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Hearing the ‘Hush of the Land’

Smoke Elser and Eva-Maria Maggi discuss their new book, 'Hush of the Land,' chronicling decades of mule packing trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

Arnold "Smoke" Elser began outfitting and guiding in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 1964. Since then, he's taught conservation ethic and the art of horse/mule packing to more than 3,000 students at the University of Montana in Missoula. Elser uses castor oil on his saddles. He said since it’s not animal-based, it helps keep bears away and doesn’t leave any residue on hands.
Arnold "Smoke" Elser began outfitting and guiding in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 1964. Since then, he's taught conservation ethic and the art of horse/mule packing to more than 3,000 students at the University of Montana in Missoula. Elser uses castor oil on his saddles. He said since it’s not animal-based, it helps keep bears away and doesn’t leave any residue on hands.
Story and photos by Keely Larson

Arnold “Smoke” Elser is a storyteller, but he’s not a big reader. In his office, tucked into a faded red barn built around 1900 in Missoula, Montana, an entire wall of shelves contains binders and books on wilderness policy and regulations. They’re more work than pleasure for Elser; he waves them off with an air of modesty. It’s the mules strolling by the barn window that give him pleasure. The mules are a big part of why Elser was able to travel as much of the Bob Marshall Wilderness as he did, providing companionship and comfort to outfitters and guests alike.

Elser’s new book, Hush of the Land: A Lifetime in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, was published in March and coauthored by University of Montana professor Eva-Maria Maggi. It’s designed to fit in a saddle bag and accompany those traveling through “the Bob,” where Elser made his home and livelihood as an outfitter and packer for more than 60 years.

Hush began as an oral history project spearheaded by Maggi who wanted to preserve Elser’s legacy. The two met when Maggi took one of the packing classes Elser taught at the University of Montana during his outfitting and packing career. Eventually, they realized they were neighbors in the Rattlesnake Valley north of Missoula.

“I just knew that that was something we needed to record because it’s something that everybody should be able to read and participate in,” Maggi said, “not only those that were lucky enough to take his class.”
"One of the things ... I have done all my career in outfitting is to take my guests out and individually set them somewhere, maybe by the river, or by a big tree ... They get it. They get the hush of the land." – Smoke Elser, coauthor, Hush of the Land
Maggi and Elser sat around a table in Elser’s office in the Rattlesnake, cold outside the ring of warmth from the fireplace, while Elser told her his tales. She suggested a person could ride up the North Fork of the Blackfoot River and stop at the North Fork cabin to read Elser’s stories from that exact location.

“That would be great,” said Maggi, a packer herself who also holds a doctorate in political science and teaches wilderness policy and packing at UM. “If I go out into
"Three Miles an Hour" was a 2011 PBS special focused on Smoke Elser’s way of life. Three miles an hour is the speed at which a horse tends to walk.
"Three Miles an Hour" was a 2011 PBS special focused on Smoke Elser’s way of life. Three miles an hour is the speed at which a horse tends to walk.
the woods and I can tell Smoke, ‘Hey Smoke, you know what I’ve seen on this trip? I’ve seen this person sitting right in the Danaher [Valley in the Bob Marshall] and they were reading about how you packed in there.’ That’s the closest we can get to having people going on a pack trip with Smoke.”

Elser sold his outfitting company in 2002 and turned 90 this January. The authors spoke with Mountain Journal inside the red barn just before the book’s release party on March 11 at the University of Montana.
 
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
 
Mountain Journal: I learned a ton reading this book and it felt particularly special since the Missoula area is still new to me. Smoke, your book weaves through its pages snippets of history demonstrating the breadth of experience you have in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and elsewhere. You tell readers about sheep herders that killed mountain lions or grizzly bears that threatened their sheep, leading to the eradication of grizzlies from the Bitterroot Mountains. A vaccine for Rocky Mountain spotted fever was developed in the Bitterroot Valley. And Japan fired intercontinental missiles during World War II intended to start wildfires in the Bob Marshall. What does this context add to your understanding of and appreciation for the landscapes you’ve enjoyed?
 
Smoke Elser: The people that live here now weren't born here. They've moved from all over. The history of this part of the country is highly important to non-native Montanans. They become, more or less, native Montanans because they understand some of the facts.

MoJo: And even to native Montanans that might not have known that history growing up or didn’t cultivate a love for the outdoors until later in life.
 
S.E.:  That’s what I tried to do with my guests.

MoJo: Legendary outfitter-guides Tom Edwards and Howard Copenhaver taught you the value of wild places we would lose without hard work from those who care about them, as you write in the book. Part of Edwards’ fight—securing wilderness status for the Scapegoat Wilderness, almost 240,000 acres that makes up part of the Bob Marshall—was solidified after he died. How do you chip away at something you’re passionate about for a lifetime?
 
S.E.: Because I lived there. I took guests in there and I interpreted that country to them. And that's how I kept moving forward, trying to get that done. I worked closely with Tom and Howard. One of the things that Tom would do, and I have done all my career in outfitting, is to take my guests out and individually set them somewhere, maybe by the river, or by a big tree or rock … and leave them there for about an hour. They get it. They get the hush of the land.

