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.
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.
Backwoods rangers are fighting with time, hoping old hands like Samsel will be able to teach the art of packing to the next generation of rangers.
``To be able to pack heavy equipment, we don't have a lot of people in this outfit with the ability to do that,'' says Bob Hoverson, the manager of the training center at Huson, Mont. ``We're trying to pass those skills on so they won't be lost.''
The weather-beaten, mule-savvy Samsel is an elder in a bureaucracy staffed by loads of computer-literate youngsters. There's been a Samsel in the Forest Service for 72 years, ever since the his father, W. K. Samsel, hired on at the Whitebird Ranger Station in central Idaho.
Growing up as a Forest Service brat, Samsel learned to use the hand tools with which early firefighting trails, lookout towers, and remote ranger stations were built. ``It was a working time when everything was done by hand and people worked hard,'' he says.
``Now, the old skills are being recognized and brought back into play,'' Samsel says proudly, describing how he and others teach Forest Service staff how to restore log buildings and bridges and how to sharpen hand tools.
Some of what Samsel teaches is common sense, also a lost art in some places.
``I guess I can stand to carry one more load to a mule,'' he says, looking at an unloaded animal tied 20 yards away from the lumber pile. ``It's against my policy,'' he says loudly as his students make a mental note to always lead their stock to the load and not vice versa.
And although he sternly counsels against tethering horses to trees (they kill the tree by pawing up the roots), he told trail crew members not to worry about tying up to a sapling for five minutes last week.
``There's the rule, then there's the rule of thumb,'' he said with his smile widening. ``Then there's the exceptions.''
Patience marks Samsel as a man who's worked with balky stock all his life. During loading, one mule gets his lead rope caught on a saddle and commences to buck and heave about. ``That's enough of that, you,'' Cal hollers, adding under his breath, ``It's all right; maybe he'll get it out of his system now instead of later when it would cause trouble.''
Loading twice as fast as Boyd and her crew, Samsel keeps an eye on their technique, checking their slip knots and half-hitches.
``You develop sore ribs, a long reach, and toes that curl back in your boots,'' he says with a chuckle as Boyd strains over a load to throw another cinch around the saddle bow while trying to keep the toe of her boot dug into the ground.
Once the mules are loaded, the trail crew mounts horses and more than a ton of freight begins moving up the trail, accompanied by the ancient chorus of saddle squeaks, hoofbeats on rock, and jets of animal breath through nostrils big as silver dollars.
``OK, everybody, heads up,'' he calls out to the mules at steep and narrow spots on the trail. ``You're gonna be all right, you'' he says as one mule negotiates a scissor-sharp switchback in the trail.
What makes the mule a better pack animal? ``He has a fear of pain, a fear of trouble, and he's lazy,'' Samsel says. He adds that mules are so lazy they will work hard to make their job easier. They will sidestep an obstacle alongside the trail, while horses will run into it and then burn strength shoving against it.
Make no mistake, while he's an advocate and teacher of the old ways, Samsel's plenty comfortable with machinery and won't hestitate to use it when the situation demands. He hauls the Forest Service show team of mules around the country in a well-equipped Kenworth tractor with a ventilated trailer in tow.
But it's clear there's a reason he never became a ranger like his father. ``He couldn't pack mules,'' Samsel says. ``I never knew when I couldn't reach out and touch a mule.''
One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.