We've always been fascinated by Chris Eyer's occupation. Packing nine mules through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, through wind and rain, day and night, is hard work. The kind of work we admire at Western Rise. The kind of work that really connects a man, or woman, to the west.
So we wanted to share Chris' story here with you. We asked, and here's what he had to say.
NAME: Chris Eyer, aka @muledragger
LOCATION: Stevensville, Montana
OCCUPATION: Packer and Electrical Contractor
TELL US A LITTLE MORE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO AS A MULE PACKER?
In designated wilderness areas the only way things can be moved is either by human or hoof. No machines. No wheels. Anything that can't be carried by a human goes in on the back of a mule or horse.
I'm a contract packer. That means that I pack for outfitters, the U.S. Forest Service, a couple of nonprofit trail crew organizations, and of course for myself and friends. I even drag some Instagrammers along each summer.
About 95% of the packing I do is in the Bob Marshall Wilderness (aka The Bob). The rest is in the Bitterroot Wilderness. Primarily I resupply a fire lookout on St. Mary’s peak all summer that is in the Bitterroot Wilderness.
All my gear, tack, mules, horses, truck, and trailer are mine. I can't be hired by the general public to pack on federal lands so, I sub-contract to outfitters with federal permits or for the USFS.
I move just about anything you could imagine: hay, grain, gear, tools, food, lumber, rafts, gravel, rocks, concrete, portable toilets, people, mattresses, dead animals (bear, deer, elk, goats, moose, sheep), oars, coolers, kayaks, and the list goes on...
HOW DID YOU GET INTO MULE PACKING?
When I was 16 I was hiking from West to East across the Sierras and near the end of the trip between Big Whitney Meadows and Horseshoe Meadows I looked up and saw a packer leading a short string of mules. I was awestruck. I’d never seen a pack string in person but I recognized what it was instantly. Like I’ve always known what the iconic image was before me. For me, it tapped into some sort of deep archetype of the West.
I knew right then and there that I would have a pack string one day.
My grandfather had told me stories as a child of the pack strings in The Bob and working on the family ranch in Montana but I had no idea how amazing mules were until I started packing them.
WHY MULES OVER HORSES?
Mules are superior pack animals. They have flatter backs and therefore carry loads in a more stable manner than horses. They have wider set eyes that increase their field of vision making them more sure footed. They have a hybrid vitality (half horse and half donkey) that makes them heartier and less prone to health problems. They have a longer working life and are stronger pound for pound than horses. When they have a problem while packing (e.g. Wreck, tangled lead rope, fall, etc.) they tend to remain calm and wait for help unlike most horses which will panic making everything worse.
I ride a horse because mules become deeply attach to their lead horse. When I'm in the backcountry I put up a temporary corral for the horses and turn all the mules out to free range and graze. They rarely stray far from their horse.
CAN YOU NAME ALL OF YOUR MULES FOR US? Cricket, Olive, Millicent, Chloe, Clementine, Dulcinea, Ninety, Pearl, and Rufus
DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER ANIMALS? I also have three horses: My string horse, Redbo and two Haflingers Magnum and Blevins. And a black dog named Otis. He’s kind of a jerk to hikers, but I probably couldn’t live without him.
HOW DID YOU START SHARING YOUR REMOTE STORIES ON INSTAGRAM?
A friend told me about Instagram about four years ago and I started posting photos there. I couldn’t believe when I had 20 followers that I didn’t actually know! I couldn’t imagine that anyone cared what some packer in Montana was up to.
To me packing mules is the most amazing thing imaginable but I’ve long assumed that I’m one of the only people that thinks that. Turns out there’s a few more…
WHAT DO YOU SHOOT YOUR INSTAGRAM PHOTOS WITH? I shoot with an iPhone 6+, a GoPro, and a Sony A7
WHAT IS ONE THING WE WOULDN'T KNOW ABOUT YOU UNLESS WE SPENT SOME TIME IN THE BACKCOUNTRY WITH YOU?
How hard I work. People have absolutely no idea how much work packing a full string (9 mules) is. For example, if I’m bumping hay into a wilderness cabin, I’m matying (the canvas wrap we put on loads) 18 bales of hay that weigh in at 95 pounds each. They have to all be wrapped and then slung onto the backs of mules. Then I ride somewhere between 10 and 20 miles. Unload all the hay. Unwrap it. Stack it. Yank saddles off and turn out stock. It’s typically an 18 hour day.
FAVORITE REMOTE PLACE TO GET AWAY TO? The Bob is huge and I’ll never tell what my favorite spots are!
CAN YOU TELL US ONE OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE MULE PACKING STORIES?
Last season in October I got caught in a snowstorm on a traverse that appeared to be okay. When I got on it the snow had drifted to 4’ and beneath the snow was a layer of ice. I got off my horse and tried to turn around, but it was too dangerous with the whole string. I had no choice but to push on. That section of trail is about 1/2 mile long and part of it is a cliff straight up on one side and straight down on the other side.
I resigned myself that I’d probably lose a mule over the edge. Amazingly we made it to the pass and I looked back and saw that my mules were calm as could be. They had total trust in me.
It’s a trust I’ve never experienced before. It’s a trust I take vary seriously. These mules mean everything to me. I’d never sell one and they will all have top notch retirements.
We pack about 2,000 miles a year. That’s a ton of time together. We all know each other incredibly well. We’re a team. We're a family.
Whether it’s spring, summer, fall, or winter they are the first thing I take care of in the morning and the last thing I care for before I sleep.
WHAT ESSENTIALS DO YOU ALWAYS BRING WHEN OUT IN THE WILDERNESS?
1. Equine first aid kit.
2. A sidearm in case an animal gets injured and can’t make it out. I’d rather take responsibility for their death than watch an injured animal be killed by wolves and grizzly bears.
3. Fire starter.
4. Shoeing supplies in case an animal throws a shoe.
5. Warm clothes, even in the heat of the summer.
6. A map. even when I know the trails well.
7. Stovetop espresso maker, with good coffee and cream!
NON-ESSENTIALS? A real pillow.
WHAT MAKES YOU / HOW DO YOU TRUST THE WILD?
My animals have taught me to trust.
My favorite experience is always the same on each trip. It’s that feeling about two miles after I start a trip. Loads are all secure. Decker rings are all straight. Cinches snug. My mules all in rhythm. Hooves clopping and their ears are all flopping. Sitting atop my horse with 15-20 miles in front of me.
Then that feeling washes over me and I remember that this is all so much bigger than just me and my small little life. Just sitting there watching the wilderness unfold mile after mile and feeling so fortunate to be able to spend whatever time I can in a place that’s existed in mostly the same way long before us and will be here long after us.
Connecting the wilderness within my heart, with the wilderness out there, that’s my favorite.
Knowing that what holds my team together isn’t rope or training or force, it’s love. It’s a higher Love that’s built on trust. The wildness of their hearts trusting the wildness of my heart.
Like a couple of years ago when through a turn of unfortunate events I ended up on the trail with a full string in the pitch black of a moonless night. Using a head lamp ruins the mule’s and horse’s night vision. So I took it off. I pulled the bridle off my horse Redbo as well. He knew where we were going. He didn’t need reins to guide him. My life was in their hands and rarely have I felt so safe.
Most of what we think of as “control” is an illusion anyway. Trust requires letting go. I had to let go and trust them all and it was one of the most beautiful things I never saw.
Photos by @muledragger, @bigskybandits and @pjbmt