HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) — Growing up on the rolling plains of South Dakota, Dave Lucas dreamed of a life spent roaming the wilds of the Rocky Mountains.
When he retires from the Bitterroot National Forest later this year, Lucas will know that he's one of the lucky ones who had a chance to live out their dreams.
For the past 30 years, Lucas has guided his government mule pack string through some of the most rugged wilderness that remains in the lower 48 states.
His days often started before first light and ended long after everyone else had gone home.
On an average year, he'd spend more than 50 days on the trail packing about 350 mule loads of gear ranging from camp supplies for trail crews to lumber and gravel. In 2013, his string packed more than 50,000 pounds of freight over 1,000 miles of trail.
"The thing is you'd never hear about all the obstacles faced along the way," said his longtime supervisor Deb Gale. "He had near misses or his animals might get hurt along the way, but he just took care of it. He's not a whiner or a big visitor. Dave is just one of those guys who are self-sufficient and self-reliant who you can always count on to put in a hard 10- or 12-hour day without being any trouble at all."
Lucas is part of a disappearing breed who proudly call themselves government packers.
"Our HR department doesn't even understand what that is anymore," Gale said. "When you say you need an animal packer, they just don't get it. There are so few of them left."
In places where large expanses of wilderness have been set aside, the primitive skills that a good mule packer offers are invaluable.
"In wilderness areas like the Bob Marshal or the Selway-Bitterroot, it's hard to even imagine getting the work done that needs to be accomplished without a stock program," Gale said. "Can you even imagine carrying all that weight on a person's back?"
"Dave has all those packing skills. He knows how to transport any kind of material, from stoves to gravel to lumber to hay and feed. He's even helped move telephone poles out of the wilderness."
Being successful as a government packer requires much more than that.
"He's an incredible irrigator who keeps our fields green through the summers. He's an amazing trails person who came into this job doing trails work. He can drive any kind of vehicle fully loaded over the worst roads imaginable. And he's an incredible leather worker who has saved us thousands of dollars over the years repairing tack."
Beyond all that, Gale said she most appreciates the kindness that Lucas shows to his stock.
"People aren't always that kind to the stock," she said. "That's hard for me to see. Dave knows how to get the work out of them while treating them with kindness. They are like a little family, which is neat to see. It's like they know that when dad is ready to go, they're ready too."
"He's just a kind heart," Gale said. "He's one of the good ones."
Lucas moved west in the fall of 1978 with the idea that he was going to become an outfitter and spend a life in the mountains. His life took a parallel path that spring when a Forest Service employee spotted him pounding nails into a new roof at the West Fork Lodge and asked if he was looking for a job.
He said yes.
The first two years on the Bitterroot National Forest were spent working on trail crews.
"I got a packing job the next year," Lucas said. "That's how it was back in those days."
Back then, there were several other old-timers working as packers who helped Lucas learn the ropes.
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