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Jun 22 2020

Wilderness Stories: The Great Bear

Listen to a story about the Great Bear Wilderness, told by an outfitter who helped create it

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Not many folks can say that they have packed into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex every year since 1956. Even fewer can say that they’ve played a role in shaping it.

Smoke Elser is one of those people. Originally from northeast Ohio, Smoke quickly traded his midwestern roots for the Montana backcountry when he arrived to work for the Helena National Forest in the 1950s. Shortly thereafter, he met Tom Edwards, owner of White Tail Ranch and a legendary wilderness advocate who spearheaded the establishment of the Scapegoat Wilderness, the first federal wilderness created through citizen-led efforts. From Tom and other outfitters, Smoke learned how to pack and how to interpret the backcountry for those he was taking along with him. In 1964, the same year that the Wilderness Act was passed, Smoke and his wife Thelma opened Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters and began leading trips into the newly designated Bob Marshall Wilderness. And the rest is history, one that has been recorded both in textbooks and around campfires.

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Music by Marc Katz, performing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" 

After decades of outfitting in Montana’s wild places, Smoke is certainly not short on stories. He has plenty of rousing accounts of outlaws, politicians, and the occasional grizzly bear, and just as many quieter ones about the sense of peace and reflection found in the backcountry. The deep love of place fostered through these experiences led him to become a legendary Wilderness advocate in his own right, as evidenced in his role in creating the Great Bear Wilderness, which Congress designated in 1978. 

Smoke, a member of Montana Wilderness Association since its inception in 1958, recently shared his story about the Great Bear and protecting the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with MWA’s Shining Mountains Chapter. Listen to the audio, recorded around a wood-burning stove in Smoke’s historic barn, to hear Smoke tell how a chance encounter between him, a publicist, and a bulldozer spurred the fight to designate over 280,000 acres as the Great Bear Wilderness, one of three Wilderness areas that make up the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex — the third-largest such area in the Lower 48.

Today, Smoke still teaches classes in packing and wilderness skills for University of Montana students, Forest Service employees, and law enforcement personnel across the country. He continues to fight for our state’s wild places and is a key member of the steering committee behind the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, a collaborative proposal with grassroots – not unlike that of Smoke’s earlier advocacy work. And yes, he still finds time for trips into his beloved Bob Marshall Wilderness. 



If Smoke’s story of wilderness advocacy has inspired you, take action by sending a digital postcard to Sen. Steve Daines encouraging him to support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. 

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— Amy Katz, Shining Mountains Chapter board member, and Clare Ols, MWA Conservation Fellow