SWITCHBACK TRAILS ACROSS THE SIERRA NEVADA:
A HISTORY OF COMMERCIAL PACK STATIONS by Marye Roeser
MCGEE CREEK PACK STATION - A BRIEF HISTORY
For most of my adult life, my husband and I have been a part of the commercial pack station scene in the Sierra. We have lived it, loved it and the mountains, and the people who made this industry an integral part of the Sierra Nevada cultural history. For years I collected bits of the colorful story and have finally woven this compelling interest into a recount of that previously, mostly unwritten history. After much research, writing and editing, the book is finished and almost ready for publication. The brief histories here are excerpts from that writing.
As soon as the book is available for purchase, the information for acquiring a copy will be posted here.
Happy Trails!!! Marye
As soon as the book is available for purchase, the information for acquiring a copy will be posted here.
Happy Trails!!! Marye
McGee Creek canyon is a very colorful glaciated canyon with a surprising riot of various colored strata and twisted rock layers adjacent to the Long Valley Caldera. McGee Canyon is located approximately 15 miles southeast of Mammoth Lakes along the main crest of the Sierra Nevada. The steep McGee Canyon Road from Highway 395 to the pack station and trailhead is 4 miles in length and travels up over a large well-defined glacial moraine. The views of Long Valley and Crowley Lake are spectacular. McGee Pass at the head of the lake dotted canyon is almost 12,000 feet high.
In 1872, the McGee brothers, Alney and Bart, homesteaded a cattle ranch on McGee Creek in Long Valley and opened a stage station. Long Valley pastured many head of cattle during the summer months and early sheep and cattle ranchers established livestock trails over McGee and Hopkins Passes crossing the main crest of the Sierra. Mcgee Pass accesses Upper Fish Creek and eventually the John Muir Trail while Hopkins Pass accesses the Mono Creek Basin.
Cecil Thorington married Beatrice May a granddaughter of Alney McGee. Thorington was packer/foreman for Mammoth Camp Pack Outfit, owned by Charlie Summers, and managed by Lloyd Summers. Sybil McGee, daughter of Alney McGee had married Lloyd Summers, oldest son of Charlie Summers.
In the late 1920s, Cecil Thorington established a pack station at McGee Creek calling it McGee Pack Train. In 1934, the station operated with 30 head. By 1930, Thorington was packing fingerling trout for the Fish and Game by mule string to plant the lakes in McGee Canyon. Thorington and Lloyd’s son, Lee Summers, planted Lee and Cecil Lakes, and Upper Fish Creek and the lakes were named for the two men.
Thorington was a constable of the Mammoth Township and ran for Sheriff of Mono County in 1938. He was elected and served as a popular Sheriff for 28 years. Coley Ward Managed the pack station for Thorington for many years, as Thorington was now busy with his sheriff duties in Bridgeport.
The Public Roads Administration built the McGee Creek Road as a mining access road to the Scheelore Mine up Baldwin Canyon on the slopes of Mt. Baldwin in 1944. A locked gate was placed at the wilderness line of the High Sierra Primitive Area to prevent vehicles other than mine trucks from accessing the wilderness. The first section of the trail up the canyon was the mining road to Baldwin Canyon where the turn off went up to the mines then operating. The mines ceased operation in 1955. From the Baldwin Canyon junction, a trail continued up the main canyon to the other lakes and McGee Pass. In 1964, the Wilderness Act was passed and the primitive area became part of the John Muir Wilderness Area under Forest Service management.
In June of 1944, Thorington sold the pack station to Alton and Ted Birmingham and the sale included 2 cabins on McGee Creek on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power land, 10 head of horses, 5 mules, 11 riding saddles and 7 packsaddles among other gear. W. P. Powell was there briefly in 1945 and 1946, and the pack station was moved to the present location beside the rushing McGee Creek and near the end of the road. The station was now called McGee Creek Pack Station.
In 1947, Chuck and Helen Lumpkin, from Bishop, purchased the pack station, and their son, Bob, packed for the station. They wintered their stock in Round Valley. Helen Lumpkin baked pies and bread, had fresh milk and butter for customers and fishermen along McGee Creek.
