Much like his father before him, Jay Barnes has stories to tell. A lifelong resident of Oakdale with roots that go deep into local soil, Barnes grew up on a horse, knows a thing or two about how to get along in the backcountry, and is doing his best to see continued success with the family business as proprietors of Mather Saddle and Pack Station in Groveland.
Recently named Most Honored Packer for the Bishop Mule Days, Barnes is gearing up for the start of his busy season with the kick off in June.
Jay’s father, Joe Barnes, established the pack station near Hetch Hetchy dam in 1929. Earlier that year Curry Company of Yosemite expanded their horse operation and Barnes, a young Arizona cowboy with an entrepreneurial spirit, stepped up to help run Curry’s pack station. The Barnes patriarch acquired the proprietorship in 1931 when Curry Company decided the pack station was too far from their home base.
The O’Shaughnessy Dam, which would provide water to San Francisco, had just been completed and a work camp had been established nine miles from the dam to house the workers that flocked to the dam project. The City of San Francisco retained ownership of the camp after the work was finished on the dam and it was decided to turn the property into a family camp for residents. Again, Joe Barnes, seeing an opportunity, applied for and received a concession through the city for operation of a riding stable.
Growing up on a working pack station made for some interesting childhood experiences, Jay admitted with a smile. His wife of 37 years, Liz Barnes, a recently retired Cloverland Elementary school teacher, shared a story Jay’s mother, Corkey Barnes, had told.
“Jay was a baby in a pram outside and his mother had propped a bottle of milk up for him. She went inside for a moment and when she returned she saw a mother bear licking the milk from Jay’s face. She managed to chase off the bear with a broom,” Liz said, smiling.
Jay laughed. “My mother was pretty good with that broom!”
His mother was made of some pretty stern stuff. When Jay’s sister was about to come into this world, a blizzard had blocked the roads. Not to be deterred, Joe Barnes loaded up his heavily pregnant, contracting wife in a dog sled and made it to the hospital in the nick of time.
“My mom wasn’t too happy about riding in a dog sled to the hospital but at least she got there,” Jay said.
The sled they used and the narrative is now on display in the Wawona museum in Yosemite.
Those stories, and many more like them make for good laughs around the campfire, of which there have been many over the years.
One of the trips offered by the pack station is a breakfast ride, which has Jay cooking a good, old-fashioned cowboy breakfast over a campfire in a Dutch oven that’ll stick to your ribs for a long ride on the trails in God’s country where there’s nothing but wildlife, nature and the sound of the wind whistling through the trees.
Liz joked that Jay often forgets how to cook once they return to the flatlands, but Jay retorted, that twinkle returning, “Well, that’s because she won’t let me build a campfire in her kitchen.”
Patriarch Joe left the business in 1980 to run the Golden Gate Stables in San Francisco and he left the Mather Pack Station in the able hands of his son, Jay. It was an easy transition; Jay had spent his entire life learning the ropes at his father’s side and had been handling much of the work since he was a teen. Joe Barnes passed away in 1988 but his stories live on at Mather Saddle and Pack Station, taking on legendary status as the storytellers embellish a little here and there (just like Joe used to back in the day).
Today, Jay continues his father’s legacy with 45 head of horses and mules that he winters in Mariposa County and works during the pack season from June to October.
Joe taught Jay to operate with a hands-on approach to their business. With expenses being what they are with livestock, they learned how to be vets, field medics, blacksmiths, and basic Jack-of-all-trades to handle any emergencies.
“Up until recently, we did all our own shoeing,” Jay said. “With 45 head, you have to do it yourself or else you couldn’t afford it.”
He’s seen rattlesnake bites (on the horses), narrowly escaped bites himself, joking, “Jumping straight up and to the side is good” and has even had to put horses down due to injury. He’s been chased — and licked — by bears; settled conflicts with “foot-burners” (hikers) and weathered the frequent ups and downs associated with government entities (Jay works with both the Department of the Interior and the US Park Service.) It’s a business he loves and it is a part of him, which is apparent when he talks about it.
“Not in it for the money. You have to love the mountains, horses, and the long hours because otherwise…it’s a lot of work,” Jay said.
But the rewards…in a word: indescribable.
Jay’s favorite spot is Tilden Lake, at about 9,000 feet elevation. The air is crisp and clean; the nature unspoiled by telephone lines, traffic and, well, people.
“I just love it up there. Something about being up in the mountains,” Jay said.
And he loves sharing that experience with others.
The family operation handles two separate types of business: day rides with the horses, such as the breakfast ride; and the packing business.
For the more experienced hikers, aware of the rigors of heading into the backcountry where only mules can travel, Jay handles the packing of the essentials.
For the daytripper with little to no experience, Jay offers horse rides on established trails. Kids as young as seven have enjoyed riding through nature, and getting a new view of the world that doesn’t come at them from a computer or television screen.
And times have definitely changed. While Jay certainly grew up on a horse — and continued that tradition with his two sons — kids today, he acknowledged are “couch potatoes.”
“They have no idea what a horse can do and some are scared because it’s a big animal but once they give it a shot, some really like it. Others don’t. It just depends,” Jay said.
Media has changed the way kids think and act, too.
“Back in the day there were westerns on the television and kids grew up wanting to be cowboys. It’s different now,” he said.
Still, even though times have changed and regulations have become more stringent, each year Jay and his crew of wranglers work with approximately 3,000 clients through the trips.
“People enjoy getting away from the people and seeing nature,” Jay said of the appeal. “We do a lot of family trips where they’re just trying to get to know each other because it seems everyone is going in different directions. It’s good to get out there and just commune with nature.”
For more information on the Mather Saddle and Pack Station, or to make reservations, call 847-5753.