High Country News: A young mule stringer helps keep a dying profession alive
High Country News
The sun is streaming through breaking storm clouds as Barrett Funka slips a halter over his quarter horse, Ellie, and leads her through a pasture outside Colorado’s Raggeds Wilderness. Six mules trail dutifully behind as Funka, a baby-faced 27-year-old in a big cowboy hat, pushes through wet, waist-high grass, ticking off the benefits of his job: There’s solitude (“Nothin’ like plodding down a trail to make your mind think”), public education (“You work with a lot of people who don’t know anything about stock”) and the romance of doing a job that most people have forgotten exists.
The fire towers, ranger stations and switch-backed trails of the Forest Service were built with stock animals, Funka says — not all that long ago, “mules meant Forest Service.” But over the past few decades, the number of stock in the agency has dropped dramatically, and today, only two regional offices employ pack strings. One covers the state of Montana. The other tends to a sprawling geography of grasslands, mountains, canyons and desert that spans Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota’s Black Hills and two-thirds of Wyoming. Ten mules and two packers service the entire region. Funka — one of the last and youngest of his kind — is among them.
His story begins 17 years ago on his family’s farm in western Pennsylvania, when he fell in love with a pair of mules named Maggie and Cookie. By the time he left home, Funka knew he wanted to work with the goofy, sure-footed animals, but the number of places where mules were still needed to pack supplies in and out of wild, roadless mountains was rapidly dwindling. To secure one of the few paid jobs in such a place, he began polishing his résumé with a singular goal: “To be really good at being outside. Especially in big places.”
His job skills — packing toilets and other trash out of the wilderness, traveling for days on horseback, and maneuvering a 30-foot stock trailer over mountain passes — can’t be learned in a classroom, yet he couldn’t have gotten the job without his forestry degree from the University of Montana. In most Forest Service jobs today, he says, “you don’t get hired because you have old, traditional skills. You get hired because you have a degree.”
You also get hired because you don’t mind being transient: Each summer, Funka travels nonstop across the five states, living out of his horse trailer and going wherever his services are needed — like a cowboy, but one who’s just as likely to sleep at a truck stop as by a campfire. As he loads the mules into their trailer in the sparkling wet field outside the Raggeds, Funka’s already thinking about October, when he’ll drive up to Wyoming to hunt with his dad. “I’m like a ski patroller who spends his days off skiing,” he says. “When the season’s over, I’m just going to drive my stock back into the wilderness and disappear again.”
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