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The Annual Death Valley '49ers Encampment

by Kenn McCarty

The Corral 14 wagon train arriving at The Ranch.

Each year in the Death Valley National Park, Xanterra Resorts (owner of the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort, recently renamed, The Ranch at Death Valley) kicks off the "nice" season in the desert by hosting the Death Valley '49ers Encampment. The event is always held the first full week in November, when the temperatures hover around a pleasant 80 degrees during the day and 65 degrees at night–in an environment which regularly reaches a furnace 120 degrees during summer.

The annual Encampment began in 1949, marking the 100th anniversary of the experience of a group of '49er California gold seekers as they passed through this valley. The event is a week-long celebration that commemorates those early pioneers that gave the valley its name. Activities include knapping (stone tool or arrowhead shaping), gem and lapidary demonstrations, an arts and crafts show, history presentations, family games including horseshoe, poker and golf tournaments, planned group Jeep tours in the Park, saddle horse trail rides, draft horse-drawn wagon rides, the arrival of a wagon train as it completes its annual 50 to 100-mile trip, as well as a lot of socialization around dozens of campfires. The evening concerts featuring top-notch Western music entertainers, however, stand out as the apex of the event's festivities. Billing includes the Messick Family Singers, The Old West Trio, Belinda Gail, Mary Kaye and Dave Stamey. This year’s headliners will be Richard Elloyan and Steve Wade. Novice musicians also get stage time during the “Coyote Howl” open-mic performance on the Fiddlers Camp stage and the more informal contemporary open-mic music on the Sunset camp stage.

Xanterra Resorts has recently completed a multi-million-dollar refurbishment and upgrade of the famous Death Valley Inn and the Furnace Creek Ranch Plaza. This was far more than just a face-lift … it has made accommodations here far more beautiful with improved year-round service, more environmentally beneficial and accessible. The work restored the 1920s and ‘30s glory to the historic inn and replicated that architecture in the Ranch plaza. In addition, the hot spring-fed pools (with zero chemicals added) make them some of the most refreshing pools you’ll ever experience. The lack of chemical use is achieved by the fact that the water is completely exchanged every other day as it is reutilized for landscaping irrigation.

The fiddler group going for a sunset ride to serenade the whole camp.

Draft horses played a role in the history of Death Valley. While the U.S. Borax company 20-mule team is an iconic symbol of Death Valley, few people know that the preferred configuration was really 18 mules and (when available) two draft horses in the wheel position. A fully loaded set of Borax wagons (two) and water wagon scaled out at 36 tons. Though not particularly economical in terms of feed and water consumption, heavy draft horses were the best choice to get that much dead weight rolling.

Given the history of heavy draft horses in Death Valley, we (Live Oak Belgians of Lake County, California) offered to bring our horses to the event. We began by participating in the annual wagon train camp trip into the desert in 2014 and 2015. This part of the event is sponsored by the Corral 14 driving club, an affiliate of Equestrian Trails, Inc. A week or two before the Encampment, the wagon train starts from various locations near the California/Nevada line and is a “centerpiece” activity when the train comes rolling into the Encampment mid-week. Each year the wagon train follows the same general route, which comes into Death Valley along the Westside Road. However, in October of 2015, just three weeks prior to the wagon train, major flash floods wreaked havoc and heavily damaged many of the dirt roads in Death Valley. The famed Scotty’s Castle also sustained heavy damage and remains closed today pending restoration. Consequently, the wagon train was re-routed through Green Water Valley, which was spared any flood damage. For us, this was actually welcomed as a great opportunity to travel on yet another historic route in this region.

Only 15 teams are allowed to sign up for the annual wagon train, as the event is governed by the National Park Service (NPS) Backcountry Wilderness Plan and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that the Death Valley '49ers have with the NPS. Generally, equestrian groups and activities of this size are not allowed in the Park. The activity is not considered an exception to the rule, but in this case, it is allowed through regulation, as the Superintendent of Death Valley National Park uses this event, in part, to fulfill its mission of historic interpretation. Park visitors, who happen upon the wagon train are greeted by the teamsters and are invited to stop and visit during their frequent rest breaks, and into their various camps along the way. Once participants arrive at The Ranch, the wagon train circles up in one of the historic date groves and goes on about its business of living out of their wagons and caring for their horses and mules. Once again, Park and Resort visitors are welcomed to come into their camp, visit with the teamsters, look at the various wagons and meet the horses and mules up close. Wagon train participants usually have a nice mix of mules, light and heavy draft horses–generally Percherons and Belgians.

