Meet the Mule, ‘Domestic Facilitator’ to Wilderness Experiences

Hybrid animals that combine the best of their parents’ traits, mules are magnificent, useful creatures that support conservation in unique ways.

The distracting hustle and bustle of the modern world lies behind us now as we head into the remote Thorofare section of Yellowstone National Park, the only place in the contiguous United States where one can be more than 20 miles from any road. Fresh and eager, our pack train of five saddle horses and six mules starts out along a bit of Lake Yellowstone’s 141 miles of shoreline. After the usual preliminaries of jigging and jogging and lining out of the stock, and our own anxieties and high expectations, we settle into a comfortable, centaur-like experience. Our legs feel as if they’ve blended into those of our horses and together we confidently move down the trail, into the wilderness.

Wildfire is a force in this ecosystem, evident as we make our way through a mosaic of dead and downed timber interspersed with young conifers, grasses and forbs juxtaposed against more mature intact forest that the flames somehow missed. I fancifully imagine that from the air we appear as tiny fleas navigating through the hairs of a giant gray dog. Poetically speaking, of course.

The mules stride steadily ahead of my horse. Where one goes, the others will follow. Strung together via breakaway “pigging strings,” they dutifully trail head wrangler Jordan’s dominant saddle horse. Stoic and sturdy, the mules carry all that our party of five needs for a comfortable 10 days and 80 miles in this wild and isolated country. Although Yellowstone National Park sees more than 3 million visitors each year, only 100 or so go where we’re bound.

The camping season is short—early July till sometime in October, in favorable years—and access is limited to hoofing it in on horseback or one’s own two feet. The few backpackers we encounter step politely to the side of the trail and remark how beautiful, traditional and nostalgic our horses and mules are. They’re also envious that we have such magnificent, useful creatures to carry our gear, which frees up our own backs and knees and lets us savor the scenery and wildlife unhindered.

The mules’ agility as they wind around switchbacks and obstacles never fails to impress. They move in an orderly, orchestrated fashion, like an enormous centipede with 24 legs and one mission. As I watch our pack string work, hard but without protest, I reflect upon the role and significance mules have played in our history and in conservation efforts.

“The mules’ agility never fails to impress.” Author’s photo

Tough, sure-footed & strong

Originating in Turkey, mules are the superior product of mating a male donkey with a female horse. They are the epitome of hybrid vigor, wherein the offspring’s traits are enhanced by the combined genes of its parents. Mules typically have tougher hooves, are more sure-footed, less susceptible to illness, live longer and exhibit greater endurance than horses. Hybrid vigor also often allows mules to grow taller than either parent and to tirelessly carry a full fifth of their body weight.

Terry Search, outfitter and owner of Yellowstone Mountain Guides, where I work as a guide/wrangler, also praises the mule’s steadfast, cool-headed disposition. Pack strings can get into all manner of wrecks or challenging situations wherein animals and people must remain calm and patient until things are sorted out. Mules are much less panicky than horses and, since they are usually subordinate to saddle horses, they tend to follow along better than a string of pack horses would, which by itself tends to avert such troubles.

Mules have a long, legendary history of global utility and esteem. In Egypt, they were the preferred pack animal going back at least to 3000 BCE. The ancient Greeks valued them for packing and for pulling carriages on their rocky terrain, and in Ethiopia mules enjoyed the highest status of all domestic animals. Mules accompanied Hannibal into the Alps en route to Rome more than 2,200 years ago; they surely managed the rough terrain better than his war elephants did. And in medieval Europe, gentlemen and clergy preferred riding mules over horses.

Here in the US, founding father George Washington was the first American mule breeder, producing them mostly for agricultural work. The US Army owned significant numbers of mules for the cavalry and for hauling artillery, food and casualties, as mules could get into areas inaccessible to other means of conveyance. The Army even adopted the mule, an icon of strength, wisdom and determination, as its mascot.

Banjo and company, saddled and awaiting their packs for the day’s journey. Author’s photo

Mules, our engine of exploration

The trails under our stock’s hooves were probably laid down by game, then adopted by Native Americans. Eventually, fur trappers and mountain men followed, blazing the way for the first government expeditions. Mules were instrumental in the birth of Yellowstone National Park—they carried the Hayden Survey of 1871, the first federally funded geological study of the Yellowstone region of northwestern Wyoming.

The Hayden Survey included a host of other –ologists—experts in entomology, ornithology, meteorology, zoology and mineralogy—plus botanists, hunters, artists, photographers, topographers and soldiers. Their report was instrumental in convincing the US Congress to establish Yellowstone as our first national park. Twenty-one mules and five four-mule wagon teams were a crucial part of the expedition. Not only did the mules carry packs and pull wagons, they also pulled odometers to measure distances for the mapmakers—the first such devices brought into the region. The collected data was turned over to the Smithsonian Institution.

Were it not for the mule, then and now, our present-day foray into this spectacularly remote, largely pristine part of the US might not even be possible. We could also think of mules as enablers of conservation, for John Muir rode one into the Sierra Nevada on his explorations; later, again with mules, he took President Theodore Roosevelt to the Yosemite Valley and advocated for it to become our third national park.

Mules still figure large in our parks and other federal lands. They log hundreds, if not thousands of miles each year carrying supplies essential to trail crews, firefighting camps, fire lookout towers and remote ranger cabins. Steadily covering some three miles per hour, mules still pack in such oddities as culverts, bridge beams, bedsprings, dynamite, gravel, fish for stocking, wildlife being translocated and chemicals to spray invasive weeds. They are especially useful in federally designated wilderness areas, where no mechanized devices or motorized vehicles are allowed.

