Chet Smith started horsepacking in 1936

September 15, 2006 12:00 am
It doesn't take much effort for Chet Smith to recollect a horse story with plenty of humor. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
It doesn't take much effort for Chet Smith to recollect a horse story with plenty of humor. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

Chet Smith remembers only one time when it didn't pay to pack into the Eagle Caps with horses and mules.

He and a friend decided to take a new mule into the mountains for some training, so they headed up West Eagle Creek toward Echo and Traverse lakes.

Then they ran into a rock, big and shale and almost totally blocking the trail.

The horses and mules balked at shimmying past or jumping over the rock.

"We stripped them right down to their skivvies," he says.

The pack animals were then able to squeeze past the rock — and the humans had to haul the gear.

"We had to carry everything," Smith says with a laugh.

Smith was introduced to horsepacking in 1936 when he took a trip up the Minam River with Walt Steiger.

"I camped at the same camp every year I went up since 1936. I only missed three years when I was in the Navy," he says. "We went in deer hunting, we went in elk hunting, sometimes we just went in for camping."

That camp was "on the bend of the river on the Minam," he says. "The Minam is my favorite place."

Smith's descriptions of trails in the Wallowas are almost as good as any map — he's been most everywhere in the wilderness during his 68 years of packing (he took his last trip two years ago).

"I looked it over pretty careful," Smith says of his familiarity with the backcountry.

He usually took one saddle horse and five mules for packing on those trips.

"That's what my truck would carry," he says.

He was never one to heft a pack on his own back and hike into the woods.

"No — I don't like to walk," he says with a smile.

Besides, with horses and mules you can take almost any convenience you want — ample food, stoves, air mattresses, good sleeping bags and a 12-foot-by-14-foot tent.

"That's why you take quite a few horses," he says. "I can lay under a tree, but I don't like it."

Packing hasn't changed much since he started.

"I don't think it's changed in 100 years," he says.

His favorite book is a well-worn copy of "Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails," a book about packing written by Joe Back and published in 1959.

"I learn something every time I read it," he says.

But a book can only teach you so much.

"The only other way to do it is to go pack," he says.

He never, he said, guided trips into the Wallowas.

"We didn't have time to take anyone like that," he says with a grin.