Harmon’s Histories: Tales of old-time Forest Service packers and their ever-steady mule strings

Jim Harmon

Some weeks ago, I shared a couple of stories from my friend, Jack Puckett. The stories were so well received, I’m sharing a few more.

For 32 years, Jack worked for the U. S. Forest Service in north Idaho and Montana, encountering characters like “Rastus Reed,” “Swede John,” “Old Mel” and a number of backcountry packers.

A lot of the Powell Ranger District was inaccessible by road. So when there was a forest fire, they depended on packers and mule teams to shuttle in supplies and food.

“The packers always checked their cargo the night before, except for the fresh stuff, so they’d be all ready to load,” said Jack. “The next morning, they’d saddle up their string, then go to breakfast before loading the packs.”

Jack watched as one of the packers checked his cargo. He’d met the man before and knew he was experienced and reliable. “He finished up and went down to the bunkhouse, and then here comes one of the guys from the station.

“He goes over and he looks ’em over and he hefts the load, and pretty soon here comes another guy. He checked him out, lifted the load. I got a kick out of that because they were checking to see whether he had done a good job.

“The next morning, (the packer readied) his string and loaded up, with the (USFS guys) all standing around watching, and he got them all loaded, all nine mules. He picked up his lead rope, swung on his saddle horse and took off down across the flat and never looked back!”

Jack said, “When you didn’t have to look back to see if a pack is going to slip, you had it made. And away he went.”

Another time, the forest supervisor was showing someone “from the Washington office” around. As they watched a packer working, “that guy from the Washington office, he says, doesn’t he need help? The supervisor says, no, he doesn’t need any help. Just watch.

“Sure enough, he loads up all those mules, swings on his horse, takes off with two strings of mules and never looked back. And it was kind of remarkable because that’s a lot of mules to have – 18 mules behind you.”

Another character, a packer who ended every sentence with “by God,” had a love for bagpipes, but had a tin ear.

“He couldn’t probably carry a tune to save his soul,” said Jack, “but he would practice on this chanter – it’s like a little part of the bagpipe, the part where they finger the holes and it makes a noise.

“He would have a record player and he would turn it up as loud as he could. Then he’d go out in the corral with the mules and he would be practicing on his chanter.” The cacophony could be heard for miles.  

The bagpipe lover didn’t love everything. He had a serious dislike for helicopters. “He could see that the helicopter was about to replace the pack string,” said Jack, “and he didn’t want that to happen.

One day Jack went up to Elk Summit where there was a little warehouse, only to find a “big gob of aluminum tacked up on the side of the building and a little sign under it that said, ‘helicopter presumably killed by 44 Magnum,’” and presumably left by the bagpipe packer.

Another character was Mel Kolander. He was one of the so-called “cedar beasts” (loners, hired by companies with Forest Service contracts to produce cedar posts and poles). As the moniker implied, none of these guys were known for their cleanliness or social graces.

Old Mel “lived in a little shack in the woods,” said Jack, “and my job, at times, would be to go up and scale the logs and measure the poles and count the posts. The pole company was charged accordingly and then they apparently paid these guys whatever it was that they could get them to work.

“One of the first times I went up to talk to him and scale up his stuff, he had an old Hudson car and he was out there trying to crank on it and get it going. He says, get in there and pull out that throttle when I turn the crank.”

Once they got the car running Mel said, “What you need now is a cold drink.” Jack figured it was going to be a beer, but instead Mel said, “I have the best spring in the county. I’m going to make you a glass of ‘Koolaid.’

“He fished around in the dish pan and he found this old greasy cup and put some ‘Koolaid’ in there and some of this great spring water and he handed it to me and it almost slipped out of my hand! Now do you make the guy mad by refusing to drink it? Not I. I swilled it down, gravely and decided maybe I didn’t need to count too many poles that day.”

Another time Jack went up to take mail to Mel on a wintry day. “I got to his shack. The stove was going full bore and he was washing his shirt. Now he had his sleeves rolled up and you could see how far he’d had his arm in the water. There was a watermark on his arm.

“As he was washing these clothes, he had hamburger cooking on top of a stove – he had it laying there, no pan or anything, with the juice running off and down the side of the stove. I was afraid he was gonna ask me stay for lunch. I decided maybe I just leave his mail and go.”

Another character, who lived just up the road from the ranger station, was friendly enough. He’d wave at passersby. Jack remembered he had a little bit of land, “a couple cows, maybe a sheep or two, a couple of dogs and maybe a half a dozen cats.”

Jack didn’t know the man’s name, but an outfitter at Clarkia told him the fellow was known as “Swede John,” and he was a bulldozer operator.

The outfitter told Jack, “You know, I wanted Swede to come help me here a few days ago. And, so I went over to get him in the morning and old Swede was just eatin’ his breakfast and so he invited me to sit down and eat with him.”

The outfitter declined – a good choice, as it turned out. He told Jack, “Swede finished off this hot cake and then held his plate down and the dog licked it off. He put the plate back into the closet and he was ready to go to work!”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.