McCarty's team of Belgians in the lead of the 2015 wagon train. This covered wagon is actually built on a modified 1920s manure spreader running gear.

Though we loved the experience, after the 2015 wagon train, we decided that we were also missing out on all the fun and entertainment that was happening at the Encampment. We approached Woody Adams, then President of the Death Valley '49ers organization, and offered up our team and wagon to give daily rides at the week-long event. We've now been doing so for the past three years. Again, in order to fulfil the Park Services’ mission of historic interpretation, we set out to offer a package of activities.

Each day starts with a harnessing and hitching demonstration where all aspects of the process are explained. When ready to roll, all guests in attendance (Park or Resort visitors who happened along, as well as Encampment participants) load up on the wagon for a 30-minute ride around The Ranch, including going through the famous tree tunnel–a stretch of very old Tamarisk trees whose canopy forms a beautiful tree-tunnel. The temperature inside the tunnel drops noticeably, thus demonstrating the role and value of these non-native trees during the early mining and ranching days of Death Valley. Planted by our pioneer forefathers, rarely will you find Tamarisk of this girth and height. Rides continue up to noon when the horses are then rested for the day. Even at rest, four big Belgian horses continue to draw a crowd. Many visitors have never seen such a big horse in person and are often amazed by their gentle dispositions.

Even with a bad wheel, the author cooked up (perfect) breakfast biscuits in his Dutch oven.

In addition to our open-air country wagon that guests ride in, we try to bring an historically accurate vehicle to serve as a focal point in camp, along with functional Dutch ovens and a non-functional rusty double-barreled shotgun. In 2016 we brought an 1880 side-sprung Mountain Wagon–rebuilt by Marcus Wagon and Wheel Works of Oroville, California. Such a conveyance would have been a common sight in this mountainous desert region during that bygone era. Last year we brought a modified replica covered wagon (also built by Marcus Wagon and Wheel Works). In addition to serving as a centerpiece in our camp, we collaborated with Steven Hale, a history performance artist, who assumes the persona of the colorful Death Valley miner, Bill Keys. My wife Susan donned the la femme fatale personality of famed female teamster Charlie Parkhurst and I adopted the nefarious personality of stagecoach operator Ben Holiday–neither of which were a part of the Death Valley scene, but their personalities lent themselves well to the historically accurate portrayal of Bill Keys and his various underhanded exploits. In addition, I gave two, hour-long talks at the Borax museum on the historical significance of and differences between the coaches and wagons that are displayed in the museum.

An extraordinary spectacle will be rolled out for the public at this year's event in the form of the three Borax wagons owned by the Death Valley Conservancy. Exact replicas, the wagons were built by Dave Engel of Joliet, Montana (see the Summer 2017 DHJ). Debuted in the 2017 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, they then went to Washington D.C. to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Borax 20-Mule Team that appeared in the 1917 Inauguration for President Woodrow Wilson.

Compliments of U.S. Borax Inc., muleskinner Bobby Tanner will bring his 20 mules to pull these iconic vehicles. Mr. Tanner is a Sierra packer who owns the Red’s Meadows Pack Station and Resort near Mammoth Lakes, California, on the Sierra eastern slopes.

Prior to the Encampment, Tanner, his mules and the trio of wagons will first appear on Memorial Day at Bishop Mule Days in California.

Doc Fly with his team of Mighty Mice mini mules.

The complete ensemble has not been seen in Death Valley since 2012 (and 1999 before that). For Americana history buffs, desert rats and equine enthusiasts alike, this spectacle will rank near the top. Witnessing a 20-mule jerk-line plying across the desert will be one for the books and a sight you won’t want to miss.

Live Oak Belgians bringing guests down the beautiful Tree Tunnel at the Ranch at Death Valley during the annual '49ers Encampment event ... always held the first full week in November. —Teri Rose photo

Whether your interest is Western music and pool-side relaxation, touring a beautifully hostile landscape, or living history and equestrian experiences, this event is chock-full of family fun. If you are a musician looking for a stage to perform on or a landscape artist looking for a small show to dovetail with a camping trip, the Death Valley '49ers are always looking for more artists and exhibitors. For more information on this event, go to their web site: deathvalley49ers.org

Summer 2019
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  • The Horsemen's Roundtable – Situation Critical
  • The Annual Death Valley '49ers Encampment

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  • The Reads – Suffolk Punch Promoters For More Than 40 Years

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