Packing Perspective: 50 Years in the Wilderness

  • August 28, 2014
  • Posted by Nate Hess

If you were going to interview a couple with over 50 years of experience leading backcountry trips, where would you begin? The breathtaking vistas, their favorite pack animal, a close encounter with a grizzly? These are the typical questions, but Smoke and Thelma are far from ordinary. For the couple that literally wrote the book on how to lead pack strings, we started at the beginning. 

“56 years in August,” answered Thelma Elser.

That’s right around the number of years the Elsers spent burning the candle at both ends to make their business succeed. In other words, that’s how long they’ve been married. The long days and a passion for the outdoors brought them decades of enjoyment. They’re quick to tell you that the business wasn’t just about making money.
“I try to teach what wilderness really is,” said Smoke. “That’s what brought people back many times, the fact that we were trying to show them a different way of life.”

While they both grew up in the same era, their upbringings were quite different. Thelma was born and raised near Helena, Montana—spending some of her childhood in a two-room log cabin. Arnold “Smoke” Elser, on the other hand, grew up in the Midwest. He spent time around draft horses at a young age and came up through the Boy Scouts—eventually earning the organization’s highest honor. Long before they had met each other, they were connected by their love of the land.

It should come as no surprise that Smoke wanted to turn his passion for the woods into his way of life. In 1955, he headed west and had a job waiting for him with the Forest Service. It would take a year and some missed first dates, but you could say Thelma was waiting for him too.

“One of his co-workers was engaged to a friend of mine,” she recalled. “We met on a blind date after he canceled three or four times because he got sent out to fight fires. But, he kept persevering … and before you know it, there we were.”

In the early years of their marriage, Smoke acquired plenty of experience working on a trail crew and at a fire observation tower with the Forest Service. However, he was still searching for a comprehensive approach to horse-packing. Then one summer in 1956, he found the opportunity he was looking for. 

“I met a man by the name of Tom Edwards ... and he had come out of the hills with this big group of pack animals. With that, I got to know him a little bit, and I asked him for a job. He said, ‘Well, sonny, why don’t you come up this winter and we’ll talk about.’ ”

Smoke landed the job. However, the offer was conditional. He had two weeks to show his stuff and he received no wage—only room and board. Once the trial period was up, Smoke was brought on to be a wrangler for the ranch and then later a camp cook. 

A few years later in 1964, the Wilderness Act was signed into law, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness was born. With new regulations governing the land’s use, many packers saw this as a threat to their livelihoods. Despite the challenges, the Elsers decided it was time they toss their hat in the ring.

“I think Smoke always knew he wanted to get into the outfitting business, the ‘when’ was negotiable,” chuckled Thelma. 

That spring, they bought a small outfit—despite Thelma’s admission she was no “horse person” in those days. In just a few years, starting with ten head of horses, a few saddles, and some other equipment, they found themselves with too many clients. So much so, they had to rent horses from other outfits, sometimes leading parties of 30 or more into the wilderness. That’s when it started become to clear, something about the business wasn’t right.

“We realized that we were doing a lot of damage to the country and we weren’t making that much more profit,” Smoke pointed out. “And for that reason we started to look at (Leave) No Trace and taking in smaller groups.”

The Forest Service also took notice to the impacts large strings were having in newly established wilderness areas. Further regulations were passed down and many outfitters fought them “to beat heck.” The Elsers took it in stride—even going as far as calling the additional management helpful.

“I think Thelma and I … we accepted those restrictions,” said Smoke. “We built our operation around the restrictions, and it made a lot of difference.”

The couples’ business prospered. With smaller groups minimizing impacts on the land, they could focus on their real passion—connecting people with the outdoors. In order for that to happen, you had to figure out a way to get them to Montana. That meant booking the guests, arranging their hotels and travel, and transporting the clients to the trailhead; Thelma did it all. Then, of course, how do you keep the clients fed? 

“All of the groceries,” she sighed. “I could whirl through a grocery store faster than you could shake a stick at and spend a thousand bucks just like that.”

Even following the Leave No Trace ethic and reducing the loads the animals carried, there was still something extraordinary about a trip with Wilderness Outfitters. Relying mostly on referrals and repeat business, the couple became a staple of wilderness outfitting and packing.

“I know what made us different, Smoke’s capability to interpret what the guests were seeing,” said Thelma. “And actually maybe not just what they were seeing, but what they were sensing and what they were feeling.”

It wasn’t just the flora and fauna. The pair made it a point to instill the history of wilderness in their visitors. From visiting the sites of old homesteads to passing down stories from mentors, they managed to create a connection with land that stretched far beyond the hills. 

“You know how when you’re a kid and a summer day goes on forever, and you kind of lose that when you get older? When you get back to the Bob Marshall that feeling comes back. It’s almost timeless,” explained Thelma.

While the experience with the land may feel timeless, the Wilderness Act isn’t. In the 50 years since its passage, the Elsers believe the number of outfitters in the Bob Marshall Wilderness has declined. The stories about the land and its history are diminishing. There’s a younger generation that can afford backcountry trips, but they aren’t lining up to get on the horse. Even so, that’s not what changed for the Elsers.

“We got older,” Smoke calmly stated. “I didn’t think it would happen but we did.”

Now, more than ever, the Elsers think it’s high time that the next generation takes the reins and has their shot at managing public lands. To them, this means not only getting out and using public lands, but also continuing to expand them, and banding together to keep them accessible for all user groups.

“It’s important now, at this present time, that we maintain wilderness,” said Smoke. “I think it’s real important we ask for more wildernesses, any additions we can get, and also that we maintain it with Leave No Trace and good outfitters.” 

Smoke unapologetically admits that there are likely “valuable” natural resources in the hills. Timber, copper, gold, and probably oil in many wilderness areas.  He’s quick to rebut that the last two generations had their chance at managing the land. And the younger generation, if they rise to the occasion, may find something far more valuable than trade goods.

“It may be clean water, it may be pure air … or it may be the soundness of mankind,” said Smoke. 

Was there a question you didn’t see answered? Check out this link for a WEB EXTRA about the Elsers and their time in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. 


I met Smoke through his daughter Tammy who I went to Forestry school with in Missoula at the vo-tech.  He is one of those people you meet in a lifetime that is unforgettable.  A great teacher and person.

Posted by Lisa Green at August 28 2014

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