The Horse Packer: Phil Hirnshall
What I Do:
“If you can shoe a horse or play a guitar, you’ve got a job at the pack station," says Phil Hirnshall, who has worked at Rock Creek Pack Station in the Sierra Nevada mountains every summer for the past 40 years. Hirnshall is tasked with using horses and mules to provide cargo and passenger transport into the Little Lakes Valley backcountry, following trails and ridges through some of the best scenery in the Sierra Nevadas. Every day, Hirnshall gets the horses and mules saddled by seven o’clock, loads gear and clients onto the animals, and leads the way up through pine forest and wildflower meadows below big rocky peaks until 3 p.m., when they set up camp. “Then you unpack the mules and put up picket lines with ropes for the animals,” says Hirnshall. “The cook puts the kitchen together while I pick out one or two horses to be my night horses. I give one of those a bell and I turn them loose to graze while I gather firewood and water and set up all the tents.” After dinner, Hirnshall collects the two night horses, ties them up and gives them grain so they’ll be rested and fed in the morning. Then he puts a bell on his mare and turns her loose with all the other horses and mules, so they can graze all night. “In the morning, way before daylight, I get up and the cook starts coffee for me. I try to be in the saddle as soon as I could possibly see a horse track. Then I track my herd to bring them all back before breakfast, so we can saddle up the clients.”
“I’d been shoeing horses professionally for about ten years when I first heard about the work, and I just thought, ‘That sounds like fun,’ " says Hirnshall. "I’ve never been one to be too serious about work. For a while, we hired a lot of packers out of Texas when the cattle industry was in trouble — real dyed-in-the-wool cowboys. They knew stock and they were hard workers, but they didn’t get along with people too well. You have to like people. But if you do, it’s a great deal, especially for college-age kids. You get fed all summer, you get a pine tree to live under with no rent, and if you don’t drink or party too much you can get a nice pocketful of money."
That Time He Couldn't Find the Horses... For Days:
On a good morning in the backcountry, Hirnshall’s herd might be two miles from camp. “On a bad morning, they’ll be ten miles away and I’ve got to find them.” Sometimes they go even farther out: "We were on the Kern Plateau once — it’s vast, we’ve had people get lost down there — and I couldn’t find the stock anywhere. So I came back to camp and said, ‘Well, we’re staying here another day because we ain't got anything to ride. We had some malcontent people who said, 'Well, the brochure said there’d be a lot of saddle time,' so my wife, Jamie, who was helping me on that trip, said, ‘Well there’s a saddle right over there on that log! Why don’t you go spend some time on it?’ There was a lot of drinking that night, and the next morning everyone was in a bad mood, so I rode out to this camp that has a little airfield. I asked the pilots to keep an eye out for our stock and I asked if they'd want any passengers going out? He said, 'Sure!' So I went back and told the guests I could make arrangements to get them flown out, and the ones who were the angriest took me up on that offer, and just as I was riding them off to the airstrip, my other clients said, 'Hey, could you ask the pilots to bring more booze when they fly back?' So we got rid of our undesirables and got ourselves a new load of liquor — and the next day we found our stock and went on to have a great trip.” -Daniel Duane