Mules also serve hunting outfitters, carrying clients and guides into the backcountry and then packing out the meat and trophies. Anglers too enjoy the services of mules. Collectively, these folks contribute significantly to the conservation of wildlife and their habitats in sustainable, low-impact ways. Mules also help to foster appreciation for wilderness by getting non-backpackers out to enjoy the scenery, the wildflowers, the game and the solitude.

Camp security

One important and useful trait that mules inherit from their donkey sires is their vigilance and aggression towards predators. This is a comfort in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home of the largest concentration of grizzlies in the Lower 48 states. Terry’s mules, with whom I have the pleasure of working, have thus far seen off two grizzlies. The first time, a giant of a mule (named John Wayne, no less) spotted a grizzly in a meadow, promptly diverted out of the string and—with his astonished rider clinging to his back—chased the bear into thick cover. The second time came one morning when a wrangler was collecting the horses and mules to saddle up for the day. A grizzly appeared and advanced menacingly. The wrangler’s bear spray was still in his tent. A mule named Trapper rose to the occasion and, with teeth bared, ears laid back and hooves flailing, drove off the bear. Mules are more than willing to protect themselves, their herd mates and their handlers.

One evening on this trip, as we finished our steaks and were admiring the alpenglow on the surrounding hillsides, out from the willows along a beaver pond stepped a young grizzly. It strolled by at about 75 yards, as politely and humbly as a grizzly bear could. We were reasonably sure he knew our mules were grazing just one meadow over and was avoiding their potential wrath.

The polite young grizzly, evidently keeping an eye out for mules. Author’s photo

On the very first day of our ride, we’d happened upon a gorgeous, glossy furred black bear traversing a sagebrush hillside. It kept a curious eye on us, but it also maintained a respectful distance. Not long after, we encountered hikers nervously shouting “Hey, bear! Hello, bear!” They said a bear had shadowed them for some time, quite probably the same one we saw, who wisely chose to skirt our party and its mules.

Each evening, we set up our tents in meadows and turned loose the mules and horses to graze free all night. This let us keep tabs on them—by the sweet music of their bells—and it also afforded us protection from any bears with ill intent.

Although I have admired and owned horses for more than four decades, I’m sorry to say that until my recent trips with Yellowstone Mountain Guides, I had no experience with mules. They’d always intrigued me, though, and I quickly fell in love. I am full of respect for their remarkable capabilities, and their very distinct personalities, charming countenances and unusual braying add much to their appeal. Long-ears catch everyone’s eye, often weaving their way deeply into our hearts.

We need the tonic of wildness

Just as all good things do, our trip into this wonderfully blank spot on the map had to end. For 10 days, we had immersed ourselves in some of the finest, wildest country North America still has to offer. Our lives reverted to a more primal, and welcome, pace. Our only needs were to travel, eat, sleep and absorb the natural world. Being beyond communication with the outside encouraged us to build strong rapport with each other and our equine team members and heightened our appreciation of what happened around us.

On these active, fully engaged days, food tasted better. Each chilly morning, we savored the heat of a cup of coffee or the morning sun, particularly since it was too dry for campfires—a big but unavoidable disappointment. (Snuggling into a cozy sleeping bag was appreciated the more.) When thunderstorms boiled up, or temperatures went from searing to icy, or sunsets and dawns unfolded in splendor, we noted the pure power of the elements.

Fording the Snake River. One guest wears a scarf against the strong sun. Author’s photo

We reveled in the awareness that although we were a part of this ecosystem, many other more prominent characters and forces also were involved. The bears, yes, and we also watched three black wolves trot along a ridgeline and listened to their soul-stirring voices at first and last light. An inquisitive pine marten visited one morning to entertain us at coffee time and give the squirrels a fright. Bald eagles perched along the Yellowstone, America’s longest undammed river, which we forded many times in different depths and currents. Native cutthroat trout haunted the waters and the bugling of elk filled the valleys as the rut began.

One day we luxuriated for hours in a remarkably soothing hot spring along the Snake River, a fountain of youth that perfectly suited the theme of our adventure: pure rejuvenation. But by the next morning, sunblock-and-shorts weather had morphed into raingear-required and beware of hypothermia. As we packed for the final day’s ride, I slipped my fingers under my favorite mule Banjo’s saddle blanket to warm them up.

Not only was this trip and all its incomparable experiences drawing to a close, but so evidently was summer. The profuse wildflowers were going to seed, berries were finishing up, color changes in the vegetation added accents to the landscape and a chill was setting in. I spent extra time rubbing Banjo’s big mule ears while gazing into his expressive eyes. Before we hit the trail for the final ride out, I thanked him for this cherished experience. Then I thanked the other mules—Trapper, Rooster, Rawhide, Elvis and Ellie—too. And of course Honey, Colter, Little Hawk, Yellow Wolf and Crazy Horse, our saddle horses.

A successful pack trip requires teamwork from mules, horses and humans alike. Done right, it is an honor and a pleasure to travel so cooperatively, collectively ensuring a great experience in spectacular country. I had always imagined that a pack trip into the Thorofare would be the adventure of a lifetime. Now I see before me a lifetime of such adventures—I hope. When the unsaddling and unpacking is done, it’s time to roll in the dust, clean off the sweat and rest up until the next time. And all of us, humans and mules, so look forward to that.

Karen Seginak is a wildlife biologist with 30 years’ experience with state and federal agencies, NGOs and educational institutions. She currently works for an environmental consulting firm (when she isn’t guiding pack trips). She is also a hunter, angler, traveler, photographer and writer who is, she says, “outdoors all the time.” 

Banner image: The party winding its way into the remote Thorofare section of Yellowstone Park—guests and guides on horseback, their supplies for 10 days secure in mule panniers. Author’s photo