There were three options: use human labor to walk through the woods to repair a bridge along the Gore Range Trail, use mules to walk it, or not repair the bridge at all.
Luckily (for the trail teams) they went with a team of mules from Cody, Wyoming.
Crosby Davidson of the US Forest Service is one of the riders overseeing the 90 head of horses and mules as part of the Shoshone Specialty Pack Chain, located in the Shoshone National Forest. The horses are for the rangers to ride, the mules are for carrying the loads. His team can be called anywhere in District 2, which includes Colorado, most of Wyoming, everything east of the Continental Division of Wyoming and Nebraska, South Dakota, as well as other places.
Some districts have their own teams… but when they don’t, he and his mules get a call.
“We usually run with about 12 heads. Two riders, two saddle horses and 10 mules that each packer puts on a pack of five mules,” Davidson explained. “Sometimes we chain them all together and have 10 chained together so a packer can adjust the loads.”
On Tuesday, the 10-mule team was tasked with bringing loads of wood onto the trail to help rebuild a bridge, demolished by the weight of snow and time. The general rule is that a mule can carry 150 pounds of load, unless it is a very large specimen.
Davidson said they had a few of these draft mules (resulting from mating a male donkey with a female draft horse) on the team.
“It’s kind of a catch-22 because they’re bigger and harder to pack on them, but they can just tolerate the weights a little bit better,” Davidson said.
Mountain newsroom reporter Spencer Wilson compared horses ridden by rangers to army jeeps; fast and nimble, but not there to lug stuff around. He compared mules to tanks.
“I think that’s about right – they really are, but they’re actually very nimble tanks,” Davidson corrected. “They can get a lot of places.”
Josh Watson is the project manager for the local Dillon Ranger District, and he was the one who called for backup. Otherwise, he said the work the mules would do in a day would have taken his crew of human work crews at least a week to get around.
“Mules tend to have a little better morale when they have to carry that kind of weight than when people do,” Watson joked.
They hope to make the bridge in two weeks with the help of the mules, as long as they continue to cooperate. These mule rental team members have done projects for Colorado in the past, including working 14-inch trails like Mt. Wilson, Shavano, Kit Carson, and Elbert.
“I think it’s kind of like us, it’s a job, they’d rather be running in the pasture, but it’s a really good job and they appreciate it enough,” Davidson said. “I think that’s a pretty good life for a mule, actually.”