Idaho Elk, Mule Deer and Black Bear Blog

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Kelly leading a pack string

How Long You Been Doin This?

I frequently get asked the question, “How long have you been doing this?”. By this, I take it to mean packing a multiplicity of goods on mules and horses in the wilderness and back country. Or do they mean throwing a leg over a horse/mule and riding?

My “ending up as a packer” has a long history of knowledge bumps & bruises, joys & happiness, extreme heat & cold, a plethora of scenic beauty and of course a stream of cuss words over the years.

I first “threw a leg over a horse” at 4 years of age. It wasn’t exactly a horse, and it wasn’t exactly broke either! Apparently my first word after the regular Momma and Daddy was HORSE. And from what I understand that word was incessantly used until a Shetland Pony was purchased for me when I was 4. Now my well-meaning parents, knowing not much about equines, bought a yearling un-broke stallion Shetland pony for a 4-year-old to learn to ride. Turns out, I was more stubborn and un-broke than that pony and learn to ride, I did – no saddle, no formal lessons. In fact, this pony stayed a stallion til he was 9 years old. I started dragging mares home and getting him gelded was a necessity to say the least.

After and during Shetland pony time, I convinced Dad I needed something bigger to ride and he bought a couple of $100 “shitters” for me. Turns out that for that kind of money you don’t get broke or well-trained horses of good breeding but I rode them anyway. Sometimes I rode them as fast as they could run away with me through fences and bogs. Some were too crazy to keep. Some turned out pretty good.

Dad used to take me to live horse racing as a kid and I loved watching the speed and beauty of running horses. We watched thoroughbreds and quarter horses as well as catching a few sulky races back east. At 17 I went away to college and ended up with my first registered quarter horse, she was a big running bred filly, the type I still love to this day. I spent hours a horseback riding hills, plains & mountains. To this day, I never have bought a broke, trained horse, I’ve made them myself.

After college I started cowboying “cowgirling” and with that started packing salt to cows on mountain allotments. Now packing salt is pretty simple. Just throw 2 blocks in bags, aka panniers, on each side of a horse and go. Simple, but….. I was riding colts packing on broncs – not simple. A bronc throwing salt blocks around, hitting the young horse you are riding, wrapping the rope under the tail of your horse on the side of a mountain –potential disaster!

Then in 2014, my kids (Wyley & Tia) and I moved to Challis, Idaho to be with George McQuiston, owner of Wild Idaho Outfitters. Naturally I would be riding with George helping him pack. Packing for outfitting is a little more complicated than packing salt. Of course, George was lucky, haha, in the fact I moved my herd of horses to Challis also. So, we had broke mules of Georges and colts I brought to pack on. The green colts get lots of packing in the spring of bear bait. Simple like packing salt. Even weight in panniers on each side of the animal. They can buck bait out, run it into trees, break piggin strings, lay down, tip over backwards, break open buckets of frosting, etc and no loss!

Come fall, things get serious. We run on timelines and can’t ruin clients’ belongings. We are packing guns, cameras, optics, sleep apnea machines, eggs, whiskey, sleeping bags, boots, etc. We pack heavy even loads on each side plus top pack soft goods. Items must be kept safe from weather and branches snagging & tearing things. We use tarps and lash cinches and lots of fancy knots and hitches like diamonds, double diamonds, basket, basket with crows’ foot, and box hitch, just to name a few. Loads must be meticulously weighed and balanced. A string of preferably mules is put together and down or up the trail we go. I started out helping George and as Wild Idaho Outfitters evolved and Castle Creek Outfitters got purchased and farms got leased to grow more certified hay, everyone got busier. Every year, the kids and I took over more packing. George got busier running businesses and of course guiding. Packing wasn’t always smooth at first. I had unbalanced loads that tipped. I spent a lot of time it seemed getting off, pulling loads back into place and putting rocks in the “lighter” side. I sored a few animals too. One thing I detest the most in the outfitting world is soring animals. Not only does it mean a saddle doesn’t fit correctly or a load is not on properly, but it also means the animal is out of commission.

Through the years Wyley and Tia also have become good packers, they didn’t have a choice!! Wyley has moved on to guiding and being part owner in Castle Creek Outfitters (even though he still helps pack occasionally) and Tia has become my right-hand girl. There are times when George packs still and it’s always enjoyable for both of us. Every year, I enjoy packing more and more. Every year I yearn to lose myself into the wilderness more and more. So, to circle around to the question, “How long have I been doing this?”, the answer is a lifetime and the Good Lord willing, I hope I’ll continue packing for a long long time!

Contributed by Kelly Swingruber (Wrangler for Wild Idaho Outfitters and Castle Creek Outfitters)

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