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Tue, July 14

Mule Rides at Grand Canyon
Traditional transport not an easy ride

Mules wait patiently for their riders to return from lunch at Plateau Point.<br>
<i>Photo/Jackie Brown</i>

Mules wait patiently for their riders to return from lunch at Plateau Point.<br> <i>Photo/Jackie Brown</i>

Canyon on muleback presents its own challenges

More than 10,000 people a year use the Bright Angel Trail for what it was made for - mules, that is.

This enlightening fact that on the trail the mules rule is just one of a number of colorful facts presented by Livery Manager Casey Murph or his representatives, who provide a pre-ride orientation and reality check - with a chance to back out for a full refund - to groups there for both the Phantom Ranch two day trip and the day ride about halfway down to Plateau Point.

One thing he wanted to get straight right away - to go by mule is to choose riding, not avoid hiking.

"Riders should keep in mind that it's rigorous. If they are looking for an easy way into the Canyon, this isn't it," he said. "If you want that, go see the IMAX® movie."

Murph should know. He'd been a mule wrangler, guiding tourists up and down the trail for 15 years before becoming assistant livery manager for two years and manager in February of 2006. The legacy he keeps alive with his entertaining delivery poking a little fun at the expense of us tenderfoots is even older, going back more than a century. Long before Gore-tex boots and titanium hiking poles began to leave their mark, the Bright Angel Trail was laid down for mules, first for mining and then for tourism. Today, says Murph, he and his colleagues are glad to let hikers use their trail as long as they recognize that the mules have right-of-way.

Grand Canyon mule rides have an impressive record of no tourist fatalities in over a century of operation. Murph said that's no accident.

"We attribute our safety record to three things," he said. "First of all, the quality of the mules, then long training. And we have guides doing their job to take care and prevent accidents."

Xanterra's mules come from a broker in Tennessee named Rufus Reese who knows the needs of the operation here and chooses accordingly.

"We rely on Rufus to find the kind of mules we need," Murph said. "He will ride the mules, work with them, make sure they're the kind we can get along with. If they end up not working out, he guarantees to take them back."

Big mules of between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds are needed for the rigors of the trail.

"You want to stay away from mules that are too light boned," said Murph. "You need big, stout mules to carry a 200-pound rider and a 75-pound saddle every day."

Some mules come with names; a lot get named after ex-girlfriends, Murph noted. Once they arrive, they begin their training with exacting standards before they are ever allowed to carry a visitor.

"There's no set time for training. It can take a few months, up to several years and some are never trusted with riders," Murph said.

Murph said the mules are good in the Canyon, in part because of their own natural selfishness that distinguishes their lineage from their dad, who was not the horse in the horse-jackass combination.

"You can train a horse to run off a cliff," he said. "A rider can't accidentally get a mule to do it. They are less likely to think that what you want is in their best interest."

The wranglers are also carefully chosen, and often recruited as was Filip Zalesky. He came to the Canyon in May after being offered a job while here as a customer. Zalesky, like all wranglers that Murph hires, came with his own equipment.

"Good wranglers are picky about their equipment," he explained.

Riders are given one useful piece of equipment - the crop, or mule motivator as Murph more gently phrased it - and told how to use it with authority. The mules, he notes, are not particularly eager to ferry riders into the Canyon and back and might be tempted to slack unless the motivator is not applied with much vigor. The most important safety measure was for the rider to keep the nose of their animal close to the tail of the one in front of them. Otherwise, the gaps could invite alarming (to mules) intrusions by hikers or wildlife.

Something that can be alarming to riders is the added sense of height atop a mule and that they tend to favor the outer edge of the trail. But as the safety record shows, those mulish instincts toward self-preservation along with the strict rein that the wrangler keeps on mules and riders, can translate terrifying into thrilling.

Discomfort aboard a mule doesn't necessarily come in the places you would naturally expect. Yes, riders might long for a softer saddle for the last few miles of the ride but they're likely to find their knees may also pay a price. It is a strenuous ride, but not too much so for someone in average shape.

At this time of year, mule rides are in less demand and easier to book. Locals can also check with the Bright Angel Transportation Desk for next day cancellations.

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