Jim Renshaw is a practitioner of a backcountry art form that is slowly fading from the landscape.
The retired outfitter of Kooskia, Idaho still neatly wraps camping and hunting equipment in canvas sheets known as manties and ties them to Decker pack saddles with an eye for neatness, symmetry and balance.
“I mean if you are going to do it, do it so it looks nice,” he said while folding a manty around a camp-kitchen box.
His movements are precise and efficient. Observers can sense that he is particular about his craft but also experienced enough to do it without thinking. His hands and fingers move quickly as he folds the canvas, loops it with a rope, snugs it with a few half hitches and then finishes the package off with a knot that can be undone at the end of the trail with one simple tug.
“It helps if you have been doing it for 70 years,” he said.
Renshaw is one of many members of the north central Idaho chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen. Group members are avid recreational horse and mule packers. Renshaw’s method is known as cargo packing or cargoing.
“I am very biased toward manty packing, but I have to admit the other way suits most people better,” Renshaw said.
Teaching and sharing knowledge is a specialty of the club, which has a mission to keep wilderness and backcountry trails open for stock. Joe Robinson, of Kooskia, said he used saddle bags and panniers when he started packing. But after hanging out with Renshaw and Larry Cooper, of Kooskia, another adherent to cargo packing, he has started to adopt the old-fashioned method.
“I’ve learned to respect what these guys are doing and I like it much better,” he said.
Cooper said modern gear makes it easy for people to get into packing without fretting over the intricacies of cargoing with manties.
“There is so much equipment nowadays that it’s just throw it on the saddle and go.”
But for guys like him and Renshaw, there is nothing like a string of mules loaded with individually wrapped loads. They both have it in their DNA. Cooper’s grandfather was a founding member of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association and Renshaw traces his roots to the early history of Idaho packing.
His father was a packer and bought a couple of strings from the famous Decker Brothers packing outfit based in Kooskia. When other children played with modern toys, Renshaw was emulating his dad and pretending to load a string of mules.
“When I was a little kid I didn’t play with cars and trucks and things like that. I had my pack string on the fence.”