Mules carry the load at Deam Wilderness

Rod's got a mule, her name is Belle. Fifteen miles on the Deam Wilderness Trail.

Work being done in the Hoosier National Forest could add a few new verses to that old American folk song about a mule pulling barges on the Erie Canal.

Mules trained to haul loads of gravel, drag out downed trees and pull plows and graders to repair and build trails and turnpikes are essential to maintaining the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area, a 13,000-acre section of the Hoosier located near Heltonville.

Rod Fahl, wilderness ranger, and Summer McDuffee, wilderness trails technician, explained how they work in tandem with four mules — Belle, Jolly, Lolly and Sammy — during the August program of the Bedford Parks Department's outdoor education series Tuesday at Otis Park.

Areas like the Deam, designated a wilderness in 1982 by Congress, are carefully managed to preserve a natural condition and provide solitude. To that end, no motorized equipment is permitted in wilderness areas. So when a tree falls, Fahl and McDuffee don't grab a chainsaw. Instead, they grab their trusty crosscut saw and axe. And when a trail or turnpike needs gravel, crushed stone is scooped into 5-gallon buckets and then loaded into gravel sacks anchored to each side of the mule.

They are also used to remove hazards near camp sites.

In short, mules do the heavy lifting; they are the beasts of burden that the Deam could not do without.

About 30 people attended the talk, which began at the Otis Park Bath House and then moved to a grassy area beside the Red Brick where Fahl and McDuffee had brought Belle and Jolly.

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The audience asked questions like why mules and not horses?

Answer: Mules are sure-footed and sturdier than horses.

How much do they weigh?

Answer: About 1,200 pounds. Fahl explained the HNF mules are larger and stronger than most mules because they are bred with a Belgian draft horse.

How long do they live?

Answer: About 40 years. Jack, a retired HNF mule, is 38.

Where do they sleep?

Answer: In a barn/stable area at Hardin Ridge.

Sally Cook was among those attending.

"The mules are beautiful and the program was interesting," she said. "I learned how they brought in the gravel to spread on the trails."

Because the mules are needed for specific jobs, Fahl said the Forest Service purchases them already trained to be accustomed to wearing a harness, pulling a plow and wearing the large bags to haul gravel. The mules can carry 150 to 240 pounds of gravel.

"Each one has a personality and we know what they like and don't like," he said. "They spook easily so you have to be careful if something spooks them."

As the old saying suggests, mules can be stubborn, but Fahl said it's a smart kind of stubborn.

Taking a primitive approach to the jobs on the Deam require patience, said McDuffee.

Grading a trail to level it out or plowing a path in a forest is nothing like plowing a field. Hitting rocks and roots is common.

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"It's a jolt," said McDuffee. "It jolts the mule and it jolts the person on the plow."

"It ain't easy work," added Fahl.

The work may seem slow, compared to modern methods, but with the mules it's surprisingly fast.

McDuffee said they recently completed 600 feet of turnpike in six days. A turnpike is a structure created to improve the trail and make it more sustainable. It involves laying wooden posts as sides and filling in between them with crushed limestone to create a raised trail bed in areas where the trail tends to stay wet.

The next outdoor park program will be Sept. 27.

This article originally appeared on The Times-Mail: Mules carry the load at Deam Wilderness