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Getting goods to the backcountry

The Packer

“Nuff said.”

— Bill Bell, commercial packer and guide, and ranger of the Elk Summit District


THE AGENCY known as the Forest Service had its roots in a bill authorized by Congress to preserve public lands and was signed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891.

In 1897 President Grover Cleveland established the Forest Reserve, which was initially under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Forestry of the General Land Office, Department of Interior. In 1905 the Bureau of Forestry, its personnel and the forest reserves, were transferred to the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service was created as a department agency. In 1907 Congress acted to change the name to National Forests.

Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the Bureau of Forestry, scouted the Selway Bitterroot area that straddles the rugged mountains along the Montana/Idaho border in 1896. He was accompanied by an outfitter from Montana, Fred Printz who provided the provisions and pack animals. Thus began the partnership between the Forest Service and animal packing, which has been essential in the transport of people and supplies into the backcountry for the Forest Service.

Independent packers were essential to the agency assisting in the establishment of ranger stations and lookouts. By 1907, the requirements for a packer included being able to supply three head of horses, plus the necessary tools to build trails and cabins, and the skill to pack bulky items such as barrels, bedding, tents, and tools. In addition, packers had to know how to throw the diamond hitch to protect loads from falling off in steep terrain. An overly packed horse, one that carried more than 35 pounds in weight, could cause the animal to tip over backwards as it clambered over rocky bluffs. Imagine a pack animal carrying a cast iron bathtub. Or the L4 Lookout kit (see previous blog of lookout towers for description).

The Great Fire of 1910, also known as the Big Blowup, the Big Burn, and the Devil’s Broom fire burned three million acres in North Idaho, Western Montana, and Eastern Washington. Large parts of the Bitterroot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Coeur d’Alene, Flathead, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo, and St. Joe national forests burned. Over two days it blazed aided by high winds and killing 87 people, plus destroying several entire towns. The burn covered three million acres of forest and cost a billion dollars to the timber industry.

The impact of the fire raised public awareness for the Forest Service which had been languishing until then, and the agency quickly received considerable recognition for heroism and a doubled budget by Congress. The Great Fire shaped the future of the Forest Service which had been on the verge of being cancelled due to opposition from mining and forestry interests.

As communication capabilities became more sophisticated, lookouts had more means of dialoguing with the rangers. Strings of mules were used to carry cables looped from one animal to the next to transport them into the remote locations. The need for pack stock in the early 1900’s was greatly in demand due to large fires, trail construction, lookout construction, and transportation of goods and supplies.

Early on, the Forest Service hired pack strings from private individuals but eventually, due to the necessity for large amounts of stock, they were purchased by the Forest Service for the use of its employees.

The packers possessed enormous physical strength and sheer ruggedness in order to survive violent storms, to do the backbreaking work of carving out trails, to load and unpack heavy equipment, and to feed and maintain their animals. Their work took the place of words, as in Bill Bell’s, “Nuff Said.” The packers may have expressed a similar sentiment to the character Mac in Norman McClean’s story, Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the sky. “I knew that, when needed, mountains would move for me.”

— Marylin Zupicich is author of "The Lookout Woman," available for sale on this website.

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