A young mule stringer helps keep a dying profession alive

Mules are still needed to carry supplies in wild, roadless mountains.

 

The sun is streaming through breaking storm clouds as Barrett Funka slips a halter over his quarter horse, Ellie, and leads her through a pasture outside Colorado’s Raggeds Wilderness. Six mules trail dutifully behind as Funka, a baby-faced 27-year-old in a big cowboy hat, pushes through wet, waist-high grass, ticking off the benefits of his job: There’s solitude (“Nothin’ like plodding down a trail to make your mind think”), public education (“You work with a lot of people who don’t know anything about stock”) and the romance of doing a job that most people have forgotten exists.

funka2-jpg
Mule packer Barrett Funka prepares to load one of his six mules into a stock trailer outside western Colorado’s Raggeds Wilderness this summer, after packing 500 pounds of trash from the area. “I’m 27 and single,” he says. “I have no reason not to keep doing this.”
Krista Langlois

The fire towers, ranger stations and switch-backed trails of the Forest Service were built with stock animals, Funka says — not all that long ago, “mules meant Forest Service.” But over the past few decades, the number of stock in the agency has dropped dramatically, and today, only two regional offices employ pack strings. One covers the state of Montana. The other tends to a sprawling geography of grasslands, mountains, canyons and desert that spans Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota’s Black Hills and two-thirds of Wyoming. Ten mules and two packers service the entire region. Funka — one of the last and youngest of his kind — is among them. 

His story begins 17 years ago on his family’s farm in western Pennsylvania, when he fell in love with a pair of mules named Maggie and Cookie. By the time he left home, Funka knew he wanted to work with the goofy, sure-footed animals, but the number of places where mules were still needed to pack supplies in and out of wild, roadless mountains was rapidly dwindling. To secure one of the few paid jobs in such a place, he began polishing his résumé with a singular goal: “To be really good at being outside. Especially in big places.”

His job skills — packing toilets and other trash out of the wilderness, traveling for days on horseback, and maneuvering a 30-foot stock trailer over mountain passes — can’t be learned in a classroom, yet he couldn’t have gotten the job without his forestry degree from the University of Montana. In most Forest Service jobs today, he says, “you don’t get hired because you have old, traditional skills. You get hired because you have a degree.”

You also get hired because you don’t mind being transient: Each summer, Funka travels non-stop across the five states, living out of his horse trailer and going wherever his services are needed — like a cowboy, but one who’s just as likely to sleep at a truck stop as by a campfire. As he loads the mules into their trailer in the sparkling wet field outside the Raggeds, Funka’s already thinking about October, when he’ll drive up to Wyoming to hunt with his dad. “I’m like a ski patroller who spends his days off skiing,” he says. “When the  season’s over, I’m just going to drive my stock back into the wilderness and disappear again.”

funka1-jpg
Funka leads a pack mule train across a meadow on the Calico Trail in Colorado.
Sam Green/Cortez Journal
High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...