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Members like Abbie Stehn

This tiny outdoorswoman packs a big punch—or rather, a big mule. Giddyup as we follow an irrepressibly sunny mule packer as she preps for another wilderness trek with five mules along for the ride.

Unforgettable Things Come in Small Packs

 

For most of us, the wilderness always seems to be on the periphery of our lives. Depending on where you live—rural or urban, what city, state, what country, even—the outdoors can look a lot different if you step outside your day-to-day life and drive for half an hour, an hour, or even more.

“To take a Bob Marshall Wilderness trip with a mule string, that’s where it at. That’s how you see the Bob.”

 

 

“I’m Abbie,” she says with a wide, mischievous grin. “And I heart mules."

 

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For most of us, it’s not hard to find those wild places, to step foot into the forest or the brush, and start walking until the sounds of civilization don’t just fade but disappear completely. Here, the air smells different. You can hear the wind rustling treetops or blowing across a valley. Your feet move across a ground softened by dirt, leaves, or pine needles. And for a brief moment, you feel connected to the planet in a way you never do among the concrete walls of a city.

But for mule packer Abbie Stehn, this is life every day. For the most part, there are no paved roads or rushing noise of traffic. Those concrete walls in cities? Those are the places she visits temporarily. Here, on the edges of the Bob Marshall Wilderness (“the Bob”) and Glacier National Park, that’s her everyday existence. Her home of choice in the summer? Living off-grid in the forest. Her main modes of transportation have four legs and answer to names, with personalities and temperaments of their own.

But for Stehn, mules are more than just a means of getting around or even her profession. They’re family, adored and cared for.

“I’m Abbie,” she says with a wide, mischievous grin. “And I heart mules. I love ‘em. I love packing. I love managing ‘em. I love sharing them with people.” She pauses, looks at that camera, and the bright, infectious smile is back full wattage. “How’s that?”

Most people imagine packers to be strapping cowboys, strong and sturdy. And while Stehn is definitely sturdy, she’s also petite, in a plaid shirt, jeans, and sandy blonde braids under a green wool cap.

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“I grew up in Pennsylvania with horses,” she says. “I went to school for forestry ‘cause I thought maybe I could be a park ranger or something.”

She didn’t discover packing—or her love for it—under she got a wrangler job in Glacier National Park working for a cowboy who wasn’t entirely sure she had what it takes. “The guy’s name was Bruce. Of course, it was Bruce. Bruce,” she drawls, deepening her voice comically. “Just this tall, skinny cowboy, big dip in his lip all the time.” She gives a low bear-like growl. “Real gruff. Except when he was petting his mules, and then it was ‘Oh sweetie pie, oh honey bunch.’ Yunno. Softie about his mules.” She nods knowingly, the corners of her mouth turning up.

She asked him if he was hiring any packers that summer. “He looks and me and goes, ‘Well, who’s asking?’ I said, ‘Oh, me.’ He does the old look-me-up-and-down and says, ‘Mm, I don’t think we’re hiring this year.’” She laughs. “I mean, I do things differently because I’m tiny. I’m not as strong. I don’t have the upper body strength that these grown men have. ‘Oh, we’ll just put it up here.’ I’m like, “Um, no, you don’t. Not when you’re me. Yeah, I had to struggle for some time.”

But it’s hard to look at Stehn and see anything but capable. Small, yes. But also so completely content in who she is, with the easy confidence of someone who knows what they’re doing and knows they’re doing it well. And she’s been more than willing to mentor other young women looking to learn the ropes, especially in a male-dominated field. “It’s more comfortable for tiny ladies to learn from tiny ladies,” she shrugs. 

 

“So if you have the opportunity to have somebody take you in with mules…why not?”

 

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Stehn is what is known as a short-string packer, usually leading five mules on a string. The mules are loaded with gear, food, and supplies, whether the packer brings supplies to folks in remote areas or accompanying wilderness trips for visitors.  Loading is something of an art form, knowing which animals can be trusted with what, ensuring they can carry the load, properly balanced and tied so that the weight is evenly distributed and secure.

It’s also one of the most efficient and safest ways to get into the backcountry and really experience the wilderness.

“The wilderness is pretty inaccessible unless you wanna [trek] it on your feet,” says Stehn. “So if you have the opportunity to have somebody take you in with mules…why not? I mean, to take a Bob Marshall Wilderness trip with a mule string, that’s where it at. That’s how you see the Bob.”

Mule packers will generally prep the loads in advance before loading up all their gear and the animals into a truck and driving the mules up to the trail’s head. There’s a point in the wilderness where places are still accessible by car, with forest surrounding you on either side. But eventually, that road ends, and your choices are to either trek on foot…and ride. Out here, that wilderness beckons for adventure with canyons of rushing water, tricking streams, and lush green valleys that rise into breathtakingly magnificent, snow-capped mountain peaks.

This is where the mules are unloaded and packed.  

 

 

“So all the while you’re making these loads, and in your head, you know who they’re going on,” says Stehn. “You’re specifically designing those loads for the mules you’ll have on your trip.”

 

“So all the while you’re making these loads, and in your head, you know who they’re going on,” says Stehn. “You’re specifically designing those loads for the mules you’ll have on your trip.”

It’s not as simple as just packing the gear and strapping it to whichever mule stands there. Gear is weighed and balanced, and an experienced packer knows that the personality of each   “Dillon likes to kinda screw around. Trot, trot, trot, it’s all a big game. He’s the class clown. So he never carries the eggs. And he never carries the beer. Then you’ve got Kitty. She’s big. She’s strong. She’s steady. She can carry everything—except the little, tiny compact things, because whhhsht,” mimes things falling off. “She’s too fat and round.”

Portrait-1v2.jpgYou don’t hear the words like “job” or “profession” come from Stehn. There is, instead, the sense that this is just how things are. It’s just her life. Here, the lines blur. Fortunately, her husband speaks the same language, yet another “big softie” about the animals.

“Do I talk about Tom?” She heaves a comically dramatic sigh. “Tom and I? We dream. This [ranch] is off the grid. A ranger station, off the grid. Tom and I have been living most of our summers for the last decade off the grid. We would love someday to have an off-the-grid property. Like, our own little piece of this,” she gestures. “Whitefish Credit Union is about the only game in town that will consider an off-the-grid property.”

But until Stehn can carve out that little piece of life for herself, there’s still work to do. Animals need to be fed and tended. Work has to be done. Supplies still need to be loaded in. The days start early, and out in the wilderness, adventure beckons. In the valley, the sun creeps over the shadowed mountains, lighting up the clouds in hues of fiery pinks, oranges, and purples.

“My favorite moments are packing into Big Prairie,” says Stehn, referring to the historic ranger station in the Bob. “I’ll get unloaded, you know, we’ll spend the night…first thing in the morning, you know, five, five-thirty a.m., I get up. There’s no electricity, of course, so everything’s dark and quiet; put your coffee on to perc, get yourself a cup of coffee. You go out into the Big Prairie, and I whistle. And I listen. And I whistle again, and here come all the mules trottin’ across the millions of acres of Bob Marshall. And they trot themselves into the gate and stand at the hedge rail and say, ‘Here we are. We’re ready. What’re we doing today?”

 

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