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Forest Service names pack mule in honor of Rifle woman

Hilda Sykes interacts with new USFS pack mule Hilda who was named after her to pay tribute to her family's contribution to the history of the Rifle area.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The timeless image of a lone forest ranger winding through a mountain pass, trailing a string of pack mules is as ingrained on Western culture as the cowboy riding into the sunset. 

Next to Smokey the Bear and fire lookout stations, the pack string is nearly synonymous with the history of the U.S. Forest Service. 

And while the blinding speed of technological progress has left nearly every icon of the Wild West in the dust, pack strings are just as instrumental today for the Forest Service’s work along the Rocky Mountains as they were 100 years ago, Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Clare Dewey said.

Assigned to the Rifle Ranger District in 2013, Dewey explained mules and horses provide the agency with the ability to traverse swaths of public land inaccessible by motor vehicles.

One of the USFS pack mules nibbles on grass at the Rifle Ranger Station. before heading out into the field.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“We use these animals throughout the summer and fall for trail maintenance, our range program and law enforcement,” Dewey said. “Without them, there’s no way we could accomplish the scope of our work on foot or with our current staffing levels.”

Acquiring and maintaining pack animals requires significant resources and planning, but this year, the Rifle Ranger District added a new mule to their team. And, Dewey decided the animal’s name should reflect the importance of another icon in the area’s history, the Sykes family.

“We named the mule Hilda, after Hilda Sykes, whose family has worked these lands as far back as most can remember,” Dewey said. “It’s also a wonderful way to pay homage to the strong, sturdy women who helped build the town we live in today.” 

Family history

At 88 years old, Sykes has lived in Rifle her entire life, and her land boasts one of the town’s oldest structures — a cabin nestled on the south side of the Colorado River.

“My grandfather, Walter Egbert, homesteaded in Parachute near Wallace Creek,” Sykes recalled with the help of her son, Dennis. 

Sykes’ father, a farrier, moved the family to Rifle before she was born to work for Union Carbide, a defunct ore milling corporation.

“We always had horses, and once, I rode a cow,” Sykes remembered. “We had a milk cow we had to take to a pasture a quarter-mile down the road. I wasn’t very old, but one day, Dad picked me up and put me on the cow, and I rode her down to the pasture.”

USFS Law Enforecement Officer Clare Dewey removes packs from the mules and horses at the Rifle Ranger Station.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Since Dewey moved to the area, the Sykes have taken a shine to the native Montanan. 

“Clare is one of the family,” Sykes daughter-in-law and Rifle Ranger District visitor information specialist, Cindy George, said.

Through their relationship, Dewey learned about Sykes’ father, Larry, who earned a measure of respect throughout the Western Slope as a horse trainer.

USFS employee Amanda Crow leads the pack horses and mules down a road near the Rifle Ranger Station.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“My dad trained this one horse to stand on a wooden stool for a fellow in Grand Junction,” Sykes said. “He stood on that stool with all four feet, and I got to ride him on there.” 

When the ranger district needed a name for their new mule, Dewey said she immediately thought of Sykes.

“I think it’s a wonderful way to keep her history alive and well for years to come,” she said. 

Hilda Sykes looks at new USFS pack mule Hilda who was named after her to pay tribute to her family’s contribution to the history of the Rifle area.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The gesture amused Sykes.

“I don’t know that it’s an honor — having a mule named after you,” she said, chuckling. “But, I don’t mind it.”

Into the field

Pack strings enable the Forest Service to tote heavy materials deep into the wilderness, facilitating bridge construction, law enforcement and recreation projects.

“On an average trip, they carry 200-300 pounds of equipment for us, which we would otherwise need to carry in and out by hand,” Dewey said. “We’re working with smaller crews these days, and these animals allow us to keep up the pace of our work.”

USFS Law Enforcement Officer Clare Dewey ties a load to a pack horse at the Rifle Ranger Station.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

For law enforcement, Dewey said the pack string is commonly used to carry out caches of supplies left by campers and hunters.

“Usually, these caches are hung in trees, hidden under rocks or they bury it and cover them with branches,” she said, explaining people store the gear for later trips into areas accessible only by foot or horseback. “The big impact of these caches is the bears can get into them, and they can spread the trash and stuff for miles.”

Bears can become habituated to an area where they find caches regularly, creating concerns of potential interactions between them and the people who return to claim their gear. One stretch of land, near Meeker, is so littered with supply caches Dewey refers to it as “Walmart.”  

“Aesthetically, it’s horrible,” she said. “You hike in 10 miles, thinking it’s going to be pristine, and instead it’s littered with trash.”

On the range

As useful as the animals are for law enforcement and trail maintenance, they fall under the direction of the range management program, said Lydia LaBelle de Rios, the Rifle Ranger District range program manager.

“When I started 15 years ago, I had six seasonal workers and one full-time staff member, and now, I just have me,” LaBelle de Rios said. “The staff we do have, it’s critical we’re being efficient with our efforts, and that’s where the pack string comes in.”

USFS employee Katie Krauth walks from the shed to help unload packs from the mules at the Rifle Ranger Station.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The range program manages allotments used by ranchers for grazing. Most of the land in LaBelle de Rios’ program is wilderness, so motor vehicles are prohibited.  She often uses the animals to pack in gear for days-long trips as she checks in on various allotments. 

LaBelle de Rios said her range program was one of the largest in the White River National Forest with 19 allotments being used by about 30 families across 350,000 acres.

Hilda is the newest addition to LaBelle de Rios’ team, which includes three horses and another mule. 

“It’s kind of a big deal to be able to add another animal to the team, right now, given our staff situation,” she said. “But our other mule is retiring, so we needed Hilda to replace her.”

No matter how useful, however, LaBelle de Rios said the pack string is but one of the tools the Forest Service uses to accomplish their mission.

“Our motto is caring for the land, serving the people,” she explained. “And, I feel like we need to serve people in order to better care for the land.”


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