It can be stated without much fear of contradiction that the Clearwater-Salmon River country was the packing center of the region for many years. Not only was the Decker saddle developed here, but a large number of pack strings could be depended upon for fire use, Almost every boy had ambitions to become a packer. Most of them did at one time or another; it was only natural. Most of them had handled stock since they wore three-cornered chaps and there were plenty of experienced teachers from whom they could learn the fine points of cargoing and throwing diamond hitches.
Some of the better known packers from the area were the Stonebreakers, the Decker Bros., M. H. Williams, Bob Markahm, "Bub" Holt, Harvey Renshaw, Alvin Renshaw, Ed Raboin, Walter and Jim Rice, Jeff Hendren and his young son Elbert, Lawrence Howard, Chas. Kelley, Bill McPherson and then along came Clayton Crocker, Neil Smith, Don Chamberlain, Speedy Thompson, Bill Hart, and many others.
There have been many arguments about where the Decker pack-saddle came from, who invented it, etc., but most of these were inconclusive. The version which always appeared to the writer to be the most factual and plausible is as follows: The first tree of its kind was brought into the area from Colorado by S. C. MacDaniels some time back in the mining camp days, It was so superior to the saw-buck tree that it was copied many times. O. P. Robinett, father of Ed and George, became an expert in making the tree fit the animal and finally obtained a patent. The Deckers are credited with developing the halfbreed or padded canvas cover to protect the animal from hard or sharp loads. There were different styles, all figured out by individuals to improve something. Swinging side packs loose and tying down to cinch rings instead of using Diamond hitches was simply a development that followed when it was found that packs could be kept on without lashing. Diamond hitches were less necessary after it became a practice to lead mules instead of turning them loose to travel at their own pace. The writer has thrown many Diamond hitches over awkward loads on Decker saddles or in an effort to keep something on bad animals. Sometimes it helped, sometimes it didn't.
Before the coming of the first few rough wagon roads, pack animals were the only means of supplying the needs of the early residents. When the forest was first created there probably was a wagon road to Elk City and Florence with one to Dixie soon after. Every place else was a pack chance.
Many almost unbelievable stories have been told about how difficult items were packed into difficult places. Most of them were apparently true because the items were there to prove it. One such story of how a piano was top-packed over side packs of flour into one of the mining camps seems a bit farfetched. There were pianos in many of the camps but it seems more likely they were dismantled for packing and then reassembled.
Before airplanes came into general use for dropping fire camps, the manning of fires was almost entirely dependent upon how fast an adequate number of pack stock could be assembled. Both day and night travel was common with little rest for the weary mules.
Periodic attempts have been made over the past 20 years to develop mechanical trail buggies and scooters to take the place of pack and saddle animals. So far they have not been widely successful. The helicopter probably has the best chance of replacing mules in some pack chances. Mechanical gadgets are not allowed in the primitive areas; besides who would get any satisfaction out of telling a mechanical mule that what it needed was a new sparkplug?
Arthur Buckingham, once a packer and now a forest supervisor in Region 4, had the most effective manner of telling real live mules about their ancestry that the writer has ever heard. Art spoke in such a low and soothing tone of voice that the mules thought they were being praised and reacted accordingly.
Mules are largely able to live off the land and seldom have accidents. Now and then circumstances are such that bad things do happen. One such incident occurred near Selway Falls in 1922 when Bob Graham was packing sand and gravel to build the deadmen and piers for a pack bridge. In crossing the river with a load, the lead mule stumbled and fell. The swift current carried this mule into deep water and since the mules were tied together in the usual fashion, all the others were pulled into deep water. All eight head drowned and some of them were carried over the falls by the current. This was Clayton Crocker's prize string which he had recently turned over when he received his appointment as a ranger.
While the Selway River Trail will never again be traveled by main line pack strings, it is believed horses and mules will be used in the back country for many more years. The fact that fewer and fewer people know how to handle stock may end their use sooner than a lack of need.