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Living on the edge: Crescent rancher tells of harrowing experience in Colorado mountains

by Ed Godfrey Modified: December 20, 2009 at 12:04 am •  Published: December 20, 2009

photo - Shown on his ranch in Crescent, Mule-Packer Bruce Carlson and his mule Moon were a step away from death in the Colorado mountains. Photo By David McDaniel, The Oklahoman
Shown on his ranch in Crescent, Mule-Packer Bruce Carlson and his mule Moon were a step away from death in the Colorado mountains. Photo By David McDaniel, The Oklahoman
The mule abruptly stopped in the pitch black night.

Bruce Carlson knew not to kick a mule when riding one at night to make the animal go forward.

Carlson had ridden his mules in the dark before on the Colorado mountainside and trusted they knew their way. Moon must have had a good reason for stopping.

He shined a flashlight in front of Moon to see why he had stopped.

Carlson then realized the Moon’s head was sticking over the edge of a cliff. They were a tiny step away from plunging to their deaths.

The Mule Man
Carlson, 56, has been around mules his entire life, growing up on an Arizona ranch in country where mules were better suited for the ranch work than horses.

The owner of the 4-C Ranch north of Crescent raises and trains mules. Carlson and his California partner have sold numerous mules over the years to the National Park Service and U.S. Forestry Service to work in places like the Grand Canyon.

Carlson has a simple rule for training mules: "Never hit them. Never beat them.”

A horse can’t be completely trusted, Carlson says, but a good mule will never hurt you. Something he learned again last month on a mountainside in Colorado.

‘The goat herd’
Carlson has been making annual camping trips to Colorado for more than 15 years to ride through the mountains. He started taking his horses to ride, but soon discovered much of the high country was better suited for mules.

"We go into some country now that a horse has no business being in,” he said.

Carlson doesn’t hunt for elk, but he has family and friends who do. On Carlson’s mules, they can ride to the top of the Continental Divide in search of monster bulls.

One group of elk is on the mountaintop Carlson calls "The Goat Herd.”

"They are probably the closest thing to a 400 (class) bull you are going to see in Colorado,” he said. "Those elk are on the cliffs right with the mountain sheep. But if you shot them where you see them, the fall is going to break their horns.”

Beating the storm
Last month, Carlson, his wife Cindy, his brother and two friends were camping at 11,280 feet in the Weminuche Wilderness Area north of Pagosa Springs, Colo.

From the trailhead, they rode mules and used pack mules to carry the gear on what is normally a five-hour trip to the campsite.

After four days of hunting, it started to snow. Carlson knew a storm was coming because he had seen bull elk tracks heading down the mountain.

"You learn when that happens, you’ve got a big storm coming,” he said "Those elk will tell you.”

Carlson decided it was time to get off the mountain to beat the storm.

by Ed Godfrey
Copy Editor, Outdoors Editor, Rodeo, River Sports Reporter
Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more...
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