Mule Packing Course One of Many Summer Opportunities at UM

The United States Forest Service’s Northern Region Pack Train became the first mule string to trot the Oval at a kick-off on the UM campus to highlight experiential summer learning opportunities.

MISSOULA – On Tuesday, a string of nine mules circling the University of Montana’s Oval heralded summer’s start at UM.

The mule string – the United States Forest Service’s Northern Region Pack Train led by Casey Burns – was the first to ever trot the Oval and helped raise awareness for UM’s Wilderness Policy and Packing course and other summer experiential learning opportunities.

Eva-Maria Maggi, instructor in UM’s Department of Political Science, came up with the idea to bring the pack train to the Oval to get students excited for her course. She will lead the Wilderness Policy and Packing course over the summer and a five-day wilderness pack trip through Montana’s famed Bob Marshall Wilderness.

“This is the only program in the United States that combines wilderness policy and packing horses and mules for college credit,” Maggi said.

Wilderness Policy and Packing is open to 20 students from all majors. Through the course, students will apply skills such as mule packing, trail work, wilderness first aid and leaving no trace while in the backcountry. Additionally, they will learn about how wilderness policy intersects with wilderness theory and practice, land management, recreation, wildfire and tribal wilderness.

Students will visit the Ninemile Ranger Station and the Northern Region Pack Train. Co-founded by legendary UM alum Smoke Elser ’64, the mules are one of only two such pack strings working for the U.S. Forest Service across multiple states, helping in management of forestry lands in Montana, northern Idaho, North Dakota and northwestern South Dakota.

Through lectures in Elser’s barn, students will learn from Forest Service personnel, Emeritus Regents Professor of Ecology Steve Running and other speakers on wilderness issues from grizzly bear management to climate change to the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. The students will then write their own policy papers.

This is a closer image of a mule and the Forest Service member pulling a rope from the mule
Casey Burns with the U.S. Forest Service led a mule-packing demonstration on campus to promote the summer Wilderness Policy and Packing course. 

Thanks to scholarships from the Back-Country Horsemen of Montana, the Montana Wilderness Association and UM’s Political Science Department, 10 UM students also can join Maggi’s pack trip through the Bob Marshall Wilderness from June 28 to July 2.

“This class is a unique opportunity to learn about our wild places and apply your skills on an actual pack trip,” Maggi said.

Maggi will lead the students through the North Fork of the Blackfoot River, where they will do some trail work and discuss their policy ideas around the campfire in the Danaher Valley. The trip is professionally outfitted by Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters.

Grace Gardner, director of UM Summer, said she is excited to see more face-to-face experiential learning opportunities for students this summer, especially with last summer’s cancelations due to the pandemic.

“Heading into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on a pack trip is really a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those lucky enough to be able to do it,” Gardner said. “It’s absolutely wonderful that we have a faculty member willing to combine her expertise of packing and knowledge of wilderness policy to be able to offer this course.”

Hands-on summer learning opportunities are a hallmark at UM, which serves as the backdrop for some of the greatest natural classrooms. Students can participate in field-based observation at Flathead Lake Biological Station and help raise produce and learn about sustainable agriculture at the PEAS Farm. Through the Missoula-based nonprofit Wild Rockies Field Institute, they can gain natural resource science and management, environmental studies, geography, Native American Studies knowledge and college credit from their tents in locations all over the West.

Students can learn from Indian law scholars from across the country through the Summer Indian Law program, train in Aerie Backcountry Medicine and hone their media skills at the Montana Media Lab. They can participate in research in labs on campus, as well as other learning opportunities through Missoula College and Bitterroot College.  

Along with taking specialty courses, Gardner said the benefits of summer studies include getting ahead, catching up and staying on track.

“We have about an equal split between graduate students and undergraduate students that study in the summer,” Gardner said. “For many graduate students, the summer is a great opportunity for research and to spend some time writing and working with faculty.”

UM also offers micro-credential courses and non-credit offerings through UMOnline to the public and alumni, as well as learning opportunities for K-12 students, such as Montana American Indians in Math and Sciences, MedStart, Summer Exploration, Upward Bound and S.E.A. Change summer camps.

Last year, more than 400 degrees, minors and certificates were awarded in summer, with more than 3,000 students taking advantage of summer offerings. This year, more than 1,700 students have already registered for summer courses at UM. This year will blend face-to -face, online, remote and hybrid classes and use three tents on campus for some classes.

Summer at UM runs May 10 through July 30. To find out more, visit For a list of full summer camps on campus, visit


Contact: Grace Gardner, director of UM Summer, 406-243-5658,