Hugging the sides of the steep cliffs, the sure-footed burros, mules and donkeys loaded with 1,000 pounds of food and supplies slowly made their way through Big Santa Anita Canyon in Angeles National Forest.
No roads lead into the canyon, so these carefully loaded beasts, the latest edition of a pack train that has been running year-round for 92 years, are still the lifeline to the outside world for 82 remote cabins and a church camp above Arcadia, 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
None of the modest, stone-and-wood cabins have electricity or indoor plumbing. Cabin owners use kerosene lanterns for lights, propane or wood for cooking. They fetch water from nearby springs or have five-gallon jugs packed in.
This trip was to Camp Sturtevant, deep in the woods, 4 1/2 miles from the trail head and a climb of 1,500 feet. The eight pack animals were carrying provisions for a youth group that hiked into the church camp ahead of the pack train.
"What cabin owners can't or don't want to carry in on their backs we bring in on the animals," explained Dennis Lonergan, 31, operator of the pack train for the last two years with his wife, Jody, 30. "Last month we carried a piano to one cabin."
Dennis Lonergan looked the part. He had a wad of chewing tobacco wedged in his mouth as he led the string of animals on his horse, Chantry. He is six feet tall and wears a wild mustache. His wife, astride her horse, Dakota, is 5-foot-9, brown-haired and blue-eyed.
"I have had horses all my life. Denny has been leading pack trains up this canyon with his uncle ever since he was 12. We love every minute we're in here," said Jody Lonergan as the animals gingerly made their way around the bend of a cliff.
The shoulder of the trail gave way at this point a couple of months ago and a donkey named Mac rolled 100 feet down the cliff.
"It really shook Mac up, but luckily he was carrying load of sleeping bags and was well padded. I went down and got him, cut a scratch trail up the cliff and we were on our way again with Mac bruised and battered but able to make it," the packer recalled.
"A donkey carries a maximum load of 125 pounds, a mule can take 300 pounds," Jody Lonergan said.
Dennis Lonergan's uncle, Bill Adams, 66, owned and operated the pack train for 40 years until he sold it to his nephew in 1984.
The cabins, built between 1910 and 1930 on land leased from the federal government, are owned by a mix of people--firemen, policemen, doctors, teachers, lawyers, and retirees. Once there were more than 300 recreational cabins in the canyon, but floods and fires destroyed all but the 82 still standing. No leases for new cabins have been issued by the Forest Service in 50 years.
Twins Pat Chasteen and Muriel Carlson, 77, bought their cabin for $65 in a sealed bid in 1930 when they were 21. "My sister and I still hike in to spend a few days at our cabin every month," Chasteen said.
"We couldn't exist without that pack train," Chasteen said.
The packers charge 10 to 15 cents a pound for freight, depending upon the distance delivered. The nearest cabin is a little less than a mile from the trail head. Camp Sturtevant, owned by the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Methodist Church, is at the end of the line.