Legendary packer dies
Those who loved and admired him believe Jim Hawksworth has moved on to where the trail is clear and the pack animals are always in a good mood.
The longtime U.S. Forest Service packer — who has maintained Tahoe trails for almost four decades — died Friday at his second home in Mariposa, Calif., of liver cancer with his wife, Donna, by his side. He was 69.
Hawksworth, who lived the summers along the Upper Truckee River, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2000. After it spread to his liver and lungs, a Stanford Medical Center doctor told Hawksworth there was nothing more that could be done about his debilitating illness.
“Good, I want to go home,” his widow recalled Tuesday of her husband’s reaction. The hospital experience of tests and more tests “drove him nuts,” she added.
He requested no service or flowers.
Hawksworth spent his last days in bed in the front room near a window of their 23-acre spread, where he could gaze outside at the view and life passing by.
One recent day, a young buck pressed his nose against the window. Hawksworth and the deer stared each other down –eye to eye, she recalled.
According to friends and family, the mountain man enjoyed packing, hunting, fishing and gold-panning. He coveted a simple way of confronting life head-on and on his own terms.
No frills. No ego. He just wanted to ride into the backcountry with his crosscut saw to clear the trails for others’ enjoyment. The animals packed out the debris.
“We spent 44 wonderful years together,” she said. The woman, whom he called “the kitty” and “my lady,” accompanied him on his pack horse and mule journeys into the wilderness. The couple raised their son, David, together.
A fishing enthusiast in her own right, she recalled meeting her husband through a neighbor in Castro Valley, Calif. He was born in Vallejo and grew up in the Mariposa area.
“I chased him for five years before I roped him,” she said.
When she married the trailblazer, she also decided to share her life with the mountains.
“He loved the high country. He knew it like the back of his hand,” she said, adding he viewed the country as a spiritual place that complemented his strong faith.
She commended the kind and supportive people he worked with at the Forest Service. Many friends and family have called to offer words of encouragement.
“He touched a lot of lives,” she said.
Hawksworth applied for retirement two weeks ago, following an appreciation party the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit hosted Sept. 24 for their packer. “Animal” was dropped from his title at one point, but Hawksworth didn’t mind, LTBMU Recreation Forester Don Lane said Tuesday.
“He did the same job no matter what the government called it,” he said.
Lane, whom Hawksworth referred to as “his noble boss,” worked as both his superior and subordinate in their 30 years with the Forest Service.
“He found a lifestyle he embraced,” Lane said.
Lane described Hawksworth’s migratory trips into the basin in the spring as a scene out of the Oklahoma land rush in the 1930s.
Tourists in the Glen Alpine area once asked Hawksworth, with his signature cowboy appeal, if “he was for real,” Lane recalled. Hawksworth assured them clever wit and honesty still exist in Tahoe.
National Geographic put the legacy into print in 1992. The world renowned publication captured Hawksworth gripping a rock at the top of Mount Tallac.
The magazine had asked for someone who represented the Tahoe heritage and found him.
Lane said Hawksworth’s wisdom significantly outweighed his formal education, which he gained in the wilderness.
When Hawksworth returned to Mariposa, the forester cherished his letters as works of art, sculpted with a No. 2 pencil and notepad.
The two men shared an endearing respect for one another. For a long time, the Forest Service tried to get Hawksworth to wear a uniform “but finally gave up,” said Lane, who eventually coaxed him to don the government duds.
Hawksworth’s trusted assistant Buck Browning, who was unavailable for comment, will resume some of Hawksworth’s duties. But the veteran packer, one of maybe a handful left in the nation, is “irreplaceable,” Lane declared.
“You could talk to him about every trail in the backcountry, every rock, and he would know them,” he said.
Hawksworth had a special fondness for the Meiss backcountry and Meeks Canyon.
“Of all the Forest Service people I’ve known, (the Hawksworths) definitely stand out as unique,” Lane said.
— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at email@example.com
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