PHOTOS: 100 Mules Moving Through the Sierra Mountains

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It started with a quiet clatter and bit of a dust cloud down the road.

Within a few minutes, the mules came into view, framed by the scenic, snowcapped Sierra. Strung together in groups of 10, the caravan of 100 long-eared equines clip-clopped down the dirt road toward the Los Angeles Aqueduct Intake, on Friday, Oct. 18, where they would start a 27-day journey that will take them 240 miles from the heart of the Owens Valley to the bowls of Los Angeles.

They were 100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct. They were a moving artistic vision. They were a symbolic statement about water, the environment, the links between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles. They were mules on a mission. They were quite a sight.

The Mules cross the Intake structure, which has been operating for 100 years. | Photo: Jon Klusmire.

A Historic View of the Future

The mules and their wranglers crossed the Intake Structure, which is located about 10 miles north of Independence, the Inyo County seat. The concrete diversion was built by mules and muscle more than 100 years ago, and put into service as the head gate to the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. Famed Water and Power boss William Mulholland and his lead aqueduct engineers stood on the same concrete 100 years ago and watched Bessie Van Norman christen the Intake with a bottle of Champagne. The photo showing the bubbly booze splash into Owens River water was used on the commemorative plaque unveiled at the Intake by officials from Los Angeles, Inyo County and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The Aqueduct's construction was "a remarkable feat," said LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta, which tied together Mono and Inyo counties, where the water for the aqueduct comes from, and Los Angeles. The next 100 years should see Los Angeles, Mono and Inyo counties working "hand in hand," he said. Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Doane Lui said simply, "thank you," to the residents of the Eastern Sierra. Chair of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors Linda Arcularius noted that providing water to Los Angeles while protecting the environment of the Owens Valley are "lofty goals."

Dedicating a plaque at the Intake are (left to right) LA Deputy Mayor Doane Lui, Inyo County Supervisor Linda Arcularius, LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta.

Drawing a Line 240 Miles Long

One Hundred Mules are walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct to draw a line and a link between Los Angeles and its water supply 240 miles from the city. The physical act of traversing the Aqueduct is meant to create an awareness of where the city's water comes from, and engage the city's residents in a discussion of its future, and how water and natural resources will be the key questions in that discussion, said Lauren Bon, director of the Metabolic Studio, which is hosting and performing the 100 mule-march.

That's also why the mules will clip-clop into Los Angeles proper, at the end of their trek. They will be on hand for the 100-year anniversary of the Opening of the Cascades, on Nov. 5, 2013, which marks the date Owens River water reached Los Angeles.

But the future is the main focus, not only of the mule march, but of the Metabolic Studio's next project: placing a 60-foot high water wheel in the Los Angeles River, and using river water to irrigate and "green up" the Not a Cornfield Park in downtown LA by the Fourth Street Viaduct. "Bending the L.A. River Back into the City" is moving along, not quite as quickly as the mules, but it's moving.

The future focus of Bon and the Metabolic studio can be tracked at

Dolly the Solar Mule, left, is joined by Babe the Sonic Mule, and cottonwood saplings from the banks of the Owens River that will end up planted by the Los Angeles River. | Photo: Jon Klusmire.

They're Mules and They're Packin'

Mules have been mainstays of the Eastern Sierra's four-legged workforce for more than a century. During the construction of the Aqueduct from 1908-19013, thousands of mules stepped up and into harnesses to haul tons of concrete, steel, food and machinery to build the big ditch. The 100 Mules Walking the Aqueduct are a direct salute to that legacy.

All the marching mules are not packing loads, however. Most of them are carrying a pack saddle adorned by a simple banner with the number "100," banners sewn together by the Mt. Whitney Quilters Guild, directed by Beverly Vanderwall.

Ah, but there is a short string of loaded mules walking in the present. Two mules are packing solar panels -- Dolly the Solar Mule has been the brightest star of the mule show thus far -- so the travelers can charge computers, cameras and other small devices. Dolly is also equipped with four cameras. Babe the Sonic Mule is carrying what looks like a satellite dish, but it's actually a receiver that records and plays the sounds made by the mules. Another mule is carrying two cottonwood saplings, taken from the Bishop area, that will eventually be planted in the Mt. Whitney Delta, a planned part of where the L.A. River Bends Back into the City. The trees are "symbolic and emblematic" of the interconnectedness of the two regions, Bon noted.

The Mules approach the L.A. Aqueduct Intake, with the Sierra in the background. | Photo: Jon Klusmire.

They're Packers and They're Packin' Style

The High Sierra packer is more than a wrangler or cowgirl. They are modern, working horsemen and women who spend their workdays in Wilderness Areas so their dress, manner and bearing are both colorful and carefully chosen, from chaps and broad-brimmed hats to long-sleeved shirts and neckerchiefs. They are modern traditionalists, working in an old industry in the New West.

Another part of their job is working with the public, a public that loves to bask in the reflected glory of working high-country wranglers. This is not a camera shy bunch, in other words, which makes them more than able ambassadors for the Eastern Sierra.

Taking care of the dozen or so wranglers in charge of 100 pack mules and their own mounts, and another dozen members of the ground crew, requires another crew and a logistical dance involving hay trucks, a food trailer, water trucks, camping gear for the whole bunch, portable showers, sinks and toilets, and whatever else will be needed on a 27-day long camping trip/expedition.

Mules in the Mountains

When it comes to creating the "artistic action," of which Bon speaks, the mule train is only part of the picture. The landscape they traverse provides context, background and visual grandeur. For the first several days of the 100 Mules' Mission, they are moving across a region that carries them through green pastures and brown sagebrush flats.

The backdrop that puts man and mule into perspective is the string of Sierra peaks that tower 10,000 feet above the valley floor. With a light dusting of early fall snow, the jagged granite mountains dominate the scene, and from a distance, the hulking mule parade becomes a line of dots in comparison to the expansive, majestic stretch of mountains.

It's quite a sight, indeed..

The 100 Mule train is dwarfed by the looming Sierra Range and Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48, as it enters the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. | Photo: Jon Klusmire.

AgH20 is a 240-mile work that aims at reconnecting Los Angeles with the elements that made it viable historically: silver and water, both mined from the mountains of the Owens Valley.

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Top Image: The wranglers on the trip are from Eastern Sierra pack stations, so they are familiar with mules and photo opportunities. | Photo: Jon Klusmire.

About the Author

Jon Klusmire was a journalist and writer covering Colorado’s Western Slope for about 20 years before moving to Bishop, CA, where he wrote for the Inyo Register before taking his current job as the Director of the Eastern California Museum, in Independen
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