In 1951, Russ and Anne Johnson purchased the pack station from the Lumpkins. During World War II, Russ Johnson worked in the San Diego defense industries as a tool and die designer. Because of gas rationing, Russ and his wife, Anne, rode the Greyhound bus to Mammoth Lakes for their first pack trip into the Sierra Nevada with Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit. After several pack trip vacations, the Johnsons then packed for Rock Creek Pack Station from 1948 to 1950, conducting their all-expense trips.
They visited area resorts advertising their day fishing trips to Grass and Round Lakes. Anne was a superb fishing guide and the day fishing trips were very popular. The Johnson’s were very active in the Eastern High Sierra Packers Association and Russ served as secretary and president of the organization. They rewrote and printed the Packers Association By-Laws booklet and produced the Association advertising brochures for many years. They also worked with the Sports Shows in Southern California publicizing the wonders of pack trips in the eastern Sierra. Russ became active as an area photographer and with Anne wrote many articles on packing. They published a guidebook and a book on Bodie.
Russ was very innovative and made many building improvements around the station. He built a new saddle shed that was state of the art. They also provided meals and lodging for customers and Russ added a small store, in the main house, selling fishing tackle and other necessities.
The pack station was issued a Forest Service grazing permit for McGee canyon and the fenced meadow pasture to the north of the corrals. The horses and mules were turned out in the canyon at the end of the day and they grazed up into the canyon. At dawn, a packer had to round them up and then drive them back to the corrals. The stock were fed hay in the morning so many times they would be on their way back to the corrals on their own. The stock also grazed the meadow that was adjacent to the corrals and along McGee Creek. Hauling hay to mountain pack stations in the early years was a transportation problem and stations that had a grazing permit nearby depended on these grasslands for part of their livestock feed.
Russ and Anne were great mentors to young packers and launched many on their way to packing careers, Bob Tanner packed at McGee Creek Pack Station for the Johnsons on weekends in 1951 and 1952 while he was working for the Forest Service. Lou and Marye Roeser packed there in 1953 and 1954, and Bob Tanner packed again in 1956. Red Altum packed there for a summer before packing for Lou Roeser at Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit for many years.
In 1956, McGee Creek Pack Station, the Forest Service, and the Sierra Club organized the first cooperative trail project and worked on the McGee Pass Trail. For several years, Russ had a contract with the Federal Fish and Wildlife Agency to supply their backcountry camps at the lakes in Convict Canyon where they were studying the trout populations. The Johnsons did not have a stock truck so the packer led the stock over to Convict Lake the night before the trip up the canyon and then back again that evening. Few pack stations had stock trucks or large horse trailers in the 1940’s and 50’s and either drove or led their stock or depended on the Owens Valley Trucking Company to haul their stock.
In the early 1950s, McGee Creek Pack Station wintered their stock in the Pool Field north of Independence. Later they acquired 8-Mile Ranch across from the Pool Field where they pastured stock in the winter.
In 1968, Russ and Anne Johnson sold the pack station to Dave McRoberts who with his wife ran the station for ten years. In 1978, the McRoberts sold to John and Susie Ketcham. The Ketchams also acquired 8-Mile Ranch north of Independence with the purchase of the pack station. John Ketcham grew top quality alfalfa hay and the McGee Creek Pack Station stock wintered there. The Ketcham’s bred and raised Morgan horses that they used in their packing operations.
Susie Ketcham and her daughter, Jennifer, ran the station with an almost all-girl packing crew! This was a great opportunity for young women who often couldn’t get jobs as packers at most male oriented stations. At Mule Days, McGee Creek Pack Station competed in the Women’s Packing events and against the men in the Packing Scrambles.
After Susie Ketcham passed away, John and Jennifer, Susie’s daughter, ran the station. John was president of the Packers Association and Jennifer was secretary for many years. They also ramroded the Packers Association booth at the annual Sports Shows in Southern California for the Association.
