Best of the burden: Smokies mules make backcountry operations possible

In popular culture mules get a bad rap, cast as stubborn, ornery and even mischievous.

But Danny Gibson, animal packer for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spends more time with mules than just about anybody around, and he’s quick to jump to their defense.

“They have that notorious reputation of being stubborn, but they’re not really stubborn — they just don’t want to get hurt,” said Gibson. “It’s self-preservation. If it doesn’t look safe, a horse will just walk over it, but a mule’s like, ‘Eh, I don’t know about that.’ They are thinkers.”

The six mules tethered to a gate at the Smokies’ Rainbow Falls Trailhead backed up Gibson’s words. Perhaps it’s because they were deep in thought, but they didn’t come across as ornery at all. Rather, they stood perfectly still, emptied saddles patiently awaiting the next load of locust logs to be carried a challenging 2.7 miles to Rainbow Falls.

“They’re definitely the unsung heroes of the park,” said Gibson, gesturing toward his team.

Each mule weighs about 1,200 pounds and is capable of walking for miles with 250 pounds on its back — for a team of six mules, that’s 1,500 pounds per trip, carried over some of the most difficult terrain in the park. Today’s goal, Rainbow Falls, will require ascending some 1,500 feet along 2.7 miles of trail in conditions ranging from impeccable to deplorable. The logs are to be delivered as part of a two-year rehabilitation project on Rainbow Falls Trail through the Trails Forever Program, and while some sections have already been renovated to perfection, others are full of rocks, roots and gullies.

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