Packers Hit the Trail for Kalispell Convention

By Beacon Staff

Forty years after a group of Bob Marshall Wilderness packers sat around a campfire and formed the Back Country Horsemen of the Flathead, the national organization it created is returning to Montana for its annual convention. The Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell will host the Back Country Horsemen of America’s convention on April 5, 6 and 7.

Four Columbia Falls men formed the group in 1973, according to Tug Leberman. Today, the Flathead chapter has nearly 200 members and the national organization has more than 18,000. Locally, the Flathead group helps the Forest Service and other organizations bring supplies into the most remote parts of the forest. Club president Andy Breland says the club completes about 40 trips a year.

“If they are going to spend their vacation clearing trails that I use, well then I should help get them in there,” Breland said. “It’s about keeping the wilderness alive, because I want it there for my kids and my grandkids.”

According to Leberman, the club’s “founding fathers” – Ken Ausk, Roland Cheek, Dennis Swift and Dulane Fulton – were worried about the Forest Service cutting off horse access to the wilderness because of overuse. So as a sign of goodwill, they got together and helped rebuild a bridge deep inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Since then, the nonprofit organization has formed a strong relationship with the Forest Service and other agencies to bring food and tools into the woods. Since motorized equipment is off-limits in the wilderness, the only way to get supplies in is on the back of a person, horse or mule.

“Packing has pretty much stayed the same since the time of Christ,” Leberman said. “It’s very simple, but it’s also complex.”

Leberman first became interested in packing in the early 1990s when he lived in California. Since moving to Montana, Leberman has made several trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He calls the trips a “work-play weekend” and in 2011 he logged 500 miles in the wilderness. Being semi-retired helps him dedicate more time to his passion.

At least once a year, Leberman tries to spend a week or so deep inside the wilderness, camping and exploring up to 90 miles of trail. He says it is an unforgettable experience made easier by packing in the supplies they need. Leberman jokes that he often eats better on the trail than at home, thanks to simple Dutch oven cooking. Steak and eggs is a common fare.

“To go back there and hear the wings of a crow fly by or to hear a pinecone drop, or to look out and not see a telephone pole or asphalt is incredible,” he said. “You get an idea of what Lewis and Clark saw. You might not be the first person back there, but you feel like you are.”

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Back Country Horsemen of America and its Flathead branch, the group decided to bring its annual convention to Kalispell. “Where it all began” is the theme and, according to Breland, the public is encouraged to attend the three-day event.

“All of the demonstrations are free and open to the public because we want to educate people about the backcountry,” Breland said.
The convention will feature exhibits and seminars, as well as live music from Roy Wihelm and the Ashley Creek Ramblers on Friday and Saturday nights. For more information visit www.bchmt.org.

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