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 ManCarlson, 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 stormLast 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. The trip up the mountain had been slower than usual because of downed timber from a previous storm, so they had to hurry to get to the trailhead before nightfall. They packed up – leaving some gear behind – and headed down the mountain with the string of pack mules. On the way, one of the middle pack mules carrying boxes of pots and pans lost its footing and fell. Spooked and entangled in rope, the mule started running, and the other pack mules followed. Carlson jumped off his mule to try to stop them, but got knocked into a rock. He quickly caught them, but it was going to take him about an hour to readjust the loads on the mules. He told his wife to go ahead and lead the others down the mountain, that the mules knew their way home.
The harrowing detourCarlson repacked the mules, but it was nightfall by the time he started back down. He had been riding in the dark for more than three hours on a moonless night when his mule suddenly came to a halt. Carlson first thought that Moon had stopped for a fallen tree on the trail. There were numerous switchbacks along the trail, but at the last one on the way down, Moon had missed the turn and kept going straight ahead. It wasn’t his fault, Carlson said. Moon thought he was still on the trail. Backpackers had beaten out a foot trail from the switchback to the edge of a cliff that offered magnificent views. Moon had mistaken it for the correct trail and now stood precariously on a narrow ledge of cliff with a string of pack mules lined up behind him. "I couldn’t back up because I had six mules pushing on me,” Carlson said. Carlson wondered what he was going to do, but Moon figured it out. "My mule just kind of puts all four of his feet together and he just turns around right there, like he was turning around on top of a table. He just kind of maneuvers his way around and heads out.”
In the light of dayThe next day, Carlson and his wife went back up the mountain to look at the cliff in the daylight. "Oh, my God! You mean you were out there,” Cindy exclaimed. Carlson estimated it would have been about a 150-foot fall. "It didn’t bother me too much until the next day when we rode back up there and I saw where I was,” he said. "If I had been on a horse in that situation, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today.” But like Carlson said, a good mule will never hurt you.