“Usually when I’m talking about horses, I’m also talking about mules,” Smoke Elser tells the two-dozen people at his weeklong packing clinic.

The mix of Forest Service employees and the general public, ranging from experienced packers to rookies, has traveled from a half-dozen Western states to learn packing from the well-known Montana outfitter and author. After three instructional days, they’ll load the mule string provided by Ninemile Ranger District and head into the mountains for a night in the woods.

The packing clinic’s one of more than a dozen hands-on courses offered by the Ninemile Wildlands Training Center. Topics range from stock-handling and packing, to traditional backcountry skills, safety and survival, and historic-building preservation and maintenance.

“It’s the only hands-on traditional skills training offered by the Forest Service anywhere in the country,” says Bob Hoverson, who works with Elser to teach the packing clinic. The Forest Service developed the program in the 1980s to train field-going personnel in stock-handling and historic preservation. The classes have been open to the public since 1998.

“We use Forest Service personnel to teach and interpret from our side of the coin,” Hoverson says. “We train the way the Forest Service thinks the national forests should be used.”

That training includes leave-no-trace stock-handling techniques that minimize horse and mule impact on the trail, while grazing, and in and around campsites.

The packing clinic features the Decker packsaddle, perfected a hundred years ago on the Selway National Forest and specified for use by the Forest Service throughout the Northern Region. Loads for the Decker are wrapped in “manties” (a six-foot square canvas tarp) and packed sling style, with ropes, on each side of the mule. If the animal brushes against a tree or rock, the load simply swings back and allows him to walk naturally.

Beside the blacksmith shop, Elser works his way through a collection of frayed and broken halters and lead ropes. He explains the deficiencies of each before he settles on a rope halter with a 12-foot lead.

At the hitching rail Elser demonstrates the “bank-robbers’ knot,” which falls off the rail with one good tug on the free end. Everyone grabs a halter and heads for the fence to practice.

Elser and Hoverson work their way through the students, watching, correcting and encouraging. When everyone’s mastered the first knot, it’s time for lunch. Elser, though, has one more thing to say about stock animals.

Mules, he points out, have a gestation period of 355 days – 10 to 15 days longer than horses.

“That’s to grow those long ears,” he says.

For more information on Ninemile Ranger Station, contact 20325 Remount Road, Huson, MT 59846; 406-626-5201; www.fs.fed.us/r1/lolo/resources-cultural/.

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