Trail crews carve out rugged-but-rewarding life in the way-backcountry

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DIXIE — If not for federally designated wilderness areas where motorized travel is forbidden, there would be few job opportunities for packers — throwback men who make their living leading horses and mules on narrow paths over mountains and through canyons.

But at places like Crooked Creek, which plunges through the Gospel Hump Wilderness in the mountains near Dixie and to the Salmon River thousands of feet below, the practitioners of this fading art remain essential to moving supplies and getting things done.

“As long as there is wilderness, we will be packing,” said Casey Burns, manager of the Nine Mile Pack Train based near Alberton, Mont. “Wilderness keeps us alive.”

Burns and packer Mark Pengelly joined the trail crew from Red River Ranger District and a handful of volunteers this week in an effort to maintain the Crooked Creek Trail. Their mules moved load after load of sand and gravel down the trail, where it was dumped and then spread in an effort to fill crevices that develop in spots where the tread crosses rock-strewn slopes.

As the trail settles over time, holes tend to open up.

Without the maintenance, Pengelly said the trail, which is popular with backcountry hunters in the fall, would be treacherous to stock.

“They get tumbling through this stuff, and they tear tendons and get cuts and bruises,” he said.

And without the pack string and its ability to haul the heavy loads, the work would be even harder and slower. Since it’s too far for people to pack gravel, the holes are normally filled by trail crews who use sledge hammers and pick axes to crush big rocks into small rocks. Even with the pack string, there is an hour between the arrival of each load — time for trail crew supervisor Jeremy Watkins to put a sledge hammer to work.

“It’s easier just to put gravel over the top,” he said.

The Nine Mile crew and their horses and mules work on forests throughout the northern region of the U.S. Forest Service. One week they might haul gravel, the next it could be lumber to replace a pack bridge or fingerling trout to be planted in a high mountain lake. They spend a good deal of their time supplying backcountry cabins used by trail crews or to bring supplies to crews who are spiked deep in the wilderness.

“We travel probably 600 miles a year on the trail, and we pack anywhere from 90,000 to 100,000 pounds of gear a year,” Burns said. “We do about 16 work projects a year, and anywhere from four to five parades.”

Prior to the start of the Crooked Creek project, they rode in the Spurs and Spokes Parade at Kamiah last Saturday. They started their year in May with a trip into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and will continue until the snow flies.

“It’s kind of a dream job if you are a packer,” Burns said. “You are up and down the trail all the time. We are away from home quite a bit, but the winters are long too.”

The cold months are spent at the Nine Mile Remount Depot and Historic Ranger Station that is managed by Burns. But there is still plenty of work to be done.

“I spend six months out of the year in the mountains and six months feeding mules and fixing fences,” Pengelly said.

He said with shrinking federal budgets and the combination of forests and ranger districts, packing jobs are tough to come by.

“Pretty much the only way to get one is to have a packer retire or die.”

The depot winters about 220 head of stock from all around the northern region, which includes national forests in northern Idaho, Montana and the western parts of the Dakotas. The depot also serves as sort of a living museum for packing and primitive backcountry skills.

“We have a wildlands training center. We put on cross-cut saw maintenance classes, we put on two basic packing classes, we put on an advanced packing class, Dutch-oven cooking, axmanship and backcountry survival classes,” Burns said. “All the traditional skills that the Forest Service continues to use, we put on the training for employees and for the public.”

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