Profile of a North Idaho Mountain Man

“They hug you with their neck,” said Tom Knoll of Coeur d’Alene. Knoll has owned “Jesse,” a 25-year-old mule, for 23 years.

By Shane Richard Bell

Staff writer

Some people know with a voice of clarity what they are supposed to be in life. Tom Knoll of Coeur d’Alene knew what that voice was saying from a young age and has been following its direction ever since.

Knoll has been exploring the outdoors in North Idaho for more than 40 years. He is an outdoorsman, a mountain man, and a man among nature. He hunts, fishes, and takes his mule, “Jesse,” on long-distance mule-packing trips through vast mountain ranges of wilderness.

Nature is something that has always been there for Knoll, a constant source of satisfaction throughout each phase of his life. Ironically, it all began with a film. When he was 14 years old, his grandfather showed him a documentary that he had made on one of his mule packing trips. “Ever since I saw that movie I’ve been interested in the [outdoors],” Knoll said.

A spark flew after seeing his grandfather’s documentary and Knoll began dreaming and thinking of his own hunting adventures. Soon after, his uncle took him dove hunting in Green Bluff, Wash. Then it was duck hunting. When he was 18, he shot his first deer on the banks of the Spokane River.

Since 1962, the year Knoll started hunting, he has successfully hunted elk, moose, Rocky Mountain goat, bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer, cougar, bear, and waterfowl. Hunting animals to accumulate trophies is not one of Knoll’s goals for hunting. “My successes are counted by the days in the field and not by the animals I’ve hunted,” Knoll said. “The days in the field are most important, we’re lucky to have that. If you get a nice animal while hunting, that’s just frosting on the cake.”

Following these animals has led Knoll to backcountry places many people never even see, often on mule packing and hunting trips in Idaho and Montana that have covered more than 100 miles. But he doesn’t make the trips alone. “I have to tell him how pretty he is every day,” said Knoll, commenting on his “gregarious and intelligent” packing mule, “Jesse.” The mule accompanies Knoll on his trips and can carry at least 200 pounds of game meat for up to 25 miles at a time. “He’s my buddy,” Knoll said. “He’ll let me lay on him.” The 800-1,000 pound mule will also sit beside him with its hind legs resting on the ground while Knoll puts his arm around him, like two friends sitting on a bench posing for a picture together.

Knoll’s favorite thing in the world is to be in the mountains. “I love everything about it. I love the smell of the animals. I love the smell of the leather. I love seeing the tamarack forest. I love the creeks and the birds,” Knoll said. “Most guys don’t get to do this ever when it’s an experience that everyone should have the chance to do.”

Trying new things has always been Knoll’s modus operandi, especially if it involves the outdoors. For a while he helped his brother, Dave Knoll, open up Black Sheep Sporting Goods in Coeur d’Alene. Dave Knoll still owns the sporting goods store, and his son, Brian Knoll, is the general manager. He also worked at the White Elephant Surplus Store. He’s been on Mount Spokane’s Ski Patrol, guided fishing trips in Alaska, and recently installed wiring for Washington State University’s Martin Stadium as a journeyman electrician. “I can’t even think about all the things I’ve done,” Knoll said. “That’s what I like about life, you can try all the things you want.”

Yet it is the place where he begins and ends his days, his home and property near Alpine Lake between Hayden Lake and Athol, Idaho, where he finds what matters most to him. Outside, standing on the berm near his home, surrounded by his horses, mules, and Labrador “Maddie,” Knoll looks out to the group of aspen trees that turn gold in autumn. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” Knoll says, “and sitting by the fire in the middle of winter reading old Western books.”

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