Bob Tanner, Sr. reflects on a lifetime exploring Reds Meadow
Jul 14, 2021
There are very few people—if any—who know the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada better than Bob Tanner, Sr.
Bob explored and guided people into the massive and mountainous region for over eight decades, much of it while riding a horse or one of his beloved mules. “Mules are misunderstood,” Bob said, from his home in the unofficial mule capitol of the world Bishop, California (some town in Missouri has trademarked the title).
Bob was born in Southern California in 1929 and first visited the Sierra Nevada when he was just three. “I’ve been coming up here for a long time,” he said of his first youthful forays into the mighty Sierra. “The cars weren’t as nice back then.”
Bob started working on summer trail crews in the Sierras, as he calls the range, during his college years. After serving as a naval officer in Korea, he returned to the mountains. Bob then spent a couple years apprenticing at Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station before he got the opportunity to buy the place in 1960. “I don’t claim to be a cowboy all my life, but I learned,” he said.
Red’s Meadow is named after Red Sotcher, who homesteaded the area in the late 1800s and sold produce to local miners. In 1934, Archie and Gladys Mahan opened up Red’s Meadow, offering places to stay, hot meals and trips into the High Sierra. They ran the seasonal resort for the next 27 years until Bob took over.
“Archie was a very impressive guy,” Bob said, about his mentor and the former longtime Mono County Supervisor. “He did a lot of great things for this area.”
The list of folks who’ve done great things in life and who’ve visited Red’s Meadow over the years, from John Muir to Ronald Reagan, is almost as impressive as the “Snowy Range” itself. Which should come as no surprise since Red’s Meadow offers great access to the John Muir Wilderness, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), Devil’s Postpile, the San Joaquin River, and some of the most wild and free country left on the planet. But out of all the big wigs Bob has guided into the backcountry and gotten to know over the years, former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was always one of his favorites.
“We took lots of different people into the mountains, and he came on many trips over the years, and I always enjoyed his company. He could tell you what was going on in the world but he could also get away and just enjoy being out there,” Bob said, explaining that he once asked McNamara if he was worried about some global issue like the Vietnam War.
“He said there were a lot of smart people back in Washington that could handle it. That there was nothing he could do about it out here, so he was going fishing,” Bob fondly recalled.
Fishing has long been a big reason people visit Red’s Meadow and take pack trips out into the wilderness. And despite environmental changes over the years, Bob believes the fishing on the San Joaquin River around Red’s Meadow and in the backcountry hasn’t really changed much over the years. It’s still great and should continue to be so for a long time to come.
“Fishing has been pretty consistent and it’s always been pretty darn good,” said Bob. “Tried and true fisherman will tell you that fly fishing is the only way to go out there, but bait and spin fishing are pretty reliable, too. You can do it all.”
Knowing the mountains and how to run pack animals through them so well meant Bob has been called upon to help with everything, from hunting and fishing trips to helping out mining camps and stocking the region with fish. He still fondly recalls packing fish into the backcountry in old coffee cans.
He said that golden trout were more difficult to move and plant, but that rainbows and brook trout—technically a char that have become too prevalent—thrived when transported to off-the-beaten-path fisheries. Regardless of what he was packing into the backcountry, Bob usually preferred to use mules. As he explained, at the end of a typical hard season the horses will be worn out but the mules will be bigger and stronger.
“People don’t seem to realize that mules built America,” said Bob, whose family still runs the famous 20 Mule Team during the largest non-motorized parade in the country each Labor Day weekend in Sun Valley, Idaho, the Wagon Days Parade.
It’s no wonder Bob likes mules so much. They are, after all, as solid, reliable and as ornery as the mighty Sierras can be.
“That’s a big part of the enjoyment of the mountains. They don’t change,” Bob said. “Many people like to return to the same places and see that the mountains haven’t changed.”