BY KRISTI FISH | MIRROR REPORTER — Fifteen years ago, Jake Coolman and his family said yes to an adventure for which they had no previous experience. Now, he’s become the person responsible for the mules seen pulling the boat along the canal at Providence Metropark and the carriage rides at Holidays at the Manor House.
The position, working with Metroparks Toledo, came to Jake’s attention from someone he met while caring for horses. They thought it might be of interest to him and urged him to check it out.
“I thought it was intriguing, so I looked into it and talked to the man who did it previously, Merril Spiess,” Jake said. “Merril wanted to retire, so my wife Holly and I went up to his place and talked to him and his wife.”
Merrill offered to sell his mules and harness to Jake if he received the Metroparks contract, but from there, Jake had to learn how to care for the animals and help pull the boat along the canal by himself.
He had some knowledge from his great uncle on how to work with mules and learned quickly to follow the lead of the animals.
“I think the biggest thing mules have taught me is patience,” Jake said.
The mules, he learned, were smart. They knew what they were doing and they knew how to do much of the job without much guidance from him.
“I basically watched them and whenever they would hesitate or try to stop, that’s where I would stop, and then I’d ask the boat crew if that looked right,” Jake said. “I developed where to stop and how to run the mules from the knowledge that the mules had.”
Watching the mules is how Jake learned where the idiom “stubborn as a mule” came from. He also quickly realized why it was wrong.
“Mules are not stubborn. They have a high sense of self-preservation, so if they think something can hurt them or get them into trouble, they will stop and really look it over, so you have to have a lot of patience. Once they’ve processed it, then the second time is almost like they’ve done it every time,” Jake explained.
The mules are intelligent animals and creatures of habit, Jake added. They know when and where to stop along the path and they know when they’re done for the day and can return to the trailer.
The animals have helped him learn how to do his job at Providence Metropark.
While the contract might refer to his job as a hoagie – the person who walks the mules – his job is more in-depth than visitors might imagine.
It doesn’t just involve work on-site. At his home, he and his family provide for the mules, moving them to fresh pastures and making sure they are well-rested for their time along the canal.
His biggest priority on-site, though, is keeping the mules and visitors safe.
“I strive for safety,” Jake said. “I have some standards I’ve developed to keep everybody as safe as possible.”
To keep both people and the mules safe, Jake asks that everyone ask him for permission before approaching the mules and to follow his lead.
This also allows him to do another part of his job, which is to educate park visitors about mules.
Sometimes, park-goers confuse the mules with other animals. Mules, which are a cross between a male donkey and a female horse, have distinctive features, Jake explained.
“A frequently asked question is ‘Are your mules pregnant?’” Jake said. “They just have big bellies. They have a lower center of gravity than horses.”
People also express concern about the amount of weight the mules have to pull and how much work it involves pulling the boat along the canal.
“The boat weighs 12-and-a-half tons when empty, but two workers pull that boat to get it in and out of the lock, so the amount the mules pull is very minimal. Basically, the mules get the boat up to speed and then they’re just walking. They’re just keeping pace with the boat,” Jake explained.
When the mules are done for the day, after they’ve finished pulling the last ride of the day and been greeted by the park visitors, Jake drives them home, where they receive food and water. Typically, while on-site at the Metropark, the mules don’t receive food and water as it can cause colic, a potentially deadly gastrointestinal condition.
Spending 15 years caring for the mules has allowed Jake and his family to become more attuned to the animals’ needs and how to care for them. He’s also learned about each animal’s personality.
When someone participates in the canal experience, they’ll be most likely to see Molly and Sally pulling the boat. Molly is in the front, followed closely behind by Sally.
“Molly is more cautious and risk-averse,” Jake said. “Sally is a little more adventurous.”
Guests can learn about the animals from Jake and more about mules in general when they stop to talk to him after their experience on the canal, he said.
“I am here to help educate, too. I want people to ask questions and learn while they’re here,” Jake added.
When going to the Metropark for The Canal Experience, visitors can expect to learn about the history of the canal and the area during a one-hour trip up and down the canal on a replica boat, The Volunteer.
On Saturday, June 10, Providence Metropark will be offering Music on the Canal at its usual Canal Experience times. The canal boat interpretations will be done with music on all three runs.
The Canal Experience is available on Wednesday through Sunday at 12:30, 2:00 and 3:30 p.m. from June through August at Providence Metropark. Tickets are $7.00 for adults, $6.00 for seniors and $4.00 for children ages 3-12. The Canal Experience at Providence Metropark is located at 13205 S. River Rd. in Grand Rapids.
More information on the experience and other offerings through Metroparks Toledo can be found at metroparkstoledo.com.