PORT ANGELES, Wash. — At 6:30 a.m. in Olympic National Park's Elwha Valley, this team prepares for the day.
They get paid in scenery — and carrots.
"These are kind of the freight trains of the wilderness,” said lead packer Heidi Brill.
It's against Federal law to use machines for transport in the wilderness of the park, so this team of 30 mules does the job instead. If you've ever been on a trail here, you can thank a mule for helping to build it.
"We're going out to support a volunteer trail crew and a research project. So we're hauling in gear to support those folks,” Brill said when asked what the crew was loading up for today.
Heavy boxes carrying pine martin research equipment, gas cans, and chainsaws were being securely strapped to the animals, who were completely non-plussed about it all. The mules haul 25 to 30 tons of gear into the wilderness on any given year. And they do it gladly as long as there's grass to munch.
They carry everything from lumber — to lightning rods. They've even helped scientists study space.
“A few years ago they packed about a million dollars worth of stuff for scientific study into Enchanted Valley for NASA,” said trail program manager Larry Lack.
And yes, this job is as romantic as it looks.
"Ninety-five percent of the time!" Brill laughed.
"Oh yeah we have the most incredible office there is,” said packer Hans Flockoi, who pointed out his fine leather office chair — a saddle.
The mules — like humans — have their quirks.
“They're all free-thinking individuals and they're wonderful because of that,” Brill said.
She introduced Bob, who’s been with the team six years and loves having his ears scratched. At 26, Miss Daisy is the eldest mule in the herd, and is always the first one out of the gate, ready to work. Then there’s Sam-mule, a curious mule who’s been on the team for seven years and has the most handsome ears in the herd.
You can meet all of the mules in their corral at the Elwha entrance to Olympic National Park in spring, summer, and fall.
Or see them anytime on the park's Facebook page, where they announce a Mule of the Month. We’d like to congratulate Vern, July’s mule.
But if you come by in the morning and you’re really lucky, you'll catch them heading off to work — hauling the stuff that makes it possible for all of us to play in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
"They are working mules, they're doing a job, a really important job, so step off the trail, talk to them as they go by, and thank the packers and the mules for all their hard work,” Lack said.