From the ranger’s cabin at Black Bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, you can usually see the pine-covered hilltops.
But in the early morning, when it’s too dark to see the steam rise from your breath, Gene Brash is already out calling the mules.
A tender “Hey, hey. Now. Hey,” fills the quiet valley of the Forest Service encampment.
All of nature, right down to the Whisky Jack jay, is motionless. Blue-hued Montana mountains in the east take shape in the lightening sky.
“Come on now,” the broad-shouldered giant calls into the stands of trees, his whiskers and horseshoe-shaped moustache curling in the dew.
Groans and grunts answer him as the animals stretch and amble toward their master.
Before him is the difficult task of harnessing and saddling his nine mules and one horse in the dark. If he remembers where he put the harnesses, he doesn’t need the light of day to see.
“You just do it,” says Brash of Spangle, in his haste to get on the trail. “It’s morning and tomorrow’s almost here.”
Like the grizzly and the gray wolf, Gene Brash belongs to these woods.
But where their tomorrow is certain in this protected wilderness, Brash’s isn’t. Because of budget cuts he’s in his last year as a full-time Forest Service mule packer.
“It’s the end of an era, that’s what it is,” Brash says. “I’m glad I got 30 years in.”
He has made pilgrimages along the twisting trails through the alpine meadows and thick woods of the Montana wilderness every year since he was 11 “…’cept one year when I was in the service.”
“I got hooked back then,” Brash says. “There are worse things to get hooked on than camping up here.”
After 55 years, Brash still is a Montana mountain man.
“He’s like a mountain goat,” says his sister, Priscilla Martin. “He’s tall and nobody could keep up with him.”
And he loves the backwoods of the Bob Marshall.
“Any place where you got less people is just beautiful,” Brash says, “It’s bound to be nice just to get away from that rat’s nest down there.”
A mule-string packer for 34 years, Brash has led mules for the Forest Service for the past 24, serving as lifeline for the rangers and volunteers manning the outposts deep in “The Bob.” His mule string rounding a bend is a welcome sight, the white packs loaded with food, fuel and mail.
Declared a wilderness area by Congress in 1964, The Bob is closed to anything but primitive activities. Only basic tools, such as propane fuel for lamps, axes and shovels, are allowed in.
Old Brash is part of the Montana mule packing tradition that started in the late 1920s. Back then, the best way to carry provisions and equipment into the woods - particularly firefighting gear - was by horse or mule string.
Mules are less skittish and require less feed than their equine cousins. They can carry up to 200 pounds and will take pains not to rub their bundles against trees that line the trails. Though they are work animals, they have names like Pam, Hydro, Sarah and Maggie.
Brash’s home base, the Spotted Bear Ranger District in the Flathead National Forest, uses about 60 mules to supply its crews in the back country. “It’s something that goes on up here that nobody knows,” Brash says. He helps run the barn and cares for the animals.
At one time as many as 10 packers led strings out of the Spotted Bear station. But time hasn’t been good to the program. Because of congressional budget cuts, the Forest Service will trim the number of packers from two to one.
It’s now down to Brash or his friend, Bill Workman, for the seasonal job of packing in for Spotted Bear.
Brash has seniority. If he wanted to stay on, he could. But the cowboy way calls for the 66-year-old veteran packer to step back and let the younger man with the family keep working.
Where Brash is broad and gruff, Workman is slight and mild-mannered, always careful to tuck his colorful shirts into his jeans, which he belts with a rodeo buckle. Brash towers a full head and shoulders over his friend.
“Gene’s a nice guy,” Workman said. “He’s a tough guy, too. He’ll take on anybody in a saloon. But he’s got a heart bigger than he is.”
They share ambivalence about Brash’s retirement. Workman knows Brash is stepping down for him.
One morning last week across Workman’s kitchen table, Brash said into his cup of coffee, “When I retire, I’m just going to sleep in all morning.” He glanced up at Workman.
“We’ll need your help next year,” his friend offered.
“You may get some,” Brash said, nodding at him.
For Brash retirement is a heartbreak. It’s hard for him to leave a life he loves so much when he can’t imagine what to do next. But he’s reconciled himself to the decision.
“If my number’s up now, it don’t matter to me,” he says, touching his beard. “I’ve lived a pretty good life.”
He talks of volunteering to pack in the Bob Marshall a month or so next summer. He says the seasonal work keeps him going. “I think it added 10 years to my life,” he says. “I can lift heavy packs. I ain’t got no aches and pains. Everybody’s got something wrong with them. I ain’t got nothing wrong with me.”
The Forest Service depends on volunteers: expert workers, like Brash, who have retired, but can’t keep away from the wilderness.
John Christensen, an old mule packer and shoer from the 1950s, came to Spotted Bear with his brother and friend recently to repair the old tack and saddles. Brash teases the men at least 10 years his senior, saying he’ll probably join them next year.
