Lee Roeser was born to be a mule packer in the mountains and wilderness. At a very early age he learned the craft from his parents who ran a mule pack station. By 6 years old he was assisting his parents, by 13 was already earning a salary as a packer, and at 16 he was hauling explosives, gear and tools for a trail project.
“I grew up on it and it stuck with me,” said Roeser, 57, a packer for the U.S. Forest Service on the Inyo National Forest, one of the two host forests for the Pack Stock Center of Excellence. “You must be passionate for the well-being of the animals. I do it for that and my love of the mountains and opportunity to continue to learn.”
The U.S. Forest Service has a long tradition of using pack stock to bring supplies to remote locations to support fire and trail crews. Pack supported rangers and resource crews are also a common sight in wilderness areas, which do not allow mechanized transport of supplies and equipment. A 12-year U.S. Forest Service employee, Roeser really embodies the three most important elements a pack stocker needs: 1) care for the animals, 2) customer service, and 3) knowledge and making adjustments on the job.
“He grew up in an environment where there was a very high standard of packing for 50 years,” said Michael Morse, wilderness supervisor for the Mammoth District of the Inyo National Forest, co-director of the Pack Stock Center of Excellence and fellow packer. “He has spent his entire life learning how to be a packer. We consider Lee to be the best of the best and it shows in his work.
“He is methodical on what type of equipment he uses and is engaged and thoughtful. Everything he does has a purpose when it comes to packing. Something as simple as a tying a hitch on a mule makes a difference to him.”
It is this attention to detail that has led to amazing record of perfection with issues such as injuries to the animals. But it doesn’t stop there. Roeser is a big proponent of teaching the craft. Recently he worked with an intern, Corey Finneman, who saw firsthand what it takes to be a packer.
“He is very artistic with his process – a great teacher,” said Finneman. “He always has a purpose when he teaches and is articulate and thorough but keeps it simple – to the basics.”
“I’ve learned a lot from him over the years,” Morse added. “Everything he does he does for a reason. His highest priority is always the safety of the animal and the packer. We realized how much better our chance of success with the Pack Stock Center of Excellence was by hiring the best packer out there.”
“What makes me tick is always looking for things I can learn from to make packing better for the animals and myself,” said Roeser. “I want the equipment to be more in harmony with the mules. You can’t be a packer for the salary. You have to have a love for working with mules in the mountains.”
Everything about Roeser revolves around packing. In fact even his wife Jennifer of 25 years owns a pack station, running a family business.
“He is a humble quiet guy,” said Jeff Davis, a USDA Wildlife Services professional hunter, trapper and packer. “He is completely honest. There is not a shady side to him. Lee is as good as it gets – it would take decades of professional experience to match him. I put him on a pedestal for many reasons.”
Two years ago, Roeser was tasked with supporting a trail crew in an area that wasn’t built to the typical stock standard. The location was Mt. Whitney on the Inyo National Forest at 12,500 feet. The task was tall – bring heavy boxes, shovels and other equipment up a trail – to reconstruct it without disturbing the public. There were safety hazards along the trail and the project was going to take several months with more than 300 mule loads. Despite all the challenges, Roeser and his team didn’t have a single injury or accident. “It was flawless,” said Morse.
Roeser employed the strategy of using a ranger in front and back to look for the public to keep everyone safe.
So what should a young person expect if they are interested in a career as a packer?
“Someone starting out needs to come in with an open mind,” said Roeser. “They should expect to work long days. They must be passionate about the care of the animals. They can’t be hurrying to get back by a certain time. That could be harmful to the animals. They must always keep the animals in mind. Not everyone is a natural mule person. If they are not, the mules will know and they probably should find another career.”