RANDLE – Don Bowen is a cowboy from the end of his spurs to the top of his hat. He likes to talk about Debbie, Floyd, Red, Jack and Jill and when he tells you about them you get the feeling that you have known people just like them.
They aren’t people, though, they are mules and “like humans each mule is different and has its own personality,” says Bowen.
“Mules, like people, don’t really like to work but they do it when they have to.”
They often have to. Bowen and his mules are the packers for the entire Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Their summer stables are in Randle next to the Forest Service compound.
The mules pack up hoses to units which will be burned, they pack garbage out of wilderness areas and they pack people in and out of inaccessible places.
“These mules can carry up to 250 pounds each, but of course some mules can carry more than others.
Now Jack, he’s about as good a mule as they’ve got in the nation. He can pack a lot and anybody can work with him.”
“Now Debbie, she’s the lead mule. You can toss your hat down and the whole pack train will stay right in line and walk around it. You’ve got to keep Debbie in front,” adds Bowen. He ties Debbie on a four-foot rope to his horse, a registered quarterhorse named “Lightning Check” or “Checkers.”
Floyd, Red, Jill and Jack all carry their packs and follow in turn. “You’re got to trust your lead horse a long ways and the longer you use one, the better he gets,” he adds.
“Just like when a family sits down to dinner, they each sit down to their own plate. You have got to keep them in the same formation or they try to go around each other,” says Bowen.
They carry their own dinner. “The mules eat rolled barley and oats. They will eat three gallons or less a day and a mule won’t overeat. They will graze along as they go and eat brush,” says Bowen.
The packer explains, “To get a good mule, you breed a good disposition mare to a Mammoth Jack” (donkey). Percheron mares make good mules.
Rarely, a male horse is bred with a female donkey. The result is called a “hinny.” Mules are sterile and thus incapable of self-procreation.
“These mules are 13-15 years old and some can pack for up to 30 years,” muses Bowen.
“They weigh 900 -1,100 lbs. and cost from $300 to $500. Some of our saddle and gear is 440 or more years old. We rebuild our rigging and keep it up.”
The saddle and pads are topped by twin wooden crosspieces over which the leather saddle bags are looped.
Bowen carefully balances the mule load, taking the mules strength into account, and tightly cinches up the load.
“The mules winter in Yakima, where the weather is dryer and better for their health,” explains Bowen.
Each forest district used to have its own packer but now Bowen packs for all five Gilford Pinchot districts. He packs about half time and spends the rest at various jobs at the Randle district. “There used to be 10 to 15 packers around,” recalls Bowen, but now I think I’m the only one.
“If you look at the records, you’ll see how mules built the Forest Service. The Forest Service keeps records on everything the mules do,” says Bowen.
“Motor vehicles and roads and helicopters have limited the amount of work needed to be done by mules,” he adds.
“You hear rumors about not using mules, but it will never happen. Mules and packers built the Forest Service and they will always be needed.
“In wilderness areas they are not allowed to use helicopters and choppers are no good in a fog. You can tell them that to start with.
Besides, you could probably run a mule train for a year on what a chopper costs in an hour. You can use a mule lots of places you can’t use a chopper,” states Bowen.
He adds, “It doesn’t make sense. The government tries to find work for people and it tries to take away needed work.”
Bowen was born and raised in the Randle area. He has packed for the Forest Service for nine years. Before that he was a private packer, transporting elk hunters and other outdoorsmen.
“I’ve had lots of fun packing,” muses Bowen. He has lots of stories to tell about packing trips. Bowen concludes, “There is no more honest work animal than the mule. A mule does what it is supposed to do without any fuss.” So does Don Bowen.
by Sam Benowitz Daily Chronicle August 2, 1975