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Young men and fire: Hiking with ghosts along a literary trail
B Y C L I F F
R O W E ,
P R O F E S S O R O F C O M M U N I C A T I O N S
Eric Thomas '82 and I went to Montana this summer to hike with ghosts we had come to know on a literary trail.
Norman Maclean had introduced them to us in his book "Young Men and Fire," completed shortly after his death in 1987.
In that book, Maclean, also the author of "A River Runs Through It," described how 13 young smokejumpers died attempting to run from a fire that swept into an area of Montana wilderness known as Mann Gulch on a hot August day in 1949. Three others in their crew survived.
Thomas, a communication major and now editorial page editor of The Bellingham Herald, and I had discovered a couple of years ago that we had reacted the same as we'd read the book. Maclean's analysis of the fire and vivid description of the young men's desperate effort to escape it had stirred our imaginations.
We wanted to explore that gulch and climb its steep flanks. We wanted to follow the escape route that ends for all but one of the 13 victims within yards of a ridge top amid a scattered cluster of crosses and small marble posts bearing their names and marking where each fell.
So we scheduled a July trip to Mann Gulch in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness north of Helena.
On a tour boat, we passed through the narrow, cliff-flanked canyon of the Missouri River that gives the wilderness its name and disembarked at Meriweather Canyon, a short distance upstream from the gulch.
As soon as we had set up our tent a mile upstream, we sought out the head of the one-mile trail that rises steeply from the canyon to the ridge above it, and climbed to a point from which we looked down into Mann Gulch.
The ranger at the Meriweather Canyon guard station had done that on Aug. 5, 1949, as he had gone up to take a look at the fire that he knew lightning had ignited in the gulch the day before. From the ridge top, he could see it burning to his left at the end of the ridge above the Missouri River.
To his right, at the high end of the gulch away from the river, the 16 smokejumpers would land at approximately 4:10 that afternoon, pick up their tools and start down the gulch toward what was still considered a routine fire.
As they proceeded into the gulch and worked their way along the bottom of its steep north flank toward the river, winds near the river plucked bits of fire from the south ridge and dropped them into the gulch, igniting new fires. Rising winds fanned them up the gulch toward the approaching smokejumpers.
The crew's foreman, Wag Dodge, realizing what was happening, turned the men around within a few hundred yards of the oncoming fire at approximately 5:45 pm.
Eight minutes later, as they worked their way back up the gulch, at the same time angling toward the ridge above them, the foreman ordered them to drop their tools and run for their lives.
Those who have analzed the fire estimate it was only three minutes later and 300 yards further up the ridge that the slowest of the young men was overtaken and killed.
One minute later the fastest were caught.
From the summit of the south ridge, Eric and I relived that story as we looked down into Mann Gulch.
Referring to topographical maps and the charts, photos and descriptions in Maclean's book, we identified the broad slope toward the head of the gulch where the smokejumpers had landed, the approximate route they had taken down the gulch and where they had turned back.
Our eyes moved up the opposite ridge to the area where the men must have died, but even with binoculars we saw no crosses among the tall grass and the few bushes and trees.
We scrambled down the south ridge into the bottom of the gulch and began working up the north ridge at a diagonal, much as the doomed smokejumpers had.
We sweated and struggled, even while realizing that our day with its temperature in the low 80s and gentle breeze was nothing like that 90-plus-degree day Dodge and his crew had experienced.
We slipped on the tall, matted grass and tripped and stumbled across fields of shattered, scattered rock. Then, across a shallow gully beyond the charred remnant of a tree snag, we saw the first cross. And a short distance above that, a second.
The climb became an ordeal. My thigh muscles cramped so badly I had to lie down to relax them. We pushed on, past those crosses nearest the top of the ridge and then over the ridge itself and into the next gulch.
There we found the cross of the one smokejumper who had made it out of Mann Gulch only to die later in a hospital.
As we sat atop the north ridge recapturing our wind and strength, we appreciated even more the detail with which Maclean had described that race between young men and fire.
His words had told us eloquently of fear and desperation. Now both were more real to us.
We also knew more about the power of descriptive writing. This place had not been totally new. We had been here before, and the ghosts with us had familiar faces.
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