Not Just Any Jackass Can Do It!
Pulling up to a trailhead, it’s interesting to see the mix of recreational lifestyles: mountain bikers, dirt bikers, hikers, trail runners…and pack mules. Mules?! Seeing a string of pack mules heading into the backcountry triggers visions of old-timey camp trips, hunting, fishing and adventure. Who’s lucky enough to cash in on this?
Wayne Ives is. Spend a single hour with this retired Range Technician from the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, and it’s easy to understand his contented nature. For 35 years, Ives managed grazing permits with the National Forest Service (NFS). For him, it was a dream job. The best part was riding horseback, leading pack mules to transport materials in and out of the high country.
“Growing up, both my parents were from Iowa—farmers—and we’d go down to my uncle’s and grandfather’s,” Ives explains. “My cousins and I would just jump on the horses, bareback. That’s where I fell in love with ‘em.”
Ives knew he wanted to work outdoors. A few years into his career, Vance Favre, an old Italian rancher working with NFS, took Ives under his wing, guiding him in the art of pack mules. “I enjoy mules. They’re different than horses. They have a little more personality. If you have a string, it’s like being around a bunch of adolescents. They’re really strong, have a lot of energy and just need a little guidance. And they bond with each other closely.”
Ives enjoyed decades of summers checking fence lines, water sources, weed populations. He lived in fresh mountain air and aspen forests, turning work into friendships with the valley’s family ranchers. The ease of working with mules made it that much better.
As the offspring of a jackass (male donkey) and a mare (female horse), mules embody hybrid vigor: they inherit the athleticism of horses, but pack more power and endurance. Hardier bones, feet and skin. They require less food and water and fend for themselves.
They’re tough and intelligent, like wild asses. Mules will resist anything they mistrust or that places them in danger, and that’s key for survival in pack animals working the wild west.
A few years back, cattle were grazing in the pristine wilderness and hanging out in campsites around Capitol Lake. Mules packed in all the primitive tools and fence supplies needed for a week-long fencing project. A temporary electric fence contained the mules in camp, but because they could smell a bear feeding on a dead calf about quarter of a mile away, they sensed danger, Their anxiety grew. Ultimately, they hopped the fence and bolted. All the rangers but Ives scrambled to catch them. “I knew better!” he says. He wasn’t surprised to find them grazing safely at the trailhead the next morning.
Ives now owns two horses and his own mule, Gertie. Pastured alongside NFS animals east of Carbondale, they’re mostly for pleasure riding. Gertie packs in on hunting trips; Ives and his sons ride into high alpine lakes to fish. With a huge grin, he admits, “It’s a lotta fun.”
Roaring Fork Valley icon Jim Duke, who is renowned for his contributions to local recycling and composting programs, grew up riding. He’s the son of a college professor and always wanted a horse. “My dad had this combination of ag knowledge and academic nerdiness—and he’d always reply ‘I’ll consider it if you go for a donkey or a mule.’” When his dad passed away during Duke’s freshman year of college, he finally “got curious and researched it.”
So began Duke’s 37-year relationship with Blossom. “My longest standing relationship on this planet, literally more than half my life—one of the most constant things in my life,” he says.
With an undergrad in zoology and a masters in range science, Duke says that “animals have always been the most important part of my life.” Over the years, he worked as a handler for emergency vet clinics and as a hand on several ranches, coming to appreciate the hybrid vigor in mules. “Horses are just an accident waiting to happen,” he quips. Very partial to mules, Duke owns no horses.
To see Duke in the pasture with his mules and donkeys, it’s clear they’re more than beasts of burden. Their deep affection mirrors that of man and dog—and there are several of those running around too. Duke’s family and friends ride often.
Chatting on his trout-pond dock, a stone’s throw from the Roaring Fork River, Duke sweeps his hand across the bowl of surrounding ridges. “I walk out here, and every place you can see on the horizon, I’ve been. You could spend a lifetime just exploring and never wear [it] out. I’m happiest on the move with my dogs and mules.”
“The coolest thing is when you get really tight with a mule and you can ride full throttle bareback through an aspen grove.” He sighs, his body mimicking dodging trees. “It’s even more exciting than skiing it.” This from a man reputed to have raced donkeys through the bars of Woody Creek and Carbondale.
Duke says he’d like to rootlessly follow the seasons, “take off in the spring and head north, Maybe do the Continental Divide or close to it. Do the Pacific Trail heading back down…”
Ernie Gianinetti, on the other hand, is deeply rooted to his family’s fifth-generation ranch. His father was a well-known “teamster,” a driver of mule teams. The Gianinetti family now has seven mules and three horses, mostly for pleasure. Ernie likes to drive a team of sister mules that he’s trained for 15 years.
His daughter Melanie Cardiff points out, “Dot and Daisy have bonded to Dad. They’re very protective of him in the herd.” Being “on hitch” with Ernie has a lot to do with that. “It’s the prestige of it,” she believes. “They’re trained on this and they’re excited to work.”
Adds Ernie, “My dad was an excellent teamster and he always said it’s a special person who needs to handle a mule. If that person knows the mules, it’s unbeatable what they can do.” Ernie has trained his mules to respond to about 17 voice commands, such as “gee” and “haw,” right and left, without the use of reins. He can tell them to walk, trot or canter with no physical control. Perhaps this has something to do with why a mule team played a starring role in wedding of Melanie’s daughter Janelle Cardiff Forbes.
“They’re special; we can do pretty much anything with them,” says Melanie. Throughout her interview with Roaring Fork Lifestyle, Melanie’s four-year old grandson Layton hung out with Dot and Daisy, petting their sides and muzzles with nary a concern. “They’re just really good girls. I’ve put every novice rider on ‘em that didn’t know anything!” she chuckles.
Ernie retorts, “We love to put novice riders on ‘em and hear them turn into professionals when they get back!”
Mules have had a place in this valley as long as the settlers have, turning fields, hauling coal and building railroads. Because locals recognize their strengths, mules have become stubbornly lodged in our hearts. They remain valued partners living life in the Roaring Fork Valley.