The Keepers of Traditions: Pack Teams on the National Forests

Benjamin Cossel

Public Affairs Officer

Stanislaus National Forest

Sept. 23, 2022

Close-up of a horseshoe on an anvil, a hammer about to strike it.

Lead Packer John Sprik hammers out the rough edges of a mule’s shoe after checking for proper fit on the Stanislaus National Forest in September 2022. (USDA Forest Service photo by Benjamin Cossel)

Today's Forest Service is a wonder of modern technology. Wildlife biologists use radio collars to track migration habits of animals across a landscape. Firefighters are armed with GPS enabled maps to pinpoint a location. And all of us rely on cellphones to communicate when out in the field.  

But one group stands in stark contrast to the inevitable march of progress – the men and women of the Forest Service’s pack strings, who lead a collection of pack horses and mules. Their tools and trade here in the U.S. harken back to the turn of the 20th century.  

Spend any time with pack teams, and you might think you’ve stepped back over a hundred years as well. But this is no competition between differing ideologies of how to access the wilderness. One complements the other; the work of the forest would be near impossible to accomplish without a blend of modern day and the past. 

A muscular man holds the foot of a goldish-brown mule between his legs while bent over to remove an old shoe from the mule.

One of the few farriers left in the Pacific Southwest Region, Sprik removes an old shoe from one of the mules in the Stanislaus National Forest’s pack string. The pack string mainly moves supplies in and out of designated wilderness areas of the forest. (USDA Forest Service photo by Benjamin Cossel)

It’s a warm August morning in the mid elevations of the Sierra Nevada foothills. The sun is just beginning to poke through the dense foliage of ponderosas, cedars and firs that shade the landscape. A drifting cloud of dust intermingles with the rays of sun casting an otherworldly hue. Horses and mules trot around their enclosures.  

A loud crash of metal slamming against metal breaks through the solitude. A shed door in the near distance slams open and out strides Stanislaus National Forest Lead Packer John Sprik— nails in hand and a farrier hammer in the other. 

Sprik is the type of man central casting dreams of: clean-shaven head, a goatee beard, strong muscular build without being showy, plain spoken. He looks comfortable with heavy tools in his hands. 

“So today, I’ve got to reshoe a couple of the mules before we head out next week into the wilderness area,” Sprik calls from over his shoulder as he walks toward the enclosure’s gate. 

Close-up of a mule being shoed. A portion of the nail sticks up, being driven in by a swinging hammer.

“Shoeing an animal is precision work, get it wrong and it could mean the animal is lame for up to six weeks while they heal,” explained Sprik. As lead packer, Sprik cares for 17 animals: two horses and 15 mules. (USDA Forest Service photo by Benjamin Cossel)

His natural connection with the animals is obvious. They all walk up to greet him, hoping for some sort of treat in an outstretched palm. 

“There’s not a lot of us packers left who know how to reshoe our own animals,” he says. Sprik is one of the few farriers remaining, a fact he takes great pride in.  

For more than 20 years, Sprik has led teams of horses and mules deep into the backcountry of the forest to accomplish a myriad of tasks. His life as a packer began at the age of 15 when he took an internship at the Aspen Meadows Pack Station on the Summit Ranger District. But even before then, he was accompanying his mother and father – both backcountry guides – as they loaded up pack strings and took out groups of hunters. 

A muscular man wearing heavy leather pants and a red t-shirt leads a golden-brown mule by a rope.

John Sprik leads a mule outside the enclosure to replace the animal’s shoes. Since 2014, Sprik has been the lead packer on the Stanislaus National Forest, but his love for horses and mules goes back to early childhood. (USDA Forest Service photo by Benjamin Cossel)

"Both of my parents did this type of work, so I would be out with them, all up and down Oregon and California,” Sprik said. “By the time I was 15, going over to Aspen Meadows was a natural choice.” 

It was a choice that would ultimately benefit the Stanislaus National Forest. Aspen Meadow Pack Station sits right next door to the Stanislaus National Forest’s Pack Station. In 2014, Sprik joined the Stanislaus family. 

“So much of what we do in our designated wilderness areas wouldn’t be possible without the use of our pack strings,” said Miguel Macias, Mi-Wok/Summit Ranger District Public Services Staff Officer. 

With their special designations codified in the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness areas have specific rules about what can and cannot be used within their boundary. Often it is the job of the pack string to get those primitive tools into the back country to comply with Forest Service directives against the use of mechanized equipment.  

A mule’s head protrudes outside an enclosure.

Aries, one of the 15 mules on the Stanislaus National Forest’s pack string, pops his head outside the enclosure, hoping for a treat. (USDA Forest Service photo by Benjamin Cossel)

Of the 18 forests in Region 5, only seven – Stanislaus, Klamath, Inyo, Shasta-Trinity, Sierra, Los Padres, and Mendocino – maintain an active pack string program.  

“In the early 1900s, the USFS Pacific Southwest Region (R5) had a flourishing stock program. At that time, approximately 2,000 head of stock and more than 100 packers comprised a program that regularly supported crews in both front and backcountry settings,” according to the Region’s Pack Stock Center of Excellence. “Today, however, the R5 program includes only approximately 120 animals and seven permanent packers. While pack stock resources have declined, the amount of designated wilderness in R5 has steadily increased from approximately 1.2 million acres in 1964 to about 5.5 million acres at present.” 

Managing 17 animals of two horses and 15 mules, Sprik regularly resupplies teams from the California Conservation Corps backcountry crews who create and maintain trails. Pack teams carry forest range specialists to monitor rangelands, assist and resupply fire crews working deep in wilderness areas, plus a whole host of task that could only be accomplished by the pack string. 

Able to carry more weight than the average horse, Sprik said mules are also more sure-footed on the steep, treacherous terrain within the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  

“It really is something special to have this capability here on the Stanislaus,” said Macias. “We’re more able to manage our wilderness areas the way they were intended to be managed, with as little impact as possible. So, when visitors go out into those areas, they are able to have a true-to-them wilderness experience where primitive forms of travel, tools and scenery dominate the landscape… and most modern technologies are left behind at the trailhead” 

Traditionalists like Sprik truly embody the spirit of giving back to the lands and the animals he cares for.