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Learning the ropes

Learning the ropes: Novice mule packer puts training to work

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DUPUYER – Standing on the edge of a 1.5-million-acre classroom, Kristina Gillispie looked over roughly 250 pounds of homework.

Her assignment: Find the best way to attach a jumble of food boxes, hardhats, hand tools, sleeping bags and propane tanks to four mules.

“It’s the fourth-longest day of the year,” her mule-packing mentor Ian Bardwell said. “We’ve got lots of time.”

Chico, DB, Ruth and Sparkplug also waited patiently to see what Gillispie would do. So did eight volunteers for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation whose gear was going onto the backs of those four mules. Everybody was waiting to walk through the slot canyon guarding Dupuyer Creek’s North Fork for a four-day trail maintenance stint.

“I think the hardest part is doing this in front of everyone,” Gillispie said. A mental health therapist from Marysville in her daily life, Gillispie signed up to spend much of her summer learning the ropes – literally – of the packer’s trade.

“Knots are probably my No. 1 challenge,” Gillispie said. “All the different hitches – the basket, the barrel, the diamond hitch. They just take practice, practice, practice.”

And it seems every twitch of mule packing has a trick to it. Bardwell tilts boxes on their corners so he can loop ropes around them without lifting them. When he lifts, he rests the box on his knees to support the load. When he moves the box toward the mule, he turns toward the tail rather than the head to keep from spooking the animal.

“When you’re packing cross-cut saws, the right way is whoever is talking,” Bardwell said. “There’s all sorts of theories about which way to point the teeth. I just know they can cause some awful wrecks.”

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For two decades, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation has depended on the services of packers Frank Vitale, Keith Alltucker and Ralph Hopkins to haul tools and supplies into the Rockies. But all three are nearing retirement.

So the foundation offered two scholarships for packer training in exchange for a commitment to work on six volunteer supply treks this summer. Gillispie and Harold Herring of Augusta were chosen from among 20 applicants.

They got to spend a week at the Ninemile Remount Depot with U.S. Forest Service chief packer Casey Burns and the man considered by many as the dean of outfitting, Smoke Elser.

“In another 50 years, I might be a master packer,” Burns said as he taught alongside Elser, who’s been leading the class for 36 years. “You’re learning something all the time.”

The Remount Depot teaches two basic packing classes a year, with 15 students each. In July it offers an advanced packing skills workshop. The rest of the time, Burns and his packers are on the trail, hauling food, lumber, tools, hay and gear for Forest Service projects.

“Right now, it’s dying,” Burns said of the packing tradition. “We’re trying to keep that tradition alive.”

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The Rocky Mountain Ranger District based in Choteau oversees about 1,000 miles of trail and 100 miles of road. Nearly all of that is in the federally designated Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear wilderness areas. By law, any work done in that 1.5 million acres must be done with non-mechanized equipment, using primitive skills, to the minimum extent necessary. That means mules.

The Forest Service’s trail crews typically include two or three humans and four or five animals. They stay out 10 days at a time, depending on the horses and mules to haul that much food, camping gear and hardware for the job. Wilderness rangers and fire crews also depend on pack strings. Muleskinners supply three active fire lookouts during the fire season, as well as nine backcountry cabins.

“Where the bottleneck comes is people with horse skills,” Bardwell said. “We have a full schedule maintaining our own crews. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation volunteers are fairly light to pack in, but we don’t have the capacity to cover all of them. There are folks out there like the Backcountry Horsemen with critters who help us out a lot.”

But even that organization has struggled to sustain its legacy. Part of the problem stems from the expense of owning and keeping horses and mules.

“We’re always talking about needing some type of position for the younger generation to get involved with,” said Connie Long, a past chairman of the Backcountry Horsemen of Montana and Missoula-area outfitter. “There are lots of college kids in Montana who are in things like the Montana Wilderness Association, but not many know about horses.”

Gillispie does own a horse, but this summer marks the first time she’s tied into the teamster aspect of the culture. Each trip she takes this summer with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation will increase in complexity and responsibility, until she’s ready to load and lead on her own.

“The hope is we’ll be ready to do what Frank and Keith and Ralph do, before they age out,” Gillispie said. “I would like to take volunteers in myself.”

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