Life for Smoke Elser moves at a general pace of three miles an hour. It’s not that he doesn’t have places to go or vistas to take in; it’s just that his string of pack mules and horses don’t go much faster than that.
That’s the way the legendary outfitter likes it.
“It’s a way of life that allows you to keep your feet on the ground and travel at three miles an hour, no matter what everything else is doing,” Elser says.
In a world of increasing speed and technology, Elser, 77, perpetuates the idea that some things need time, sweat and skill to do correctly.
Traveling in the backcountry on horseback with a team of mules is a time-honored tradition in Montana. And while packing is now a source of recreation, it also has practical purposes. The U.S. Forest Service still uses pack teams to access rugged, wild places for management. The military applies packing skills to transport materials in harsh environments like Afghanistan.
Elser teaches them how.
He has 50 years of experience packing and outfitting in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex under his belt, and in a world where two weeks on a backcountry trail can teach you more than any book ever could, Elser is a gold mine of information.
“He is what he is, he’s the go-to guy,” Bob Hoverson, program manager for the Forest Service Ninemile Wildlife Training Center, said. “He just has everybody’s respect, and he’s earned that respect.”
Elser began his life in Montana with a move from Ohio to work for the Forest Service in Helena in 1955. His job was to man a forest fire lookout on Hogback Mountain. It was a solitary endeavor, but it proved to be a formative experience for the young man.
“It gave me a chance to find out who I was and find out what I wanted to do,” Elser said.
In 1956, Elser met Tom Edwards, a renowned outfitter in his own right who worked at the White Tail Guest Ranch in Ovando. Two years later, Elser began working as a cook and packer for the ranch and stayed on until 1964.
At that point, he began running his own packing business. For $2,000, Elser bought 11 head of horses and saddles, a couple of old tents and a few pieces of equipment like an ax, a cross cut saw, some kettles, a Dutch oven and a cast iron skillet.
He left the outfitting business in 2002, but Elser still teaches his packing skills to dozens of people a year. Elser is a storyteller, gifted with the ability to keep an audience’s attention while sending a clear message. Hoverson, who has taught classes with Elser since 1980, said the master outfitter works diligently to develop a style that imparts his hard-earned wisdom.
“The thing about Smoke is he’s put a lot of thought and effort into teaching a system that’s safe and efficient,” Hoverson said. “Smoke has always been ahead of the eight ball; he’s a developer of equipment and a developer of practices and technique. He constantly looks for better ways to do things.”
His classes on Decker-style packing – which Elser teaches all over the country – are typically full. The average student count is around 60 people. He has drawn these crowds for five decades, and Elser plans to keep going until he’s forced to stop.
“As long as I can play hooky from the bone yard I’m going to keep teaching it,” he says with a laugh.
Elser teaches kids, adults, federal employees and military personnel his packing tactics. Among the reasons he does it is to help maintain a culture he believes is getting lost in the shuffle of modern life. The skills it takes to tie certain knots and harness a horse are not as common in society as they once were, he says, but they remain important.
“The old, experienced packers are slowly getting older and quitting the business,” Elser said. “With that in mind, the younger people have to learn it.”
Hoverson noted that most people who take advantage of guided backcountry packing trips are usually older than 40. He chalks it up to having the time and resources to do so, but he would still like to see more young people take an interest.
“You don’t see the youngsters in there, but we wish we did,” Hoverson said.
Elser and his wife Thelma live in Missoula, and they host some of his classes at their home. His lessons always involve live animals, he said, and packing theory is learned through action.
“All my classes are hands on,” Elser said. “I don’t do any lectures; that’s a bunch of baloney.”
One of the first and most important lessons the master outfitter teaches his students is treating the pack animals as partners rather than equipment.
“The first thing you’ve got to understand is that they are horses and mules and they are animals and you’ve got to treat ‘em with respect,” Elser said.
Another fast lesson is teaching about the proper way to saddle the creatures. If an animal is giving you trouble, it’s probably because its saddle isn’t fitting properly, he said. This can lead to open sores, which tend to divide the animal’s attention from its task. Elser deals with this very serious issue by demonstrating it to students with a practical lesson. First, he has them pick up a pebble, which then goes into their right boot.
The students are instructed to walk around and continue with the class and then try to remember anything he has said or anything they have seen.
“Most of them cannot because they’re more concerned with the pebble giving them some trouble,” Elser said.
Hoverson attributes the effectiveness of Elser’s classes to lessons such as this, since it gives the reason behind the rule. Instead of just teaching how to saddle an animal, Elser tells them why it is important to do so correctly.
“The thing that separates Smoke from other instructors is he always has a why,” Hoverson said. “A lot of instructors show you how, but they don’t know why.”
He’s about to head outside to feed and water his horses, but for Elser this task is about more than that. Being around the horses and mules presents an important opportunity to work through any problems he’s facing, largely by talking about it with his four-legged friends.
It’s not just thinking out loud; Elser believes the horses are part of an ancient messaging service that can’t be found on a screen or built with fiber optics.
“They’ve got a direct relation to God,” Elser says, “so that works out for me.”
Understanding his animals is integral to success in the backcountry. Each mule and horse has its own characteristics, he said, and should be treated as uniquely as any human.
“We’re all animals and we’re all different and different in a lot of ways. Everything about us is different,” Elser said. “You treat each animal as an individual; he has his own personality, he has his own gait.”
In fact, the method he uses to pick out potential pack animals is the same he employs to see which of his students shows the most promise. When he buys a horse, the seller often begins the sales pitch with the animal’s physical characteristics. These are important, Elser says, but his biggest priority is figuring out the animal’s level of intelligence.
To test it, Elser asks the owner to hide out of view, then takes off his hat or vest and puts it in the corral. Then Elser backs off to observe. Most animals snort and run away from the foreign object a few times since their first line of defense is flight, he said.
But there are horses that wander back to the strange object with a spark of inquisitiveness.
“The smart ones show curiosity. I’ve had them pick up my vest and shake it; I’ve had them stomp on my hat,” Elser said. “I’ll buy that horse right away. Any animal that shows you curiosity, you can teach him something.”
It’s nearly the same process with students. Elser will put them in a room with strange packing equipment, then step back to watch. The students who play around with the unfamiliar items are typically successful once the lesson begins.
“You have to show the curiosity about packing,” Elser said. “That way when I finish a class, those people are packers. They showed me the curiosity and I was able to teach them.”
Elser realized how few people know how to harness a horse while sitting at breakfast with friends last month. More and more, people try to go as fast as technology will allow, speeding along in cars if they have to perform a task that their computer can’t.
And while that’s just the flow of modern life, Elser thinks it keeps him in business. University professors, lawyers and doctors tend to take his classes, and Elser, true to his style, has a good reason why.
“It slows your mind down to three miles an hour. I think that’s important to people today,” Elser said. “It gives them a relief valve for their life; to let their life slow down to the speed of a horse.”
This story was excerpted from Escape, the Flathead Beacon’s seasonal magazine, which is on newsstands now.
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