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An Interview with John and Jenise Cunningham

Published in the:
Trail Crew Field Notes
A Newsletter of the Non-profit High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew
as interviewed by Emmy Duxbury

To View this Newsletter in its entirety, click here
or visit www.trailcrew.com

People & Personalities: Horse Pack Support Partners
High Sierra Pack Station

HSVTC: You have been integral to supporting our backpacking trips in the Edison and Florence Lake area for a number of years. How did you get started with the HSVTC and how long have you been involved?
JENISE: I worked with Shane’s mother, Charlene, during the winter off-season at IRS some 20 years ago. She kept telling me to go to Shane’s store, California Outfitters, and meet Shane. One day, I finally went there and asked him if he could order some roll-up tables that we needed for packing. He said he could. We first got involved packing in tools for their work on the trails. They started going further and further along the trails where it became harder for them to carry the tools where they needed to get the work done. A few years later, they were sending out backpacking crews to work on projects that they couldn’t finish on day trips and we started packing in equipment and supplies for the trail crew.
HVTC: I have found an article about your work in a newsletter called “The Long Distance Hiker” based in Lebanon, NH, which is in my neck of the woods! How did this happen? How did you get into this type of work? Please give us some personal background.
JOHN: That’s news to me. I haven’t seen the article, but we have packed people in from all over the country and it’s very possible that they hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Maybe the person heard about us at Vermillion Valley Resort. Lots of people do.
I grew up in North Fork and Mono Hot Springs. I’m the third generation in my family to run a pack station. The High Sierra Pack Station was once located at Mono Hot Springs. We were located there between 1948 and 1968. The Forest Service gave us a new site near Edison Lake. We built the first one just up the road from Edison Lake, but a harsh winter smashed it in 1968-‘69. Then we were moved to where we are today. We’ve been at the new site since 1971.
Vaud Cunnigham, my Dad’s second cousin, started packing in 1922 at Huntington Lake. My dad and uncle worked for him until he sold out. Then they, my dad, Tom and uncle, Shorty (John, I’m his namesake) bought another pack station. I bought my uncle out in 1968, and my dad and I became partners. We mostly packed for hunters, fishermen, family vacationers, the USFS and the government, Edison Company and the Sierra Club.
JENISE: I grew up in Orange County/Pomona area and my family did lots of camping. On one such camping trip, I met John who took us on a pack trip. I attended Caly Poly, Pomona. In 1973, I cooked for the pack crew for the first time, and we were married in 1974. My father loved hiking and fishing and as soon as things permitted, we were camping at Edison Lake and Mono Hot Springs.
HSVTC: To many horse and mule lovers, this sounds like a dream life. Tell us about what your lives are like living in a remote area.
JOHN: We’ve always worked at something during the winter, but after I got married, it became more important to have a reliable job. For 15 years, I worked for the propane company during the off-season and packed during the summer. This worked out very well. Now I work for a company that does cloud-seeding.
JENISE: During the wintertime, I’m an RSP instructional aide in a pull-out program working at two Clovis elementary schools. I love the work I do because I can see the difference RSP teachers make when children benefit from the extra help we give.
It is a dream life, but you’re not going to get rich doing it. There is so much overhead. The insurance, keeping animals, licenses, etc.
You have periods of very hard work as a packer, but you have the solitude and peace that only the mountains can give. I can be alone for a week at a time and be completely happy. It’s a balance between the close family we have with our employees and those we pack for. We live together, eat together, work as a team together gathering the animals, feeding the animals. We don’t have a boob tube, or computer and we didn’t have a phone until we got cell phones. The mail takes several days since they only deliver on Tuesdays and Fridays to Mono Hot Springs where we pick it up.
JOHN: The insurance costs the same, whether it’s for four or 12 months. Most people don’t realize that though we make good money, the cost is high. Now with the early start of schools, our season has decreased from five to four months. We don’t make as much money, but it costs us the same to operate.
JENISE: We had a radio phone that was somewhat reliable for two years. Now we have cell phones that still go out when lightening hits the tower and knocks it out. Even the radio signal is poor. On 9/11, I was listening to KMJ radio which had changed the location of its tower to reach a more urban audience. At first, with all the static, I thought it was something like “War of the Worlds,” but after moving the radio around to where I could hear it more clearly, I realized what had really happened. Vermillion Valley Resort had a TV and confirmed the information I was getting.
HSVTC: What are your biggest joys in this life and work?
JENISE & JOHN: Living in the mountains, the solitude, riding along enjoying Mother Nature. It is satisfying to take people into the back country, newcomers and return people. Riding along listening to the streams—there is nothing more gratifying.
JOHN: I took a trip to Washington, DC, for the summer. I was working for a local congressman as an intern. When I got back, the first thing I did was take a long drink from the South Fork River. I asked myself, “Why did I waste my time in that city? I have everything I want right here,” and it’s here I’ve stayed ever since.
JENISE: I like my space, privacy and solitude. All I need is my cats, dogs, horse and mules. Then I’m replenished for the camaraderie we share with our guests and employees. We’ve raised other people’s kids during the summers. We’re a very close family. We’re very lucky; we’ve had employees come back for 10 or 12 years. I guess the pine trees get stuck in your blood — maybe it becomes pine juice!
