in a number of parks, and it was nice to be able to give this group some well-deserved recognition.

Can anyone provide me with the e-mail addresses of packers who could resupply me via Kearsage Pass on the John Muir Trail?