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.
"We did a little bit of everything," he said. "Each packer has his own trail crew that he kept supplied. We packed gear to all the lookouts too. There used to be quite a few, but now we're down to one."
As he looks back over his career, Lucas has no regrets.
He's been fortunate that he never lost a single pack animal on the thousands of miles of trail that he's covered. And in all that time, he's only been in one serious wreck.
"Sure I've been bucked off a few times, but I don't call that a wreck," he said.
The one incident that met Lucas' definition occurred on the Big Creek Trail in 2005 when he was riding a mule that he wasn't really all that well acquainted with.
"There had been a bear that day on the trail that had been rolling stuff down onto the trail," Lucas remembered. "The mule was smelling that stuff and was kind of amped up."
A couple of miles later, Lucas and his pack string ran into a pair of dogs that suddenly appeared about 50 yards away.
"They were just standing there staring at us," he said. "All of a sudden, a black dog came running into the scene."
His riding mule thought it was a bear and decided to retreat.
Before Lucas could do anything to change the mule's mind, it was running down the narrow trail alongside the fully loaded pack string. Lucas' body was taking a beating as he smacked against hard-sided pack loads on one side and trees on the other.
"To this day, I'm not sure if I fell off or just decided to get off," he said.
When he came to, he knew he was hurt bad. Doctors would later find five cracked ribs, a punctured lung and a broken scapula.
Members of the trail crew told him they'd call for a helicopter to take him out.
He opted to walk the nearly three miles to the trailhead.
"I did have to sit down every once in a while on a log to rest a bit," he said. "It hurt more when I finally got out."
Gale wasn't surprised when she heard the story. She'd been around enough old cowboys to know what to expect.
"He just one of those guys who have been doing this kind of hard and dangerous work all their lives," she said. "They may hurt in every joint that they have, but he's just like the rest. You never hear Dave complain about a thing."
At one time, almost every ranger district had at least one government packer working assigned to it.
On the Bitterroot National Forest, Lucas is the last.
The agency plans to fill his job after he retires this year, but Gale said it's not going to be easy to find someone with the wide breadth of skills that Lucas developed over the years.
"Above all the skills that he brings to the job, there's just that work ethic," she said. "He's one of those people that as a supervisor that you always hope that you'll have in your shop. That integrity, dedication, work ethic and leadership that he brings will be missed.
"In your career, you might have a few people who really stand out," Gale said. "Dave is one of those. He's tasked to a job and he goes out and does the work and you never have to worry about it getting done right."
Lucas turned 66 this year.
At his home in the West Fork, he has a new pop-up pickup camper stored away in an outbuilding that he's anxious to test out. He doesn't seem the kind that will settle into a rocking chair and stare out the window for the rest of his days.
"I've got my own animals to pack," he said. "I like to fish the mountain lakes. I like being outside. I think I'll just keep going."