HSVTC: How has the work changed since you first experienced this world?
JOHN: The work has changed. Some of it’s due to the packaging industry. People used to come with all canned goods and glass containers. They’d set up huge base camps. We had to pack canned goods and glass in hard-sided boxes.
Now they bring lots of freeze-dried food that we can pack in canvas bags (kayaks) and slings. The old boxes we recycled from the wooden boxes used to deliver gas in pairs of five-gallon cans. We started making our own wooden boxes when they stopped delivering gas in these containers. We were resourceful. Now we use metal panniers for hard containers like cans.
HSVTC: Only a small number of volunteers have any idea of what it is like for you to carry our equipment and supplies on the trail for our backpacking trips. What suggestions could you give to make your work supporting us easier and more efficient?
JOHN: Most groups bring too much food and too many personal supplies. When backpacking crews are planning the food for a trip, they need to have the cook do the shopping and select the equipment, after planning the menu. There’s no need to change the menu on each trip. Keep it consistent so there’s no guesswork. It’s only for a few days. Most people are pretty flexible because they realize they’re not in their own kitchen, and they can’t expect to find everything they’re used to. It’s a backpacking trip.
Limit your personal gear to 25 pounds. That includes your clothes and toiletries. In addition, be prepared to carry your tent and sleeping bag with you on the trail. The pack animals usually carry two stoves, food (some in coolers), and kitchen supplies including cooking utensils and tools. Remember, what you carry in, you must carry out.
If someone is injured or sick, then we will go in and fetch what can’t be carried out.
HSVTC: From your perspective, what is valuable about the work of the HSVTC backpacking and regular trail crew work?
JOHN: I can’t say it enough! We appreciate the work you do so much because if you didn’t do it, no one would. The USFS used to clear these trails, but they’ve moved increasingly to desk jobs and they now take the ferry across the lake. They don’t hike the trails. There’s been a sort of after-effect, the more volunteers do the work, the less work the USFS does on trails.
HSVTC: Our backpacking trips are really only possible because packers such as you are generous enough to provide needed transport support. As you know, our crews are trained to clear trails to meet the specifications for pack animals on the trail. The USFS has regulations for clearing pack trails, is there anything you would like to see done better or differently?
JOHN: Well, you do a good job. Before you had the USFS training, we had complaints from them about how waterbars were cleaned and things like that, but at least somebody was doing the work. We depend on the work you do because no one else does it.
There are some things that are hard for people to understand because they’ve never been on a trail with loaded pack animals and they don’t know how hard it is for them to negotiate a turn. If there’s a tree down on the trail, even though regulations say there should be a clearance of four feet from the center of the trail in each direction, that may not be enough for a pack animal to clear the turn. That tree would need to be cut back maybe eight feet rather than four feet. These things we don’t expect people to know unless they’ve been in our position.
Crushed rock is a problem for pack animals. They have shoes, but the central open area of their feet get bruised and torn from their weight on sharp surfaces like crushed rock. This is especially bad on descents, but it’s bad on any grade. So, avoid having exposed crushed rock on the tread of the trail. Generally, it is covered with dirt and this doesn’t happen. If the dirt isn’t maintained, of course, it erodes off the trail and exposes the rocks.
Always clear the trail when pack animals come through your work site. Some backpackers are offended by this safety rule. But if you think about how much easier it is for people to move to the side of the trail than a pack animal, it’s obvious. People will damage the edge of the trail less than horses. If you can, head for the downhill slope. Sit down to stabilize yourself if it helps. Generally, horses are not upset by people standing higher than they are, but they don’t like being closed in by people on both sides of them. Move over to the same side of the trail. That’s important. Don’t reach out and touch the animals as this may startle them. Talk quietly to the packers and that will set them at ease.
Dogs don’t upset horses, but llamas do. For some reason, they don’t seem to recognize that figure. They will react to them.
Mules are a little more sensitive to backpackers who have high frames on their packs that extend above the backpacker’s head. Maybe they don’t identify them as human.
HSVTC: The world from the back of a horse must look and feel different. Can you tell us a favorite story from your experiences serving guests?
JOHN: Well, I can’t think of a particular party. People want to bring their pet dogs and cats with them so we carry them in. We have carried cats in their carriers and small dogs in the horses’ nose bags! We’ve transported many wheelchair users on pack animals. As long as they can maintain their balance and have upper body strength, it isn’t a problem, and it’s a wonderful experience for them to be able to go camping and sleep in the wilderness because the animal can carry them. Usually, with some help, they can manage in their wheelchairs once they get to their campsites.
HSVTC: What is different about the wilderness experience riding on a horse or mule? How does the experience shared with an animal change it?
JENISE: Animals are less intrusive to wildlife than hikers on foot. The birds don’t notice, even the bears don’t mind and they will often just stare at the horses before they disappear. Best of all, you can look around. You’re not steering a car or watching where you step because the horse is doing the “driving” for you. You can see and enjoy the beauty and relax. You can notice the sounds and sights. There’s nothing like it! :

Generally, horses … don’t like being closed in by people on both sides of them. Move over to the same side of the trail.