Best of the burden: Smokies mules make backcountry operations possible- Part 2

Click here to read the first part.

‘It’s all about the mules’

Of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 11 million annual visitors, very few will ever encounter a passel of pack mules while out hiking the trails, but most will — though unknowingly — reap the benefits of the animals’ hard work. 

Trail work in the park is done by hand, no motorized equipment allowed. And while a combination of creativity and skilled labor is usually enough to get the job done, sometimes the park’s human workers find themselves outmatched. It took the mules mere hours to move 30 logs from the parking lot to the falls, but a trail crew would have needed days to do the same. And when it comes to even bigger materials, like the 50-foot-long logs used to build stream crossings, even a team of exceptionally burly humans would have a hard time making much progress. 

Because of the mules, “We can do so many things we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, not only for trails but also for backcountry,” said Trails Forever crew leader Josh Shapiro.

“It’s pretty phenomenal,” agreed park spokesperson Dana Soehn. 

The mule teams haul in bear boxes to keep trail crews’ food safe. They carry food storage cables for backcountry campsites, doors and windows for structure rehabilitation projects, trail crews’ toolboxes and water supplies, equipment for wildlife staff — basically, anything heavy or exceptionally cumbersome that needs to make it in or out of the backcountry. 

“We pack in a lot of stuff for the backcountry,” said Gibson. “Fire rings, mulch for the privies. Fisheries, wildlife, about every division at some point we’ve helped out. And in search and rescues, we’ve helped with mules.”

Mostly, though, the packing program supports the trails division. 

The program’s importance to park operations is undeniable when looking through a laundry list of statistics compiled from data gathered between 2009 and 2016. During that time, horses and mules were used for a total of 418 days and an average of 9.5 hours each day used, with 351 days spent working for the trails division and 67 working for other groups. Stock covered 2,615 miles of trail while packing and cleared 2,672 miles of trail and 4,950 trees. They pulled 11 footlogs measuring between 25 and 52 feet and weighing 1,600 to 4,500 pounds. They packed in an estimated 252,850 pounds of equipment and participated in five search and rescues, recovering one body.   

“It’s all about the mules, because they’re the ones who do the job,” said Gibson. 

The mules may be the ones hauling giant logs, but Gibson is always right there with them — sometimes atop a horse, a vantage point that allows him to better watch over his team and spot any problems with their loads, and sometimes on foot. The only year-round employee in the stock program, Gibson is the person on whom the mules’ welfare ultimately depends. 

For the mules, that’s a shot of luck. Spend a few minutes with Gibson and his beasts of burden, and it’s clear they have a bond — they’re more than just coworkers. While Gibson grew up around livestock, he said, “I didn’t mess around with mules till I came here.” But as a former K9 officer, he arrived well versed in the ways of animals, and what it takes to have a solid working relationship with one. 

“It’s remarkable how much a German shepherd and a mule has in common,” he said. 

In both cases, the handler’s first job is to earn the animal’s trust. Then, when the animal refuses to do something it’s being told to do, the handler must figure out what the problem is and then fix that problem, convincing the animal that the task is now safe to do. You can never make a mule do something, Gibson said. You can only ever persuade it, baby step by baby step. 

“You just have to get them out there and let them get used to it,” he said. “If they don’t like it, you don’t just say, ‘Oh, he don’t like it. I’ll put him in the barn.’ Enough times he gets brushed by a limb or whatever, he’ll get used to it. All of em’s good mules. It’s because we use them. They don’t stay in a barn all the time. We use them during the summer three or four days a week.”

Packing and The Wilderness Act

Gibson is only the second animal packer the park’s ever had. The program was founded in 1976, with Sonny Freshour hired to do the job. He stayed there for more than 30 years, retiring in 2010. Gibson, who began working for the park in 2003 as a trail crew member, joined Freshour in the barn a couple years later, where he trained for three-and-a-half years to learn the ins and outs of mule packing before Freshour retirement. 

“When he retired I just stepped up to it,” said Gibson. “He was a good trainer.”

The packing program came about as the result of a piece of federal legislation that’s important for many other reasons, as well — the Wilderness Act of 1964. The act aims to set aside pieces of exceptionally beautiful and pristine land for permanent preservation, severely limiting the activities that can take place there in hopes of creating “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

While the park was never named an official wilderness area, in 1974 then-Secretary of the Interior Bob Herbst recommended that Congress designate 390,500 of the park’s 522,427 acres as wilderness. The recommendation was never approved, but it triggered the park to begin managing the acres as though they were, in fact, wilderness. 

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Following a series of rainy days, the mule team crosses below Rainbow Falls. Josh Shapiro photo

“The only roads we could use were administrative roads that were outside that wilderness area,” Gibson explained. “When they started closing it down these crews were saying, ‘How are we going to get some of these materials and supplies here that we need?’”

Eventually, someone suggested mules. Freshour was hired, and the rest is history. At one point, the park had two mule barns — one in Cades Cove and the other in Towstring, near Cherokee — but currently the entire stock program is run out of Towstring. 

The Smokies is the only park in the eastern U.S. to use mules for backcountry work. While the C&O Canal National Historical Park in Maryland has mules, those animals are used primarily for historical reenactment purposes, not for backcountry transport. 

According to Gibson, it’s worked out well for the Smokies mules, because the life they’re living suits them just fine. 

“Mules enjoy working,” he said. “They’ll tell you when you’re loading them too heavy. A lot of times when you tighten their saddle too heavy they’ll look over at you like, ‘That’s enough.’ They’ll give you little hints about how they feel.”

It’s just up to Gibson to listen. 

By the numbers

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s packing program has made its mark on park operations over the years, as shown by these data compiled between 2009 and 2016. 

  • Days used: 418
  • Hours used: 3,987
  • Miles of trail covered while packing: 2,615
  • Weight of packed equipment: 252,850 pounds
  • Miles of trail cleared: 2,672
  • Number of trees cleared: 4,950
  • Footlogs pulled: 11 
  • Weight of footlogs: 1,600 to 4,500 pounds
  • Search and rescue events: 5

Source:, written by Holly Kays

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