Like the three fates, the gray men stand together, heads bent over their work of measuring out strips of leather and cutting them to fit the tack. They paint oil on the old saddles to make them supple and last a bit longer.
Maybe Brash will be with them.
“He has put so much of his life into this,” says his supervisor, Ranger Gordon Ash. “You’d like it not to have this cloud over it. It is such a major part of his life, he won’t be able to replace it.”
Government funds to the Spotted Bear station declined 30 to 40 percent last year, which was down from the year before, Ash says.
This year, the Spotted Bear Ranger District was funded to maintain and repair only 175 of the 1,000 miles of trail that snake through the timbered mountains. Many of the backcountry trails are broken down and impassable. As a result, the main lines are overused.
‘When it finally does come out that we aren’t doing our jobs, that we aren’t doing the stewardship that we need, it will be too late,” Ash says.
And experienced packers like Brash and Workman are slipping away.
With more than 50 years of packing experience between them, replacing the pair would be nearly impossible. They’ve won safety awards for mule handling. This year, Brash and Workman were recognized for the complicated work of using two mules to tandem pack timber for a bridge. Sometimes Brash lets slip a boast: “We’re the tandem packers from hell.”
Mule packing isn’t as easy as it looks. Besides having to train the animals and know each mule’s personality, a packer has to keep constant watch over them on the trail.
A slip or a spook could send the entire string tumbling off a foot-wide path and down a breathtakingly steep embankment. Such accidents have killed animals and their packers.
Even greater hazards are the people who use the trail.
Last week Brash and Workman had packed about halfway to the Black Bear cabin when they met an outfitter leading three horses. Despite Workman’s warnings, the outfitter tried to pull his animals up the steep hill above the trail. On the other side of the mules loomed a steep drop to the South Fork of the Flathead.
The man yanked his first horse up the pine-covered incline, then slipped. Unable to stand, the horse lay down.
Brash and Workman’s mules twitched at the activity, but kept their footing. The man panicked, “You got to help me, Bill. The horse is on my leg.”
The slim packer coaxed the animal to its feet and down to the trail. The man stood, brushed off and took control of his horses.
After Workman led his string past, the man spotted Brash and started shouting a greeting. Both mule packers flinched at the noise they knew would startle the animals, but they kept steady.
They both shook their heads at the encounter. “You got to watch out for idiots on the trail,” Brash said a few minutes later.
Though they often pack alone, on this trip Brash and Workman went in together to Black Bear cabin, a place where Brash spends 40 nights a season. He has added up all the nights of his career and figured he has spent three years there.
They pull in and tie up the mules at the corral. Their first job is to unload the heavy packs.
As they take the bundles and Decker saddles off each animal, the mules make for patches of dry earth around the pastures where they take joyful rolls, their feet high in the air. Then they shake and graze around the open yard until Workman or Brash bring out food.
The mules run free at Black Bear, but they don’t wander farther than their watering hole a half-mile away and are always close by in the morning when called in.
After they’ve tended the animals and stacked the loads and saddles, the men open the ranger’s cabin up the hill. They start a fire to warm the dank room and set out to make dinner, a hearty meal of steak and beans.
Workman’s spurs ring as he walks across the wood planks and Brash sets his stiff hat to dry on the old iron stove. Though damp, the hat doesn’t lose its shape. Brash hardens it with Thompson Water Seal. “You can make a $10 hat a $200 hat,” he says. “You couldn’t run a bullet through that thing, probably.”
Then, before the sun sets, they settle into their cots to nap and consume the same National Geographic and Zane Grey story magazines they’ve read for seven years. They need the rest for the next leg of the trip, 23 miles to the ranger station at Big Prairie. Even when the trails are muddy and skies promise snow, Brash and Workman make the journey.
As morning dawns, so does Gene Brash’s uncertain future.
He ties up his last loads as a mule packer for the Forest Service. It’s a sad time. Brash doesn’t seem ready to leave the wilderness.
“In all them years, there are still places we haven’t dug out yet.” he says.
Still, he’s making some plans. He’ll bring in his grandson Calvin, 11, the same age that Brash discovered his love of the wilderness.
He has a fifth-wheel trailer that he and his companion, Gayle Smith, can park up at a trail head when the snow melts. “We’re going to be somewhere where it’s not crowded,” he says.
For now, Brash focuses on his final days on the trail, his last rides on his Forest Service horse, Tex, and his precious time in the woods.
The morning’s darkness at Black Bear has surrendered to the daylight. Bird songs fill the meadow. Brash climbs atop Tex, and leads the trusting mule string down to the wooden bridge across the South Fork. He’s hoping for an easy journey.
“The road was pretty good yesterday,” Gene says. “But what do they say? Today is another day, ain’t it?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 10 Color photos Map of area around Bob Marshall Wilderness