McGee Creek Pack Station: Sierra Nevada, California

woman leading a train of pack mules up a dirt path on the side of a mountain toward distant mountain peaks

Jen Roeser is a second-generation owner of a Sierra Nevada pack outfit. Her earliest memory of her mom, Susie Ketcham, was being placed by her on the back of a horse named Toby when Jen was two. She called Toby, “… my babysitter.” Susie was a Morgan horse breeder and trainer in southern Santa Clara County in California in the 1960s and ‘70s. Jen’s early years were spent working with her mom and riding the trails of the coast range above Santa Cruz and Los Gatos.

While living in the Bay Area, Jen was introduced to mules at the age of eight by Virl Norton, a steeplejack, who had won the 1976 Great American Horse Race on a mule. Little did she know at that point that mules, plus a new opportunity for her mom and stepdad, would change her life forever.

woman in tan hat and brown jacket leading a horse out of a livestock trailer

Jen Roeser, second-generation owner of a Sierra Nevada pack outfit. Shop WOMEN'S 7-OZ. JAC-SHIRT

“I was raised by a pretty strong-willed, free-spirited woman who told me there was no reason you couldn’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, you just better be willing to work hard enough for it.”
woman on a horse leading pack mules up a trail

The family moved to the Owens Valley in the 1970s after purchasing a ranch in Independence along with the historic McGee Creek Pack Station. A new chapter opened for Jen, where her passion for mules and horses would now include being part of the wilderness. Her parents had a partnership, whereby John managed the farming on the ranch and Susie continued to train and raise Morgan horses while managing the pack station. Susie’s philosophy for the pack station was “Girls could be better packers because they take better care of the stock. So we’re going to have a pack station staffed by all girls!” Something completely unheard of among pack outfits in the 1970s.

black and white image of the mcgee creek pack station
black and white image of woman on a horse with mountains in the background

Jen spent her teenage years doing everything she could to be at the pack station as long as possible during the season. She would figure out what schoolwork needed to get done, complete it early, and get to the pack station by late May and stay well into November until the first snow finally drove both her and the pack stock out of the wilderness. Susie not only shaped Jen’s life, but the lives of the other young women who would not have been hired as packers by other outfits. These traditional outfits would only hire women to cook or do day rides. Male owners of the eastern Sierra outfits dubbed the McGee Creek packers ‘Packerettes.’ A title worn with pride by the McGee Creek crew.

woman leading a team of pack mules up a trail with mountain peaks in the background

Jen, along with her stepdad, were active with the Packers Association and represented the many outfits through the association at sportsman shows all around California. They were at a ten-day show in San Francisco when they were notified that Susie had succumbed to breast cancer. It had been quick, hard, and devastating. At the age of 19, Jen, as she put it, “picked myself up and got to work” managing McGee Creek Pack Station along with the Morgan horse breeding and training program.

“I was raised by a pretty strong-willed, free-spirited woman who told me there was no reason you couldn’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, you just better be willing to work hard enough for it.”

black and white portrait of woman sitting on rocks looking out over a lake and rocky mountain slopes in the distance

Jen’s mother, Susie Ketcham

Eventually Jen had to choose between the two operations. She told herself, “This pack station was her world, her dream, and I’m going to keep it going and this is what I am going to dedicate myself to.” With that in mind she took this new gift and began to build on her mom’s legacy. In the late 1980s, there was a blending of her ‘Avant Garde’ nature with Lee Roeser’s traditional approach that he grew up with at Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit. After their marriage, they purchased John Ketcham’s share in McGee Creek and ushered in a new era of packing. Jen bringing to the marriage and partnership her grit, hard work ethic, and determination to succeed, while Lee brought a steadfast nature along with elegance.

“We didn’t want to make the most money, but we wanted to be the best at what we did.”

horse being led out of a livestock trailer

Jennifer’s husband Lee Roeser, mule packer for the U.S. Forest Service in the Inyo National Forest.Shop HYDER QUILTED JAC-SHIRT

Lee is a saddle maker among his other talents as a horseman and packer, and he set about building new riding and pack saddles, making new panniers, fixing corrals, and managing an overall upgrade of the gear and facilities. As Jen put it, “We didn’t want to make the most money, but we wanted to be the best at what we did.” This also included diversification, including working in the film industry and providing stock for movies and television commercials. Lee even became a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). They started doing day rides in the Alabama Hills where numerous movies and TV shows were filmed. Jen worked other jobs during the off-season in winter and early spring. Lee eventually took a position as the lead packer for the U.S. Forest Service at the Inyo National Forest. If there was anything to do with mules, Jen and Lee Roeser were somehow involved.

brown horse with bridle on tied to a hitching post

Together they also began mentoring several generations of young packers that made their way through McGee Creek Pack Station. They have been instrumental in developing education programs teaching packing for youth through Bishop Mule Days. Jen and Lee also recognize the importance of collaboration and work with numerous youth groups, such as the Paiute tribe’s Firstbloomers program, and work toward simply getting young people into the wilderness. The setting of working with mules and horses in a grand landscape can inspire young people and change their lives.

Now another chapter for Jen Roeser is beginning. Her interest in conservation, people, and community has taken her into the realm of local politics. She is running for a county supervisor seat. Both her and Lee realize it is time to transition the pack station to the next generation. How best to do that without children of their own appeared to be a challenge. But that challenge was not as great as they thought because of the growing number of young people involved in packing, many of whom they have mentored over the years. These young packers are looking at the industry in a way to see its potential like she and Lee saw 40 years ago. These young people have a passion that embraces the same legacy while understanding that change can be good. People like Mariah and Trent Peterson with unique qualities who will carry the traditions forward while embracing the new. As Mariah put it, “We have a fire for the next generation!”

These young people have a passion that embraces the same legacy while understanding that change can be good.

man and woman loading up a pack horse with saddle and saddle bags in the woods

Packers Mariah and Trent Peterson at McGee Creek Pack Station loading a mule.Shop MACKINAW WOOL VEST

Jen admits the next chapter is not necessarily going to be easy, but she will always be involved with the wilderness, community, people, mules, and horses. McGee Creek Pack Station is a place that has given her a lot of joy and helped make her dreams happen. She sees it as a privilege to do what she and Lee did for over half their lives. “It made Lee and I who we are.” Jen sees this transition as not just an opportunity, but an obligation to carry forward the gift her Mom gave her.

woman leading a pack mule up a dirt trail