The racing mule
Even routine fieldwork can be an adventure
Boyde Blackwell is the Private Lands Public Wildlife program coordinator in the Salt Lake Office. Before coming to Salt Lake, he spent almost 10 years as a biologist in northeastern Utah, an area he still considers the greatest region in the state.
Let me introduce you to Topper, a one-of-a-kind Division mule who earned himself many names during the two years he was with our office. We called him Topper most of the time, but he was also Topper the racing mule, Topper the dumb ass and some of my biologists even started to call him Boyde. I’m not sure if they were kidding (or if there were some similar personality quirks), but that mule caused me more grief and pain than any mule was worth. Anyway, this story is about how he became a racing mule.
As a biologist, I have been able to enjoy so much of the outdoors in Utah, and what an awesome state it is! One of my very favorite spots is the roadless area of the Book Cliffs. The best way to get there is on horseback, or in my case, on a mule. I love to ride up to the Little Creek Wildlife Management Area for work. We go up a few times during the year, usually to do field work, check permits and take samples. The Division owns an old cabin in the area, which is where most of our biologists stay when they’re in the field. My visits there often give me a better perspective about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
It was during Topper’s first trip into the Book Cliffs that he earned his racing mule nickname. (And if he had been in the San Bernardino mule race, he would have won it!) Unfortunately for me, I happened to be riding the son of a gun at the time.
It was the year’s first ride into Little Creek and a very pretty spring morning. We were heading in to open up the cabin for the field season. The sky was clear, and the air was crisp — it felt great after a long cold winter.
Topper actually stood still and sniffed the air while I saddled him up and loaded gear on the pack horse. It took a little time to get things ready for the four-mile trip to the cabin. Although Topper stood very still and assessed his new surroundings, he looked a little nervous. That should have been my first clue that this was not going to be an ordinary trip.
We started out down the trail, some of which is on the shady side of the mountain. Quite a few trees had fallen across the trail due to the heavy winter snows that year. At each fallen tree, we had to spend just a few minutes to find the best crossing place for the pack horses.
It was at one of these fallen trees that I found Topper’s talent for racing. I should have noticed that he was nervous in the dark timber and rather jumpy as we crossed the fallen logs, but I was fully enjoying the spring morning and the great ride. I was completely oblivious to any signs that my trusty steed was giving off. At the last crossing, old Topper reached his limit.
Topper was first to cross over the log. Then, as the pack horse behind us crossed, its pack scraped some branches and made a very loud scratching sound that sent Topper over the edge. He kicked into high gear, doing his very best to carry us both to safety. (Okay, I realize that my safety never really crossed his mind).
Topper chomped down on the bit, stretched out his head and headed down that trail as fast as he could go. He clearly wanted to get as far away as possible from the awful scratching noise. Unfortunately, the pack horse bolted just after Topper made his break. So right behind us, there was a pack horse packed with all kinds of rattling pans and cans. This only heightened the anxiety for Topper — the scary noise was now coming after us!
We charged down the old road, running from one side to the other, trying to shake the rattling and scraping sounds. There was nothing I could do to persuade that mule that we were okay. And everywhere we went, the noisy pack horse followed. Finally, after a half-mile or so, the horse got tired and stopped. Fortunately for me, Topper stopped when the noise stopped. At that point I jumped off the animal, looked him in the eye and told him he was a dumb ass. So, I guess he actually got two of his nicknames from me — and all in the space of a wild, half-mile race.