Author photo

By Jon Hammond
contributing writer 

Gene Kuntsman describes summers working at Rock Creek Pack Station

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi


August 20, 2022

Jon Hammond

Pack mules loaded with supplies from Rock Creek Pack Station.

Beginning in 2010, a Tehachapi resident named Eugen "Gene" Kuntsman began a retirement job which consisted of living all summer at 10,000 feet in the High Sierra, cooking for the famed Rock Creek Pack Station. In 2014, he described the pack station life:

"This legacy business keeps 80 to 110 horses and mules in service during the May through September pack season, with the help of about 25 employees. I regularly cook for a score of wranglers and guides as well as paying guests. Sometimes I participate in pack trips around the Hilton Lakes and Mono Basin, mustang rides to look at wild horses, and the annual four-day stock drives, bringing the company's horses and mules from their winter range in the Owens Valley up to their camp in the High Sierra, and then back down again in autumn.

I worked for years teaching culinary arts in the state prison system. I started as a cook at CCI in Cummings Valley and later promoted to instructor at the Lancaster Prison. I retired following the Great Recession of 2008 and all the state budget cuts. In 2010 I was fly fishing at Lake Crowley in the Owens Valley, and I spotted some guys in a water truck pumping water out of a creek. I struck up a conversation and they told me that they were taking the water for some horses and pack mules that were part of an annual stock drive.

"Do pack stations ever look for camp cooks?" I asked them. "Sure, every year," was the answer. I started calling pack stations and the first person I connected with was Craig London of the Rock Creek Pack Station, which is one of the most highly regarded of the pack companies in the Eastern Sierra. I found Craig to be a knowledgeable and honest man, so I began work at Rock Creek on July 4, 2010 and I have enjoyed spending summers there working among the incredible beauty and abundant wildlife of the High Sierra.

The pack season begins in May, and really kicks off on Memorial Day and Mule Days in Bishop. In fact, Mule Days was started by a couple of packers -- Craig's father, Herb London, and Bob Tanner of the Red's Meadow Pack Station.

To reach the Rock Creek Pack Station, you drive 24 miles north of Bishop on Highway 395, then take the Rock Creek Lake exit and drive 10 miles on a paved road. Rock Creek Pack Station offers more than a dozen different trips, ranging from day rides to the more typical 3-6 day pack trips, all the way up to a 27-day trip traversing the John Muir Trail and part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Guests ride horses or mules, depending on their physical size and experience, and food and all camping items are carried by pack mules.

Jon Hammond

Eugene Kuntsman worked for years at Rock Creek Pack Station, in the mountains north of Bishop.

Mules actually have a more comfortable gait, and some people prefer them. The Forest Service strictly limits the number of pack mules allowed for each group, using a ratio of one pack mule per 1 and 1/2 people, so the days of big mule trains carrying all kinds of luxury items for wealthy guests are long gone. A group of 10 people can still bring 7 mules, capable of carrying about 150 pounds of gear each, so there is still enough capacity to bring all the necessities. Food is kept in aluminum bear boxes, which can hold up to about 75 pounds, and these are carried by the pack mules

Pack Station guests include sightseers, those wanting to fish pristine Sierra lakes, photographers, hikers who want to get farther into the high mountains without having to carry all of their gear, and more. One of the things I've like best about the job is the people. We get people from all over the country and all over the world. I've really enjoyed this high elevation summer job, with amazing landscapes, interesting guests and memorable wildlife, including bears, deer, coyotes, marmots and more. You can't fully appreciate those things until you see them in person."


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