Day 3: Hiking with the Ghosts
I don’t think I can be funny while talking about Mann Gulch. To those of you who just said “or anything else for that matter” — hahahahahaha no refunds.
Truly, I would feel like a jerk if I even tried. Like getting a case of the giggles during the Changing of the Guard at Arlington Cemetery.
I think few of you know anything about Mann Gulch or why I’ve been going on about it. Not to mention why I bothered to make this pilgrimage. For whatever reason, it’s not stayed in the national consciousness like other tragedies such as Pearl Harbor or Titanic or Amazon’s Prime Day Sale. The least I can do is tell you the story while telling about my own experiences there. Maybe that will help some of you learn why I find Mann Gulch and its history so powerful.
And then, yes, I’ll shut up about it. Maybe.
In 1940, the U.S. government formed the Smokejumpers. These were young men, mostly in their late teens or twenties, who were trained to jump out of airplanes to fight wilderness fires inaccessible any other way. The ranks swelled somewhat as WWII ended and more paratroopers came back and repurposed their skills. Before long, the smokejumpers were an elite firefighting group.
As soon as I’d made plans to go into Mann Gulch — alone, no less — I was intimidated by it. I’m not exactly the world’s most experienced outdoorsman, and if it wasn’t a rugged, desolate place, it would have a different history and I probably would never have heard of it. Going in eight days before the 66th anniversary gave me visions of similar conditions. I was half convinced I’d be so busy watching for smoke that I wouldn’t notice myself treading on a rattlesnake.
On August 5, 1949, central Montana was in an extended dry, hot spell. Temperatures in Helena were in the 90s and shot past 100 in the mountains. Thunderstorms would roll in, but any rain they dropped evaporated before it hit the ground. They weren’t as lucky with the lightning.
But it was in the low 50s and cloudy when I drove out to the Gates of the Mountains Marina. The storm I’d encountered in Billings the night before had dumped about an inch of rain in the Gulch and kept the temperature down. Tim, the owner of the marina, assured me it was the perfect day for hiking, even though the sun was coming out. The rattlesnakes would be calm, you see. And I could pet the official marina dog until the boat was ready.
In the middle of the day on August 5th, lighting struck high on the south ridge near the mouth of Mann Gulch — a funnel-shaped valley along the Missouri River 20 miles upstream from Helena. A forest ranger named Jim Harrison in nearby Meriwether Canyon saw the smoke and called it in to the Smokejumper base in Missoula, then went to fight it as best he could.
This is Christopher after dumping me at the mouth of Mann Gulch. I was still worried he was the last human I’d ever see.
The smokejumper base put one of their teams — 16 smokejumpers including a foreman — onto a DC-3 and flew the 120 miles east. The wind over the site was so strong and turbulent that one of the jumpers got sick and stayed on board. The other 15 dropped into the back of Mann Gulch at 4pm.
This is the front of Mann Gulch. There hasn’t been a lot of regrowth since 1949 except for the grass. But the fire never made it to the river itself, so the first 100 yards or so is densely overgrown. This was where I saw the only mammal I encountered — a chipmunk that didn’t want to see whatever was going to happen to me.
They collected their gear for about an hour while foreman Wagner Dodge met up with Jim Harrison. Harrison had seen them jump and came to join them after fighting the fire alone for nearly four hours. Now 16 strong again, Dodge ordered them to sidehill on the north side (that is, walk parallel to the bottom of the gulch about halfway up the slope). They would head to the Missouri River on the north side, then attack the fire up the south slope. It was about 5:40pm.
Sidehilling sucks, I’ll tell you that.
Here is a picture of the south slope. Something about the trees here, like maybe how they are burned and dead, makes me think this might have been the path of the fire downslope before the blowup.
But Mann Gulch bends to the north as you move up the gulch and away from the river. As they set out, the smokejumpers could not see the fire or the river at all because of the bend.
From that point on, the burned husks of trees are common, but only on the north side. Some are still standing, some have fallen over, and a few appear to have exploded where they stood from the superheated sap.
Dodge saw the smoke building ahead of them, and he and Harrison moved a little ahead of the group. As they cleared the bend, they saw the fire had blown up, raced down the south slope, and jumped to the north slope. There was now a wall of flame roaring through waist-high dried grass towards the unknowing smokejumpers. Dodge turned the team around and angled them upslope towards the rimrock. This was about 5:45pm.
I have never been this deep into any sort of wilderness and found it as quiet as it is here. No insects, no birds. No suspicious rattling, happily enough. I was already feeling contemplative just walking in here, but this perfect silence makes it nearly Zen. I feel like a clumsy oaf with every step that crunches a branch or kicks a rock.
This picture is not far from the turnaround point. Notice on the left that you can’t see the south-side track of burned trees from here. Or the river.
Climbing to this point showed me that rain in the Gulch might be a net good, but the mud can be sort of treacherous. I did take only pictures, but I left a couple of buttprints to go along with the footprints. But it’s not like slipping while you’re 1,000 feet up a notoriously steep slope is scary.
The slope was too steep for the men to run very fast, but the incline helped the fire move faster. At about 5:55pm, Dodge stopped to light what would become known as an escape fire — he lit the grass at his feet to burn the available fuel before the main fire arrived, which would force the fire to part around the burned area like opening a curtain. This was a technique that had been theorized but never put into practice, and Dodge had never heard the theory anyway. None of his team understood what was he was doing, so ran on. Dodge lay down in the ashes alone.
The rim doesn’t look like that big a deal from this picture, but in person it’s a little rough. I may have been angling the camera up too. Add in a fair amount of smoke and a fire coming at you at roughly 7.5mph and things get a bit chaotic.
Two men, Walter Rumsey and Bob Sallee, made it to the rimrock and found a narrow passage through. At 6pm, the fire rolled over the other 13 smokejumpers, killing 11 immediately and leaving two to die in the hospital the next morning.
After the fire, they erected crosses to mark where each man was found. Over the years, those original crosses had degraded and begun to fall apart. And one of the men was Jewish anyhow. Recently, they erected marble markers alongside the crumbling crosses.
Dodge stood up from his escape fire and eventually met up with Rumsey and Sallee. When help arrived, they stayed the night carrying bodies out of the gulch.
Dodge died five years later of Hodgkin’s Disease, still haunted by the fire.
Walter Rumsey died in a plane crash in 1980. He was fifty years old.
Bob Sallee died in 2014 at the age of 82. The last survivor of the fire had been reluctant to talk about it often, but would occasionally give speeches about fire safety.
I’ve read a lot about Mann Gulch. I recommend Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, but there are other books and even technical papers about fire behavior, which look at Mann Gulch from wind speeds, fuel availability, etc. Dodge’s escape fire soon became a standard technique in training.
And there are some good songs — like this one, told from Dodge’s perspective as a confessional as he lay dying from Hodgkin’s.
But all those books and papers and songs and articles never mention how beautiful the place is. It may be hard to notice when you’re standing next to a cross for a 19 year old. But if you can turn that off, it’s an astounding area.
Thank you for indulging me with this. I wish I could do it justice.
Tomorrow: Off to Missoula to put a cap on the Mann Gulch saga. Then we learn about the testicle festival. Really.