Oh, the stories the Schram/Duggan clan can tell about pack mules, the backcountry and Mother Nature.
Seated around the kitchen table, Julie Schram, her daughter Christy Schram-Duggan and husband Ed Duggan fire off anecdotes about years of packing so quickly it’s tough to keep them straight. One involves packing in four boxes of dynamite, detonation cords and blasting caps, making sure that the explosives were on different mules.
“Pete had the biggest load — we put 220 pounds on him because the rock drill weighed 110 pounds and we needed to keep it even,” Schram recalls. “We ended up going 22 miles and the last mile and a half they had snowdrifts up to their bellies. What happened was, there was a landslide and we couldn’t go where the trail went, so we had to go down to this deep, steep spot with drifts still there. This was around the Fourth of July!”
With the easy banter of family, they finish each other’s sentences while sipping coffee and tea.
“We packed a 6-foot ladder in one time,” Duggan said.
“That was awkward,” Schram-Duggan adds, laughing.
“And then there was the 8-by-10-foot roll of canvas that we couldn’t fold up,” Duggan said. “We took the pack boxes, loaded them up and put the roll on the pack box. It stuck out past the mule’s head and past her tail. We packed it on Lady — she looked at us like ‘Really?’”
They’ve packed mules since they were in their teens, and all are members of the Bitter Root Back Country Horsemen, which works with the U.S. Forest Service to help maintain trails. They’re also volunteers with the Montana Wilderness Association, packing in tools — and lots of food — for crews as they take care of those places where mechanized equipment isn’t allowed.
“MWA is a fun group, and have people come in from all over the country to work on the trails,” Duggan said.
“Remember the guy from New York last year?” Schram-Duggan adds. “And the guy from Texas who was a vegan? He was hard to wrap your head around. He’s from Texas and doesn’t eat meat?”
All three agree that the trail crews do amazing work, so they were surprised last week when they were honored by the MWA with the 2017 Continental Divide Trail Crew Volunteer award. Sonny Mazzulo, the MWA stewardship coordinator, noted that Schram and her late husband Dave have been helping out since 2008, and after Dave died in 2016, Schram, Schram-Duggan and Duggan picked up the slack.
“They’re damn good people,” Mazzullo said. “Much of the Forest Service and BLM’s highest priority trail work is deep in the backcountry. Without the support of Backcountry Horsemen like the Schram-Duggan family, MWA would be unable to get crews into these areas to work.”
The award also included Schram-Duggan’s two sons, John Renner, 10, and Beau Duggan, 12.
“The award caught us totally off guard,” Schram-Duggan said. “When he said our name, he had to coax us to go up there for the award. I was like, ‘Crap, we have to stand up.’”
They modestly counter that without the trail crews and their fellow High Country Horsemen groups, many hikers and horseback riders wouldn’t be able to get into backcountry.
“They do amazing work. Sometimes we ride in on a rough trail, and come in the next week to pack them out and you can’t tell it’s the same trail,” Schram-Duggan said.
Last summer, they packed in four out of the five Continental Divide trail projects; the fifth began at the trailhead. They take in bear-proof metal food boxes, most of the crews’ personal gear, tools and beverages. If the trail is 8 miles or less, they’ll drop off the items, stick around for lunch, then head home. If it‘s one of the longer trips — like 22 miles — they stay overnight.
“Packing is a skill and an art rolled together,” Duggan notes.
When the trail crews are finished, the family makes the return trip to pack them out.
“And we always have cold beer for them when they come out,” Duggan said.
“And Gatorade, and Power-Ade,” Schram-Duggan added.
They typically pack in with anywhere from six to nine mules and a handful of horses. In their pasture on a cold winter morning, where Schram-Duggan is the sixth generation, the livestock nuzzle them for scratches or watch warily.
Duggan says the mules all have distinct personalities. Lady is an old Forest Service mule and a “diva” who hates getting loaded but who is one of the best on the trail. Joe gets offended if he’s not carrying the tool box, and will hit every tree on his way down the trail until he gets it. And don’t put Pete and Joe together on the string.
“One will go one way around a tree and the other goes the other way,” Duggan said. “With mules, especially these characters, they’ll do things just because it’s quiet or boring.”
And after listening to their stories and laughter, it’s clear that the Schram-Dugan clan takes after their mules more than they’d like to admit.