Ryan and I had this planned for weeks. Our first solo camping trip would be to Emerald Lake, high in the Colorado Rockies. School would start soon and this two day trip would complete the summer. I just finished a tour of duty with a local hay crew and Ryan escaped from his grandfather’s mining claims. The objective was an eight mile march, upward, ever upward to one of America’s great pack-in lakes.
Ryan met me at the trail head, his grandfather’s pickup came to a dusty stop, then rocked and swayed for a bit. The reason for the movement was a gray-brown mule barely contained by the sideboards.
“Hey Ryan, what’s this?”, I said excitedly. “Are we taking the mule?”.
“Yeah, I was thinking of all the stuff that we were going to carry up to the lake”, Ryan explained. “I just thought , Let’s take the mule.”
The truck groaned as the mule bounced down to the ground. Ryan had told me about his grandfather buying a mule, unused until now. Mules are wired differently than horses, probably because they are a hybrid. Mommy and Daddy mules don’t make little mules. Usually a jack, male donkey, mates with a horse mare. Their disposition can be pleasant or ornery. This would be a good test.
Since we were not carrying the load, Ryan had added more supplies, cast iron skillet, eggs, potatoes, a 22 rifle, and two cans of Coors beer, for ballast I guess. Neither of us had ever used a pack saddle, cinches and straps all over. Our filled panniers were loaded to each side. The mule did some tail twisting, but so far , so good. It seemed so easy that we talked of running guided pack trips next summer.
The first hour on the trail was just slightly uphill, a forested park of aspens and oak brush. The geography changed suddenly by way of a rocky transition into heavy pines. The mule balked at the rocky step-ups. First Ryan, then myself, pulled on the rope, both tugging for all that we were worth. The mule finally leaped forward. The pack saddle slipped back over the mules hips. It was rodeo time, the mule kicked and bucked, through, around, and over the brush and headed back down the trail. About 50 yards down the trail, the pack saddle gave up the ghost and surrendered itself to the ground.
Some hikers at the corral held the rope of the long-eared beast. Never one to think it through, we turned right back up the trail. It seems that we failed to put the breast strap around the chest on our first attempt. It would keep the pack saddle from slipping back like it did. When we arrived back at the pack saddle, we snubbed the mule to an aspen tree and fought the thing back on and correctly refitted. We did notice that at the bottom of one of the panniers, the eggs and potatoes had made an omelette of themselves.
About halfway up the trail, we were tired and thirsty. It was decided that the stream we were following was the clearest we had ever seen, and to drink from it would be a luxury most folks would never have the opportunity to do. Ah yes, clean mountain spring water. About twenty yards up the trail, a dead sheep lay in the center of the small stream, what was under water had turned a stringy pinkish white, the ribs of the sheep that was out of the water had maggots moving between the patches of wool and meat. We gagged all afternoon.
Late in the afternoon, we made the little land strip between Little Emerald and Big Emerald lakes. Campers often stayed in this area, but today, no one. Camp was setup in the thinned pines, ideal place for a tent and campfire. The mule was tied short and close to camp.
There was a causeway between the two lakes, the big running into the small. Many large rainbow trout could be seen in the rushing water, but not caught. Supper was three small brook trout, bacon and some skinned up potatoes.
The next day was perfect, we ate, fished again at the causeway for the big Rainbows, shot at marmots near the rocks, skipped rocks, and relaxed. Ryan hobbled the mule so it could eat and move about.
At near dark, a huge dark cloud came over the mountain from the west. These mountains, famous for their their late-season lightning storms, did not disappoint. Ryan and I hid in our wind-ravaged tent, sheets of lightning lit up the area over and over.
We awoke the next morning exhausted, the firewood was wet, the mule was missing and we were ready to go home. Without a fire, our breakfast was not much and terrible.
The hobbled mule couldn’t be far, Ryan had hobbled the two front feet, the mule could move about , but not far and not fast. While looking for the mule, I discovered why the big trout were not biting, they were spawning in small rivulets against the mountain. Sidetracked, we soon hand-caught 20 beautiful rainbows, our limit.
The search resumed for our mule, no sign. Could not see him or track him due to the rain. While Ryan searched, I gathered camp, broke down the tent, rolled the sleeping bags and stowed the gear in the panniers. As I made way over to a rocky little outcropping next to the water to wash the skillet, I dropped it.
There was the mule in waist-deep water. The problem was, he was dead. Scared during the storm , feet hobbled together, he went into the water, couldn’t swim and drowned.
When Ryan arrived, he meant to say, “Oh my gosh.”. That isn’t how it came out, followed by, “I’m dead.”.
I wanted to say, ” You didn’t like that mule anyway. “, but settled with. “Yep, you’re screwed…