Eva-Maria Maggi: I copied Smoke there for my class. I take students on a pack trip into the Bob Marshall. I put them on this meadow, and they have to sit apart. It's amazing because they don't know that. We don't do that anymore. We're constantly entertained, we're constantly busy. We don't know the hush anymore.
Eva-Maria Maggi and Smoke Elser first met when Maggi took one of Elser’s packing classes. Maggi is the chronicler of Elser’s stories, wanting to preserve his legacy for generations to come.
Eva-Maria Maggi and Smoke Elser first met when Maggi took one of Elser’s packing classes. Maggi is the chronicler of Elser’s stories, wanting to preserve his legacy for generations to come.
MoJo: Smoke, your packing trips weren’t just about gaining skills or trophies from hunts. You focused on the experience. Why was it important to provide that to your guests?
 
S.E.: It’s an interpretation of the land. When you come across an old cabin, whose cabin was that? Who built that? Why do we have all these ponderosa pines in White River and Murphy Flat? That's because Native Americans loved to fish right here. They made camp and when they left, they’d burn it so they had grass next year for their horses.

E.M.: It's not about the fish, it’s not about the elk. It's not even about your physical exercise. It's not so much about you, it’s broader. When I was listening to Smoke telling these stories, it's pretty clear that living in that space from June till Thanksgiving makes the experience so much deeper because it's your home.
 
MoJo: Is there a transition you saw in your guests during trips? What did that look like?
 
S.E.: I saw that in my guests all the time. From that time on, they try to do that to themselves. Sitting in a board meeting, I've seen [William] Bill Allen, former president of Boeing, stand up and say, “OK, everybody shut up.” And he’ll just sit there, they just sit there. And then he’d say, “OK, now we can do something on this airplane.” And he got that from what we did.
"Bill Cunningham, outfitter and conservationist in Choteau, [Montana] once said 'wilderness protection is constant pressure constantly applied.'" – Eva-Maria Maggi, coauthor, Hush of the Land
MoJo: Eva-Maria, you’re a political scientist with a background in wilderness policy and packing. Tell me how you discovered those two things fit together.
 
E.M.: My field is international relations. I did my PhD on Morocco. But I’ve always loved horses and I’ve always loved to be outside. I'm still interested in international politics, but I wanted to have this idea about what people do in politics, and why people make certain decisions, and just put it into a different context. It’s really the people on the ground that drive the protection. I think that’s still what happens today. That didn’t change at all since the Wilderness Act. Bill Cunningham, outfitter and conservationist in Choteau, once said wilderness protection is constant pressure constantly applied.

MoJo: Smoke, you touch on successes regarding wilderness preservation: roads not being built in the Flathead River system, the Centennial Train traveling to Washington, D.C. to convince politicians not to develop the Bob, the Wilderness Act passing in 1964. Why was that all successful during that time?
 
S.E.: People were desiring that. They found themselves being locked into their own neighborhood, into their own city, their own part of the country. The train was very successful in getting that done. President [Lyndon] Johnson, I got a picture of him, he laughed so hard he hit his legs and his hat fell off on the ground and Secret Service ran in and picked it up.

MoJo: Public involvement played a big role in wilderness designation and stopping mines, clear-cutting, road development and other obstacles to packing in the ‘60s and ’70s. How has public involvement changed since the Wilderness Act was signed into law?
 
S.E.: The difference is mainly the computer and communication. Today, they're trying to fly drones over the Bob Marshall, video the whole thing, so that if you want to go on a pack trip, all you have to do is pull out your computer, sit for an hour, and you could see people catching fish and see a guy shooting an elk.
These elk flanks were carried on the Centennial Train that traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1964.
These elk flanks were carried on the Centennial Train that traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1964.
MoJo: One of your big things is bringing people out into the wilderness that might not be able to experience it. What’s the difference between that and the option someone might have to see the wilderness on their computer from this drone footage?
 
S.E.: They’re actually able to sense it when they’re out there by either touching, feeling, smelling, being there. They can be cold in the morning when the frost is still on the ground. And in the evening, they can be warmed by the campfire burning right there and hear the crackling of the wood. That's the difference.

MoJo: You express deep admiration for the places you’ve been, Smoke, and expound on how those places still strike you. I’d love to hear advice from both you and Eva-Maria on how not to take these beautiful places for granted.
 
S.E.: It’s kind of a hard question to answer. My job was to shut off their computer mind and turn on their wilderness mind. And that's the important thing that I had to do. Drinking straight from a creek, walking in the grass barefoot; that's what helps turn that switch on and off.
 
E.M.: That can be anxiety-producing for some people. They need to be curious enough to go out there and see it with their own eyes. So, how can you keep that going where they actually take that leap and go out? I think outfitters have an important role to play there because they can keep them safe. They make them not only feel safe, but love it by the time they get out there.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Keely Larson
About Keely Larson

Keely Larson writes about water, health policy and the environment in Montana. Her work has been published in The New Republic, U.S. News & World Report and Montana Free Press among other outlets. She graduated from the University of Montana in 2023 with a master's degree in environmental journalism.
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