Hiking the Burns

In late July I spent four days backpacking in the Marble Mountains, entering the wilderness at the Haypress Meadow trailhead. Getting to that trailhead requires a long drive up Interstate 5, north of Yreka, exiting onto state Highway 96, then winding alongside the Klamath River to a smidgen past the multi-cultural metropolis that is Somes Bar. From there nearly 15 miles of upward twisting forest service road takes you to the sun exposed trailhead.

The first mile and a half of the Haypress trail meanders through a forest of red fir and hemlock, with stunted thimbleberries alongside. Occasionally, tiny streams cross the path several times before the forest gives way and all hell breaks loose. If not Hades itself then perhaps a burned over version of Mordor. The forest relents to mountainside after mountainside scorched by wildfires. There are attractive lakes like the Cuddihys to bolster hikers' hopes, but even trout-filled Spirit Lake is surrounded by a bowl of burned over trees that stand charred on the mountain. From a ridge crest I sent a photo to a frequent correspondent who responded that the blackened timber looked more like a boneyard than a nature setting.

Forest fire has become so common in California and the West that we now almost take news of the latest one for granted. Our hike out from Cuddihy Lakes to Haypress trailhead corresponded with the start of a good sized wildfire near Canyonville, Oregon. Smoke from that southern Oregon blaze curtailed our group's plans for a four to five day backpack trek in the Trinity Alps. Three days after our Marble Mountains excursion another blaze temporarily closed Highway 96.

Unless it's someone we know, even the loss of property or lives now becomes passe within a short time as another disaster pops up on the internet or the 24-hour news channels. As devastating as some fires have been in recent years, historical perspective should be interjected. In August, 1910, a fire ran with the wind, whipping hundreds of smaller blazes into an inferno that raced from the forests of Montana through Idaho and into eastern Washington.

The Big Burn, as that momentous fire was called, and the eponymous book about it by Pulitzer Prize winner Timothy Egan, was described to some length in a November 8, 2017 AVA piece. The end result of that super blaze was a policy of fire suppression by the US Forest Service throughout much of the twentieth century.

An innovation in fire suppression, the use of parachuting smokejumpers was first proposed in 1934. In 1939, an experimental program began in the Pacific Northwest forests. The first permanent smokejumping training camp was established sixty miles northeast of Missoula, Montana, at Seeley Lake, in 1943. Observing the training at Seeley Lake, US Army Major William Lee became inspired to form the paratroop 101st Airborne Division. Lee rose to the rank of Major General by the end of World War II. The so-called “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st gained renown for their paratroop jumps during D-Day and many other Allied operations in the last year of the war in Europe.

By the end of WWII, smokejumpers were a permanent fixture in the Forest Service, though most of the men employed worked only seasonally, enticed by the opportunity to earn $1,000 or more in a single summer day and some lured by the daring and potential glory attached to the endeavor. In 1946, the Missoula region had 164 smokejumpers.

Most readers are undoubtedly aware of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Some years later Maclean received the National Book Critics Circle Award for his non-fiction, Young Men and Fire. That book recounts what happened in August, 1949, at Mann Gulch, Montana, an adjunct of the upper Missouri River.

Maclean was pretty much obsessed with trying to get to the bottom of the incident at Mann Gulch, involving a smokejumper crew and what should have been a fairly routine firefighting job. Maclean returned to the scene nearly every summer for decades, haunted by a need to understand precisely what happened there and why.

Young Men and Fire inspired a song, “Cold Missouri Water,” by James Keelaghan as well as the following work which recounts the touchstone events of that August 70 years ago. Just as Maclean was haunted by the Mann Gulch Fire, this piece addresses a mysterious “you” figure, whose identity is left to the reader's imagination.


“The Mann Gulch Fire, 1949” 

Let me tell you the story of the Mann Gulch Fire, 1949; let me tell it for you.

The Missouri bends hard, north, past the Gates of the Mountains ‘fore it flows east into the Great Wide Plain. Rivers will do that, you know, turn away just before embracing their fate.

With one ranger already on the ground, fifteen smoke jumpers fell from the hot afternoon sky. Chutes scattered them and their gear. That didn’t matter: just another “Ten o’clock fire” – Forest Service drops at five, incident controlled by ten.

Most of them were only boys: eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, some college kids on summer jobs. They jumped for pride and courage and a girl back home they’d met, but hadn’t loved yet.

Boys will do that, you know, just before accepting their fate. And let me tell you, so will men.

That fire blew up, so they crossed the gulch to the steep north side, angling toward the safety of the river. That fire blew up and, as “blow-ups” will do, it sparked pines and high grasses on the north side, too.

Then it was nothing more than a race. 16 boys and men on a seventy degree slope. A wind off the river fanned sparks into a blaze, pushed flame into a ball that grew and grew, a freak of nature. Higher and higher, faster and faster it swept ‘til there was nothing left of that place and time except the name: Mann Gulch Fire, 1949.

I know you don’t like unhappy endings, but we’ve traveled this far; there’s no going back.

Rumsey and Sallee, two of the boys, raced their hearts to the top, found a crevice in the rock, slid through and stumbled onto a shale field in Rescue Gulch. That’s where the fire chased right ‘round them.

A minute later, Bill Hellman staggered over that peak, lungs seared, skin scorched and hanging loose. It’s obvious, you know, he’d lived up to his surname.

Sallee set out searching for others, then for help. Hellman drank all of Rumsey’s water and died in his arms on a wide, flat rock.

That’s where they set the first cross – to mark where each one fell. 

You’re good at math, like so many things you do well. 16 ran, only three lived to tell.

There was a man among those boys, the foreman. A man they called Wag, Wag Dodge. With a monster of fire right behind, he set a second blaze and stepped inside its ring. He called to the boys to do the same, but Rumsey and Sallee swore later they couldn’t hear over the roar that swallowed every word, that nearly swallowed them.

Those two escaped over the top. The other boys got caught on the slope where the inferno ate everything alive, yet only licked at the smoldering ash where Wag Dodge dropped to suck the last air from the earth and survived.

They put up twelve white crosses on that side of the hill, and an unpainted one to mark Wag’s sacred spot.

Dodge rose from the ashes and heard a voice calling in the night. He stumbled and crawled a hundred yards or more across the rocky slope, seeking that voice in the smoke and the dark.

You know, I’d crawl, too, if you’d call.

It was one of the boys, one of the boys beseeching, “Don’t look at my face. Don’t look at my face.”

The kind of cry a man obeys. That boy lived several hours, delirious and happy, somewhere beyond shock, ‘til the rescue crew carried him away.

They all perished, save Dodge, Rumsey and Sallee. And if you walk in on the ridge from the head of the gulch the first thing you’ll notice are the crosses so close to the top – crosses for boys who didn’t quite get to be men.

For all the miracle of that gulch, Wag Dodge only lived five more years. Who knows why? It’s said he took hard to the drink. Who knows? Maybe grief took hold and wouldn’t let go ‘til he went back to the boys.

So now you know the story of the Mann Gulch Fire. I’d like to think if I jumped with those boys I’d have had sense enough to step inside Wag’s ring. And I’d shorten my life to just five more years to hear your voice calling through the smoke and the wind and gaze upon your face.

(*See “The Mann Gulch Fire, 1949” recited at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

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