Jerry Bentz nurtures mules from ‘cave boys’ to friends

By Mary Anne Chute Lynch

“Mules are like cave boys,” said Jerry Bentz, PCT volunteer and mule packer. “A mule isn’t’ much good ‘til it’s five or six years old. They are too crazy. They are always in mischief, like teenage boys.”

It’s not until a mule is 11 or 12 that they settle down, he said. “They’re not so crazy. Their brain starts working.”

The owner of four mules, ages 10, 11, 12 and 17, Bentz knows his turf. With mules, he says, “you need to be in charge.” Bentz packs up to 150 pounds on each of his mules and rides one to guide them hauling tools and food for crews doing maintenance work on the Pacific Crest Trail.

As a boy working to become an Eagle Scout in Canby, Oregon, Bentz wanted to hike the PCT, though it was called The Skyline Trail at that time. After he finished school, however, he moved to a different part of the state and did logging for a short time. When he switched jobs and began excavating, Bentz bought a horse and took up trail riding.

In 1999, he went to a local clinic run by the Back Country Horsemen of Oregon and joined them on a horse-packing trip. Now Bentz is caretaker of a 5½-mile section of the PCT from Frog Lake north to Barlow Pass on Mount Hood. When he is not taking care of his piece of the trail, he is helping other PCT volunteer groups along the stretch north of Mount Jefferson to the north side of Mount Adams.

Bentz’s passion is “the wilderness,” and most of his PCT section is wilderness, he says. He starts every hiking season clearing trees that fell over winter and follows up with four or more maintenance trips for treadwork.


Bentz is as protective of his mules’ health as he is of the PCT. When he is taking out a volunteer group, he gives them canisters in which to pack their food and tools, and tells them to weigh each one so he can balance the loads. When he meets the group, Bentz takes his own scale and weighs the packs again. “If they are three pounds off, a pack could fall off. If they are five pounds off, it almost always falls off,” he said.

He has taken out as many as 15 animals at one time on an expedition. After transporting equipment to the backcountry for volunteer crews, Bentz brings his mules home because it would be impossible to bring enough water for them to stay with the volunteers.

Bentz switched from horses to mules several years ago. “A mule is like a horse only it has long ears. Mules don’t want to hurt themselves, so they’re great in the mountains. They are sure-footed. They have a lot more personality and are great for packing,” Bentz said.

Having had two recent back surgeries, Bentz appreciates the access to the trail that mule packing provides him. “They become your friend. You build a relationship with them, especially if you take them out in the woods.”

Aside from his wife, two sons and two daughters, Bentz’s primary love is for the outdoors and being a steward of nature. He took the Leave No Trace master educator course for stock guides and passes his knowledge on to the Back Country Horsemen and volunteers he works with on trails. “It is important how you tie them (mules, horses) up and where you tie them up,” to have the least impact on the environment, Bentz said.

Bentz is also certified to teach crosscut and chain saw use. “I grew up in the country. I’ve been around chain saws since I was a kid. I like crosscut, but you can’t do near as much,” he said. Whether Bentz is escorting volunteers, teaching saw safety or Leave No Trace practices, his underlying message is: “Treat the wilderness like it’s your living room,” and take good care of it.

The only duty that keeps Bentz out of the wilderness is his work as president of Back Country Horsemen of Oregon. Bentz not only helps BCH with other trails, but advocates for equestrian access and handles political affairs for the organization, which has more female members than males.

Bentz loves camping “to get away from it all” and looks forward to a 10-day trip he plans to take with his son and a few friends in November. In the winter when he is not mule packing, he takes his mules out and rides to keep them and himself in shape. Whether trekking with hikers or mules, “in the wilderness you’re counting on each other.”