Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Equal Opportunity -- at Rock Creek

"Girls...they just wanna have fun now..."

"This operation proves that packing into the wilderness isn't always a man's work."

[Note:  While much of my earlier work involved following the grand prix circuits, I was always on the look-out for stories that wandered the outskirts of my imagination...where horse and human found themselves in what for many, seemed an improbable pairing.  Sure.  Breaking stereotypes, but also telling the story of people that don't seek the distinction, or put much value in the cliché.  They do a job where their co-workers have four legs and a tail -- and sometimes a set of 14-inch ears.]       July, 1991:

Around Bishop, California, the Sierra Nevada Mountains rise sharply above the Owens Valley to over 14,000 feet.  In the thin air of the Inyo National Forest, the Rock Creek Pack Station has been doing business since 1919.  Composed of around 20 employees and more than 135 horses and mules, the station has been operated since 1947 by 70-year old Herb London and his wife Aleta, making it one of the oldest pack stations in the continental United States.

Situated at 10,000 feet above sea level, the station handles outfitted expeditions into the Sierras, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Inyo national forests and parks.  Rock Creek offers tourists, hikers, fishermen and hunters some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and the best possible means to get there. Like many pack stations, Rock Creek specializes in taking the uninitiated to the very edge of civilization.  But it does far more.  It helps to educate the public on how to enjoy the wilderness as guests, and not intruders.

Aided by partner David Dohnel and London's son, veterinarian Craig London, the pack station cuts through the old illusions if itinerant cowboys leading long strings of ill-tempered mules through the mountains.  Oh, the costumes are traditional, the mules indeed opinionated and the trails treacherous, but the guide may just have a masters degree from UC-Davis, and also just might be a woman -- leaving the weathered old axioms about mule packers to the history books.

Most of the credit for such an open-door policy falls directly on Herb London's desk.  He's a man who believes in opportunity and perseverance; two areas of philosophy that have dominated his life.  London was almost killed in a stagecoach accident in 1963, and he listened as his doctors told him first that he wouldn't live, and second, that if he did, he would never walk.  They never got around to the third item, which was that he would never ride again, because he had already gotten up and left the hospital.

London's beliefs in the business and the people who work in it run deep.  It can be summed up in one short sentence:  "If they could do the job, that's all that ever mattered to me.  Actually, there's always been women on ranches.  We've had women here since it first started.  We had this sign on the wall -- the Forest Service came up here and gave us this sign -- Equal Opportunity.  They said, 'You know, you have to have an equal opportunity outfit.'  We had four women on the place, a Chinese packer and two Indian fellows.  So I said, 'Does that qualify us?'"

The women employees at Rock Creek come from many different backgrounds.  In fact, it can easily be said that the packers and outfitters run the spectrum of the social scale.  Many have come from the student ranks of the University of California at Davis, which has used the pack station as both teaching laboratory and a source of summer employment for many years.  Although many of the students go on to earn degrees in animal science or veterinary medicine, the lure of the mountains runs deep -- so deep that some have forsaken their chosen careers to continue working at the pack station long after they've earned their degrees.

The role of the women at the station has evolved considerably over the years.  Used primarily as cooks for the many camps the station maintains, they've proven themselves competent wranglers and packers in their own right, even to the extent that they now compete in packing competitions as a separate entry.  No longer are they simply cheerleaders for the men.

[Note: I first caught up with Kelly, Tari, Jamie and Wendi at Bishop, California's annual Mule Days Celebration.  After watching a class known as the Packers Scramble -- details for another blog entry -- I headed up into the wilderness to learn more.]   
Mule Days -- not just packers...
Every May, Bishop holds its annual Mule Days extravaganza.  Established some 16 years ago as a packers' rendezvous of sorts, the annual event has evolved into one of the largest shows of its kind in the world.  Still considered one of the few opportunities for working packers to compete at their chosen occupation, the show has experienced something entirely different the last few years -- women's teams.  In fact, there are now so many of them that the show committee had to create a new division to handle the influx.
Last year, the rock Creek contingent put together all-male and all-female teams.  The Rock Creek men had dominated the event in the past, but the women had not been as fortunate.  The 1990 team of Jamie Hirnshall. Kelly Brumfeld, Tari Justus and Wendi Duddly were determined to come out at the top of the pile.  When the dust finally settled, they had their championship belt buckles, something that Wendi Duddly described as, "worth all the sweat and nerves it took."
Many of the packers at the station have more in common than their love of mules and mountains.  Both Kelly Brumfield (women's team) and Jim Brumfield (world champion individual packer), as well as Jamie and Phil Hirnshall found more in common than most -- eventually ending up at the altar.  Phil Hirnshall thinks it's because "packers and cowboys are such attractive people that women just gravitate toward them.  You don't want to leave them behind so you bring them along.  It's a partnership."
But joking aside, teamwork and co-operation are vital, because the Sierra Nevada Mountains can be cruel.  At 12,000 feet, the climate can change drastically, and early winters are not uncommon.
Herb London expects a lot from all his packers.  As Jamie sees it, "Herb is pretty good.  You have to prove yourself, but he doesn't expect too much either.  He figures he'll send you out to do a spot trip.  I mean he doesn't expect you to pick up 60-pound side loads.  So you make them up on the ground, put your bags on the mule, and pack off the ground.  Or he may send two of you over to the same area to help pack. I don't think Herb's ever had a problem with women.  He feels that we're real kind to stock.  We give him a bad time; yeah, just because we're girls.  But he never says you can't do that because you're female.  If you want to try it, he says 'just try it.'  But still, for the most part, if you're a girl up here, you are going to cook besides doing everything else.  The guys are just not going to cook."  Not all things have changed in the packing business.
The expertise of the packers, male and female, often includes them in search and rescue operations involving downed aircraft or injured hikers, many times in foul weather, or at altitudes that keep even the most sophisticated of helicopters firmly on the ground.
Yep, the girls won.  The 1990 champs!
[Photos: by the author]

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