In 1980, the McGee Canyon Road was paved from the old 395 highway to the Forest Service campground that was now an improved campground. In 1992, the Forest Service moved the trailhead back down the canyon to its present location and built an improved paved trailhead parking and campground at the end of the road.
During the winter of 1982, a snow avalanche destroyed the house, bunkhouse and rental cabin. In August, a new combination house and bunkhouse was completed, but the Ketchams did not rebuild the rental units. They conducted a children’s riding camp for a week each summer and used tents for sleeping.
In 1988, Jennifer Ketcham married Lee Roeser, son of Lou and Marye Roeser, who was associated with his family in the operation of Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit. Jennifer and Lee then purchased John’s interest in McGee Creek Pack Station. Lee, as a saddlemaker, began rebuilding their pack gear and riding saddles and today all of their equipment has been built by Lee. The station runs about 85 of horses and mules. The corrals and packing deck and shed have been rebuilt. The pack station still does not have electricity but does have phone service. Gaslights and gas refrigerators still serve the station.
Trucks and trailers make hauling stock and hay much easier these days. The pack station still grazes the meadow by the corrals but no longer hazes the stock up the canyon for nighttime grazing. Since Lee and Jennifer raise hay at 8-Mile Ranch, they feed their own hay to the animals at night. The station packs parties to the Upper Convict Canyon Lakes from the Laurel Pass trailhead. Long horse trailers make it easy to haul stock to other trailheads now.
In the late 1980’s and until Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit was sold, McGee Creek Pack Station joined the Outfit in the 100 Mile Spring and Fall Horse Drives to Independence. The McGee stock was sorted out and then hauled over to 8’Mile Ranch. Fifty guests plus a crew of about 30 accompanied the Drive, camping out along the “Long Trail”.
The Roesers winter their horses and mules at their headquarters at 8-Mile Ranch and they also raise and train a few quarter horses that make excellent rough country trail riding horses. Winter trail rides for guests in the Alabama Hills out of Lone Pine are available.
Lee has been Vice-President and President of the Packers’ Association. Jennifer has become the Associations’ Washington DC and public relations representative for the Association in the on-going lawsuits concerning the Forest Service, radical environmental activists and the pack station owners. Several environmental organizations seek the removal of commercial pack stations and outfitters from the national forest and wilderness areas. She recently testified before the U. S. Congress sub-committee on National Parks, Recreation, and Public Lands concerning continued access by the general public using horses and mules on federal public lands.
Jennifer Roeser took over the summer horse operation at Sierra Meadows Ranch in 2004 sub-leasing from the present owners. She conducts boarding, trail rides, and hay rides at the ranch during the summer season. Sierra Meadows was built by Lou Roeser, Lee’s father, in 1969. Lou and Marye Roeser operated the Sierra Meadows Equestrian and Ski Touring Center until selling, in 1992. Lee packs for the Forest Service in Mammoth Lakes and helps Jennifer, who runs the pack station, when he is available. Kerry Roeser Elam also works at McGee Creek Pack Station during the summer season.
The pack station has competed at Mule Days, and their string of 10 matched black mules with flags flying have graced the Mule Days parade and the opening ceremonies at the Arena Shows for many years. In 2004, the Roeser family was selected Best Friend of Mule Days and all rode in the parade. Lee is currently president of Mule Days for 2006 – 2007.
Lee and Jennifer have continued in the filming business and Lee has a Hollywood Wranglers’ Card, furnishing livestock, wagons, teams and equipment to movie and TV commercial film crews. During the filming of “Maverick” in the Owens Valley, McGee and Mammoth Lakes dude horses were painted as Indian horses. The warpaint remained on the horses for some time and children later riding those horses on the hour rides imagined themselves as Indians confronting the wagon train!
McGee Creek Pack Station provides packing services for the public desiring a wilderness pack trip into the John Muir Wilderness Area. Short rides of one or two hours up the canyon are very popular with families and longer rides for fishing at the lakes are available. McGee Canyon is noted for the wildflowers displays in early summer and the trail winds through these flower gardens.