Smoke Elser's Fire

Montana’s most famous horse packer continues his life’s work.

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Arnold “Smoke” Elser has spent more than 8,030 nights in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. It took him 53 years of horse packing to rack up those numbers. Total, that’s 22 years of sleeping outdoors, and he’s still going strong. The 77-year-old Elser is often referred to as the “Legendary” Smoke Elser, a moniker that makes him both proud and embarrassed.

After graduating from the University of Montana in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in range management and secondary education, Elser borrowed the money to buy a packer friend’s stock and equipment, including seven horses and saddles, for a total of $2,000. A mentor pitched in five old mules, and Elser and his new wife, Thelma, started in together. The young couple built their business on hard work, word of mouth, and referrals, sometimes running two trips a week.

“Thelma and I became known for our ability to interpret the Bob Marshall,” he says. “We sold an understanding of the backcountry, the interpretation of the land.”

Elser has also taught a horse-packing class at the University of Montana since 1964. More than 3,000 people have completed the program, and in 1980, Elser began teaching packing clinics through the Forest Service’s Ninemile Wildlands Training Center. His clients have included the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, state game wardens, FBI agents, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Navy Seals.

Paul Evenson, former president of Missoula Back Country Horsemen, assists with Elser’s classes and has always been impressed by Elser’s ability to demonstrate technique. When showing how a bridle works, for instance, Elser likes to hang it over his own head; explaining how to best work a manty rope, he tosses one end of the rope on the floor and pushes and pulls. “See, it’s a lot easier to pull a rope than to push it,” he concludes.

“This has been the greatest life ever,” Elser says. “Meeting these people from all over the world that have a thirst for the backcountry, and I was the one to interpret it…Every year there’s a new class of people that wants to learn how to live life at three miles per hour.”

Though he and Thelma sold their outfitter’s business and license in 2002, Elser still works as a consultant, guides for other outfitters, and continues to teach clinics. This spring he’ll saddle up as always and head into the backcountry to click off a few more nights.
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