Spending time in the saddle runs in Trent Peterson’s blood.
Over a century ago, his great-great Grandfather was a packer in the North Cascades who helped found the town of Rosyln, Washington where he owned the livery stable. But Peterson took a circuitous route to his position as the head packer and manager for Rainbow Pack Outfit in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Born and raised in Bellingham, Washington, he was first introduced to the packer’s way of life in 2005 after working as a fisheries biologist. He loved it, but he didn’t decide to make it his full-time occupation until 2014 after a stint making award-winning wines.
“I thought to myself, well, I'm always looking for reasons to go into the mountains with my horse or go on a pack trip,” he says. “Why not go back to the thing that has always felt natural to me?”
During a trip to the Sierra Nevada in 2015 he first set his eyes on the mountains he now calls home while scouting the area for a planned horse traverse of the Pacific Crest Trail. A fundraising expedition dedicated to his recently passed father that he completed it in 2017. He settled into an area next to the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks that offered access to the remote landscapes and rugged country that he loved. He often is gone for weeks at a time working as a Forest Service Packer and lives a mountain man way of life, living and packing in the mountains in the summer, and building lightweight packer saddles in the winter.
But, his outfit, like most other guiding services, has taken a harsh hit over the last several years. First, the pandemic stopped all business in its tracks. Then this year’s fires forced the closure of all National Forests in California at the end of August, effectively canceling a large portion of Rainbow’s business. “Pack outfits need to make enough money during the summer to pay the bills for the rest of the year,” he says.
Luckily for Peterson, his outfit also had a contract to supply trail crews & rangers deep within the remote regions of the park which was still open, so they have been able to keep working. They are hoping that their success with government contracts might just be a roadmap to the future for themselves and other small pack outfits. “These government contracts are hugely attractive because it’s a secured income,” he says. “It’s a positive for the government as well. They get the services of a commercial outfit with good animals and a packer that knows the terrain. Plus, they often save large amounts of money by us ferrying in supplies to the remote crews instead of flying them in and it keeps within the Wilderness Act of 1964.”
He can see a day when pack outfits supplement their traditional income by keeping trail crews, rangers, and fire crews supplied, plus providing a service to bring out their gear and equipment by the use of primitive technology. “People often forget that the Packer and their mules that built the trails, and thus the trails were built for the mule. Mules are just as iconic with the wilderness as Smokey the Bear,” he says. “Mules do what machinery cannot, keeping the wild places wild—it’s a way of life, not a job and one that gets into your blood.”