Friday, May 21, 2010

Mule Ride at the Grand Canyon North Rim

We arrived at the North Rim Lodge just before noon today, after an interesting scooter ride from the Jacob Lake Campground. We went inside and registered at the Grand Canyon Trail Rides desk. The man working the desk was dressed in cowboy/wrangler clothing, and I don’t think it was a costume to please the tourists.  This guy looked totally at home in his cowboy duds and I suspect he had been dressing like that for a long time.  Remember, we are deep in the American Southwest, where the American cowboy still lives and works.

We had some extra time before meeting at the van to take us to the mule corral and so we went and ate some lunch and relaxed a bit. The lodge is a handsome building - very rustic looking – and there are also a large number of guest cabins of various shapes and sizes. It looked like a good place to stay but you would need to make reservations at least a year in advance.  There were plenty of people around, including many Europeans, but it was not busy like the South Rim.

The van ride to the mule corral took just a few minutes – we had actually passed the place on our way to the Lodge. By 1 PM we were in the saddle and ready to get started on the 4 hour ride down to the Supai Tunnel and back. We would be riding on the very steep North Kaibab Trail and would descend around 2,300 feet before coming back up.

My mule was a smallish dark bay charmer called Annie and Lynda was aboard a bigger male mule called Dagwood. As usual, Lynda brought up the rear as we rode along.  For some unknown reason, she ends up in the back just about every time we go horseback riding,– who knows why this is so, but Lynda doesn’t seem to mind.

There were only seven of us on this ride: me, Lynda, an older couple, a middle aged single guy, and two wranglers. We started with a safety briefing and were told in no uncertain terms that safety was the #1 focus.  Those wranglers were not kidding around.  If anyone needed to remove their jacket or hat, or even open a camera case, we must all come to a halt and one of the wranglers would dismount to assist the person.  On no account, no matter what, were we to get off our mule without assistance. And finally, and the wranglers said this might be the most important thing, we must keep our mules close to together - we needed to stay within 4 feet of the one in front. The wranglers also suggested we not fool with taking pictures on the way down. They said it would be safer and there would be plenty of opportunity to take photos on our way back up the trail.

We would soon find out why it was so important not to do anything to spook the mules.

The head wrangler (whose name I’ve already forgotten) led the mule pack and the other wrangler (Ron) rode behind me, in front of Lynda. And down, down, down we went!  That trail is very steep with incredibly tight switchbacks that take getting used to when aboard a mule. Let's sing halleluiah that those mules are such sure-footed creatures with a healthy sense of self preservation!  It would be complete disaster if a mule got spooked on this trail. I’ve flown in F16 fighter jets and home-made ultra-lights, gone hang-gliding, ridden motorcycles, and spent untold hours on the back of a horse but the mule ride down that trail got my attention!  As we would come upon hikers, the protocol was for them to stand quietly aside as we went past.  If that was not possible, then we would bring the mules to a halt, and let the hikers go by.

I was a little worried about Lynda because she is scared of heights and gets vertigo from time to time.  Lynda was two mules behind me, with wrangler Ron between us.  As we approached a particularly scary switchback, I called back to Lynda to close her eyes.  I do believe that is exactly what she did, and I’m guessing she closed her eyes more than once on that trail. I know I did and I have a sneaky suspicion that my mule did also!

As we went along, Ron and I did some chatting.  He is a Vietnam vet and has been working mule rides in the Grand Canyon for 40 years. Ron said there was no place he’d rather be. Conversation led to Ron also telling me that he is originally from Silver City, New Mexico (where we had recently spent the night and got a tire fixed) and that Billy the Kid was his great, great uncle or some such thing.  I made mule noises (snorted) when he said this but then Ron said he was actually telling the truth. According to him, Billy the Kid was not the dashing figure as he is often made out to be. In fact, he had trouble being born and his head and face showed traces of deformity. Who knows whether or not any of this is true, but it did make for good conversation as we made our way down the trail.

Lynda found cool video of Ron being interviewed and some footage of this trail ride - check it out here.

The scenery was beautiful and it was great to be right in the middle of it all, instead of perched on a railed-off overlook. It took almost two hours to get down to the Supai Tunnel, where we stopped for a 20 minute break and to drink some water.

Then we headed back up, and the going was a lot easier on both the riders and the mules.  We could relax a little more and we stopped several times for photos and for the wranglers to tell us about the canyon and the mules, which they both obviously love and admire a great deal.

I’ve never ridden a mule before and nor have I had reason to give these man-made creatures much thought, but after this little experience I have a liking for these hardy beasts that are so sure-footed and tough.  It’s hard not to respect their talents, even if their ears are a little big.

According to Harry S. Truman, "My favorite animal is the mule. He has more horse sense than a horse. He knows when to stop eating -- and he knows when to stop working."


Unknown said...

Loved the pictures and especially the video. That was a great touch. I have always been fond of mules myself. We had one when I was a child, her name was Jenny. She plowed our garden, that was her only claim to fame. She was very sweet and also very smart. This is definitely something I want to do the next time we go out west.

RognCath said...

That video was really interesting. I can see how the journey would be hugely memorable. Glad you guys did it! Would this be something Sarah could do too? Sounds like kids of all ages can ride.

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