As of this fall, 77-year-old outfitter Smoke Elser has spent 8,030 nights in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. Over 53 years of horse packing, he has slept a total of 22 years in a tent.
Smoke’s longevity has made him one of the most well-known packers in the West. Many persons refer to him as “The Legendary” Smoke Elser, a moniker that makes him both proud and embarrassed.
After graduating in 1968 from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in range management and secondary education, he purchased seven horses and saddles for $2,000. His mentor pitched in five mules, and Smoke and his new wife, Thelma, started in together, relying on hard work, word of mouth, and referrals. “Thelma and I became known for our ability to interpret the Bob Marshall,” he says.
Their clientele grew until they sometimes ran two trips a week. “We sold an understanding of the backcountry, the interpretation of the land,” Smoke says.
Smoke began teaching a packing class at the University of Montana. Now 47 years later he still teaches the class. More than 3,000 persons have completed the program.
In 1980 Smoke 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, the FBI and U.S. Border Patrol, and the Navy Seals.
In 2002 Smoke and Thelma sold their outfitter’s business and license. “I thought, oh boy, I shouldn’t have done that,” he says.
Nowadays he works as a consultant and guide for other outfitters and continues teaching clinics for government agencies. “This has been the greatest life ever,” Smoke says. “Meeting these people from all over the world that had a thirst for the backcountry. And I was the one to interpret it.”
Smoke knows the need for people to slow down and enjoy the backcountry is greater than ever. “Every year there’s a new class of people that wants to learn how to live life at 3 mph.”
Next spring he’ll saddle up and head into the backcountry to click off a few more nights. 8,031, 8,032…
Smoke understood that because of his age, his days riding into his beloved Bob Marshall Wilderness were limited, and he savored each trip. Someone made an excellent film, 3 Miles Per Hour, about it. You can view it free on the Montana PBS website. I didn't see him for ten years until I moved back to Missoula and rejoined the local Back Country Horsemen chapter. There was Smoke at the spring potluck, standing and proclaiming the importance of preserving public lands and wilderness. I, knowing how removed society has become from the natural world, wondered who would take up the torch when he dies. Then I realized the obvious answer, which I should have known all along: you and me.