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3 Miles an Hour

First Aired Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It is the speed of a horse and some folks say the best way to see and savor a life well lived. This is the story of retired back-country outfitter Smoke Elser. His vision of wilderness has always included people.

MontanaPBS Presents

3 Miles An Hour

Rating: NR

The story of retired back-country outfitter Smoke Elser.

According to Arnold "Smoke" Elser, three miles an hour - the speed of a horse - is the best way to see and savor a life well-lived. The retired backcountry outfitter's vision of wilderness has always included people, and this documentary from MontanaPBS takes viewers into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to share Elser's history, passion and connection to the outdoors.

In 1955 Elser made his first trip out West. The young man from Ohio took his love of the outdoors and turned it into a career. After arriving in Montana, the previous generation's outfitters, Tom Edwards and Howard Copenhaver, taught him the art of packing and how to work with horses and mules. More than just practical skills, they taught him a wilderness ethic.

After 50 years in the business, Elser has led more than 700 trips and guided thousands of guests through the Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana. Now in his late 70s, Elser is making fewer trips into the Bob, so it's time to share some of his experiences and the history he learned in the backcountry.

In interviews, fellow outfitters, backcountry horsemen, longtime guests who have become fast friends, family members and Forest Service district rangers all reflect on their experiences with Elser and the changes in wilderness management that he's both witnessed and helped bring about.

Elser was among the first outfitters to adopt new regulations that lessened the impact of large pack trains and unlimited guests. He also was a quiet champion of the Great Bear Wilderness designation, agreeing in 1969 to take Missoulian reporter Dale Burk on as a crew member so Burk could observe Forest Service activity that seemed to undermine eventual designation of a wilderness area. The resulting series of newspaper stories solidified public support for the new wilderness area, which gained protected status in 1978.

The documentary captured footage using rare video camera access to one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. It also combines vintage home movies from backcountry trips and historic photographs to display Elser's passion and connection to the outdoors.

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Show Credits

Funding for "3 Miles An Hour" was provided by the Montana Department of Tourism; the Greater Montana Foundation, which benefits the people of Montana by encouraging communications on issues, trends and values important to present and future generations of Montanans; and the Friends of MontanaPBS.

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