Loading Up Donkeys at Adams Pack Station

Adams Pack Station is the only full-time, year-round donkey-packing station in Southern California, carrying supplies to and from rustic cabins inside the Angeles National Forest. The station recently changed hands, and people who rely on the service have been eager to get the donkeys moving again.

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You know, Los Angeles is a city of cars. We get in one to drive two blocks to get a gallon of milk. But two miles, or a few miles, north of the city, lie the rugged mountains of the Angeles National Forest. And there, you will find the only full-time, year-round donkey pack station in all of southern California.

The Adams Pack Station has just changed hands. It's gearing up for an official re-opening.

Skye Rohde reports.

SKYE ROHDE reporting:

There's stillness at Chantry Flats, that seeps into you. It eases out the tension and separates life up there, from the smog and traffic, just a 10-minute drive away.

But the siren call of Adams Pack Station is a constant.

(Soundbite of animals)

ROHDE: The pack station has operated for 70 years up here. The work hasn't really changed. Haul gear on donkey's backs in and out of a nearby canyon for the people who own the 81 rustic cabins there. Call down the mountain for help when there's trouble. Patrol the trails. Keep the porch store open, so cabin owners and hikers can buy essentials, like bug spray and bottled water.

Ms. LILA ADAMS (Former Pack Station Owner): They come over and get a Coke or an ice cream bar or something. Those were my everyday highlights.

ROHDE: Lila Adams moved to the pack station after she married it's owner, Bill Adams, in 1953. But just six months after their wedding, the couple faced their first major challenge.

Ms. ADAMS: We were married in June and on December 27th, two days after Christmas, our first Christmas there together, we had this great big fire, and about 32 cabins burned to the ground. And in January, we had the rain took away the trails and the road. The road washed away completely at certain spots.

ROHDE: It's a lesson learned, over and over again, by subsequent owners of the pack station. This area is at the mercy of nature.

Kim Kelly owned the pack station, from 2000 until earlier this year.

Ms. KIM KELLY (Former Pack Station Owner): One of the things that was so attractive about this was, I grew up riding horses and always wanted my own animals. And you know, it's a piece of history. It just like had so much going for it. My own business. Where else could you get that in LA for - when I bought it, it was $160,000.

ROHDE: A hundred years ago, there were five different camps in Big Santa Anita Canyon, with restaurants, dance halls, and hunting lodges.

After World War II, the hiking fad and the crowds, thinned out. Gradually, the camps burned or fell apart. Now, only Sturtevant's camp is left, along with 81 cabins.

There's still no electricity, no running water, no plumbing. It's more a weekend escape than a full time home, for any of the cabin owners.

One day in late March, Kim Kelly went to cabin 40 to pack out the resident's weekend trash and gear. It was one of Kelly's last packing trips with her favorite donkey, Bonnie, and Bonnie's two month old foal, Lambchop.

Ms. KELLY: The first rule is - always check the cinch. Tighten it up as tight as it will go.

ROHDE: It was a typical load. Propane tank, trash, bottles to be recycled. Out and back was no more than two miles. At the pack station, Kelly weighed the load using an old fashioned scale.

Kelly had hoped to create an artist's colony of sorts at Chantry Flats. But as the single mother of three boys, she found running the pack station simply too much for one person.

Things got even tougher a couple of years ago, when mudslides closed sections of the road and it became impassable. At one point, Kelly worked four jobs down the mountain, so she could feed the donkeys.

Finally, she had to sell. Cabin owner Deb Burgess made Kelly an offer. Now Deb Burgess runs the place with her mother, Sue. So far, it hasn't been easy.

Ms. DEB BURGESS (Current Pack Station Owner): We've had way too many challenges. Probably the biggest is, you know, we started out with Greg. Have him going over the side...

ROHDE: Just after the sale was finalized, their ranch hand lost control of his truck on the road to Chantry Flats and fell 150 feet. He's still recovering.

Shortly after that, a string of pack animals fell 80 feet down a ravine from a narrow trail and had to be helped by the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue

Unidentified Woman: Kind of a rule of thumb, what we've come up with is that any of us will not pack by ourselves, and I think you need one person for every two to three animals, and then that way that gives you plenty of support.

ROHDE: Support, community. It's what Lila Adams misses most about her decades at the pack station. It's what kept Kim Kelley going through years of road closures, and it's what Deb and Sue Burgess hope they can maintain through the café they want to open at Chantry Flats. Maybe it all happens, if nature cooperates. For now, the Burgesses are focusing on last-minute preparations for the pack station's official re-dedication tomorrow. For NPR News, I'm Skye Rohde.

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