The type of packing we do is called “dunnage” – that is, freight only, no passengers. We do not offer rides because of the rugged terrain, blind corners and heavy multi-use traffic. Only experienced riders ought to tackle the San Gabriel front country and even then it’s quite dangerous.
By far the majority of our packing customers are cabin owners and guests at Sturtevant’s Camp (see our Map & Facilities page for info on Sturtevant’s). And of those customers’ loads the majority is propane – mostly ten gallon tanks. We also carry food and drink, garbage, bedding, tools, roofing, concrete, furniture, generators, firewood, lumber….
The process and techniques we use are the same as they’ve ever been. Packing services are charged by the pound, typically with a minimum price depending on the distance from the pack station (call for rates). Customers arrange for a delivery time and drop their materials in our loading dock. Everything is weighed, sorted for each animal, then split 50/50 to get a balanced load; an unbalanced load will cause the saddle to slide to the heavy side, inviting disaster. The average mule (roughly 14 hands) can carry 300lbs. A mammoth donkey will take up to 200lbs. and the standard donkey limit is 125lbs.
There are two common types of pack saddle used. The Decker saddle has a built-in blanket filled with horizontal wooden slats “to protect the animal’s ribs” and arches onto which the loads are tied. We use the sawbuck type with a pair of crosses, or x’s, for load tying. Sawbucks are not only historically accurate for California, they are better for lumber and other awkward loads than the Decker. Western sawbucks are traditionally made of Oak with leather rigging, and we still have lots of them, but we are now using a stronger, lighter, adjustable model made with composite sidebars and billet aluminum crosses. Because mules and donkeys don’t have tall enough withers to keep the saddle from sliding up around their necks, they need to be anchored in the rear. We use britchens (a strap around the rear flanks of the animal) rather than croupers (strap around the base of the tail); again the traditional method in these parts.
In the old days, loads of groceries and sundries were often wrapped in canvas or wool blankets then tied to the animal. Professional packers would use boxes and crates. Today we still organize loads in boxes, usually cardboard potato and apple boxes, but we play it safe and place the boxes, two per side, in saddle bags, or “panniers”. Form-fitting rigid panniers, or saddle boxes, are readily available but we prefer the compliance of the canvas bags, especially for the type of work we do. They wrap tightly around propane tanks, they can hang under loads of lumber to carry tools then be loaded with construction debris for the trip back; and the freight is easily rearranged to maintain balance on multiple-stop trips. Also, many of our customers are not present for the delivery so we leave disposable boxes behind rather than expensive saddle boxes that we would need to retrieve. Lumber and pipes etc. are tied directly to the saddle’s crosses and should not exceed eight feet long.
As you may have gathered by now, there is a lot more to this packing business than just tossing the load on a donkey and pulling the lead rope. There are also many intangible qualities that make a good packer. If one cares for and appreciates his stock (animals), they will trust him and respect his authority. One must also know the individual personalities of his stock; what they’re afraid of, what doesn’t bother them, any bad habits, how they get along with each other. In addition, there are many modern inconveniences to contend with on our trails, such as a hiking public that is unfamiliar with equine etiquette and speeding mountain bikers. All the hard work and worry is definitely rewarded by the appreciation of our customers and the excited faces on those who first discover our living piece of history.