Apprentice packing program passes torch to the next generation

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Frank Vitale trims the hooves of a horse at his ranch east of Kalispell. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Frank Vitale was deep in the backcountry along with a pair of fellow wilderness packers last summer when the campfire talk turned to the future of their profession.

“We don’t see a whole lot of young people packing anymore,” Vitale said. “And a lot of us are starting to get a little gray around the muzzle.”

Vitale splits his work life between packing trips and horseshoeing on his ranch, which sits nestled against the Swan Mountain foothills between Creston and Bigfork.

He’s been a professional packer for most of his life, and he picked up the trade from the old-timers at Glacier National Park, where he was doing restoration work.

“I was all eyes and ears, and they’d show me some of the knots and rigging techniques,” he said.

And while he freely admits that he’s inexperienced compared to many of his colleagues, packing is a passion for Vitale. His bookshelf is littered with accounts delving into the history of packing, a rugged practice rooted in tradition that started well before the first frontiersmen crossed the Continental Divide.

“I had a thought that wouldn’t it be really neat if an organization like the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation had a kind of apprenticeship to start teaching them?”

The foundation agreed, and with the apprentice packing program kicking off this summer, Vitale is hoping to pass the torch to a new generation.

This year, Vitale and two other professional packers will bring in a pair of apprentices to take multiple trips into the backcountry, covering the basics of packing, defensive horsemanship, wilderness ethics, first aid and other skills.

As a prerequisite, packers also must complete a primer course at the U.S. Forest Service packing school, held each spring.

The packers will give their apprentices reviews after each trip, and graduates of the program will leave equipped with a specialized, but employable, skill set.

“If they really take an interest, there’s opportunities with the Forest Service, or taking a position with an outfitter or starting your own business,” Vitale said.

Margosia Jadkowski, the foundation’s outreach coordinator, said Vitale’s idea fit well with the foundation’s mission.

The nonprofit organization complements the Forest Service’s efforts to maintain the 1,700-mile trail system criss-crossing the Bob. Over the past two decades, the foundation has completed more than 5,000 miles of trail maintenance in the 1.5 million-acre wilderness complex.

“We’re celebrating our 20th year of stewardship in the Bob, and it’s a great opportunity to look forward to our next 20 years,” Jadkowski said. “The stewardship we do, and what our volunteers do, really wouldn’t be possible without that packing support. The majority of the packing community will have retired in the next 20 years, so who’s going to be there to fill that need?”

The Forest Service’s resources often fall short of meeting trail maintenance goals, she added, with budget cuts and other needs eating up much of the available funding over the years.

Vitale and the other packers will be volunteering their time with their “green-around-the-ears” apprentices, but he said it should be a good trade-off as the trainees become more experienced during the summer.

“Getting young people involved with stock also teaches them good personal skills and responsibility ... and it helps us old guys out,” he said with a laugh.

Keeping the tradition alive is important to Vitale, as well as imbuing graduates with a strong outdoors ethic. The costs of stock, saddles, packs, trucks and trailers to get started in the business can be prohibitive to getting into the field, and most of the packers he’s known have grown up in families that had either an outfitting business or a similar line of work.

“We want to keep that tradition going, but we also want to be responsible stewards of the environment and of the backcountry,” he said. “When I see that, it makes my job so worthwhile.”

To learn more about the foundation or the apprenticeship program, visit www.bmwf.org.


Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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