Forest Service Keeps Mule Teams Packing
BURDEN-SHARING, IDAHO STYLE
RED IVES RANGER STATION, IDAHO
THE creation of federal wilderness areas has forced the United States Forest Service to add an old tool to its equipment list: the mule team. With mules come expert mule packers, a rare breed headed for extinction if their skills aren't passed on to a new generation.Skip to next paragraph
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There are just three working mule teams west of the Mississippi, and Cal Samsel heads up the Forest Service's show team.
The veteran mule packer's job is to deliver supplies to places in the national forests of Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas where trucks can't drive and helicopters can't land.
But to listen to him talk, you'd think Mr. Samsel's job was to wage a one-man war on ignorance.
``There were a lot of people that felt we were going to be totally replaced with helicopters,'' he says, puffing misty dawn air while cinching packsaddles onto mules last week. ``Aircraft I champion, but the helicopter doesn't do it all.''
Recalling a fire when helicopters sat grounded by darkness and thick smoke, Samsel explains the advantages of mule strings. ``We go all day, we go all night,'' he says, grinning as he shoves back on a mule that had leaned its head into his back.
Some decisionmakers at the Forest Service appear to have caught on to the idea that to manage primitive country, you need a few people with primitive skills.
``One of every six national forest acres is designated as wilderness. With that comes an obligation to use primitive tools and techniques,'' says Larry Timchak, assistant ranger for the Ninemile Ranger District in the Lolo National Forest near Huson, Mont.
The Forest Service operates a wildlands training center in the Lolo National Forest, where tenderfoot staffers are taught to pack gear, restore shelters, and sharpen axes the old-fashioned way. Samsel's nine-mule team is part of that outfit. The two other mule teams in the West also belong to the Forest Service, one at Dubois, Idaho, and the other at a ranger district in Wyoming.
Samsel's is the show team, and appears in parades from Paul Bunyan Days in St. Maries to the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, Calif. In addition to these appearances as a colorful ambassador of the Forest Service, he and the mule team are lent out to provide expert packing services around the Northwest.
Samsel never stops teaching, whether he's showing off the mule team at a parade and teaching back country horse skills to the curious or moving freight for a trail crew.
He was recently on loan to the Avery Ranger District, packing heavy timbers onto the Elbow Ridge trail above the St. Joe River.
There, trail crew forewoman Jackie Boyd and her troops set the chemically treated timbers in place to divert water off the trail. But not before Samsel taught them a thing or two about mule packing.
He talks as he works, teaching theory and practice all at the same time.
For starters, he explains, the mules' packsaddles are of Idaho design, developed by the Decker freight outfit (from the tiny central Idaho town of Riggins) that serviced Hells Canyon miners before the turn of the century. Closely fitted to the animal, they are a humane packsaddle, he says, and can be altered to carry a variety of loads.
In this case, Samsel fastens lumber bunks onto the bow atop the back of each saddle and teaches Ms. Boyd and her trail crew how to cinch them into place.
Next he starts teaching them to load the lumber, balancing the left load with the right and keeping two-thirds of the load slung low on the animal, to ease its footing under the 300-pound load.
Packing a mule is an imperfect art, dependent on an interplay of wood, rope, leather, steel and canvas lashed to the back of an animal with a mind of its own.
It's also a backwoods ballet of sorts. With a load of timbers sitting in the lumber bunk and braced against his leg, Samsel dances a pas de deux with his mule, keeping close while his thick fingers threw quick half-hitches and slip-knots into the swing rope that carries most of the weight of the load.