August 5, 1949 – A bad day to fight fire.
I pick some hiking destinations for their scenic beauty or the views they provide, and others for the interesting geology found there. But what drew me to Mann Gulch is the tragedy that took place there on a hot, windy afternoon almost 70 years ago – the day that 13 men, including 12 smokejumpers and 1 other USFS employee died in a historic wildfire.
The Readers’ Digest Version.
Mann Gulch is a beautiful 2-mile long x .5-mile wide V-shaped valley that slopes into Missouri River about 20 miles north of Helena. The men parachuted into the upper (northeastern) part of the gulch around 4 pm on August 5, 1949 and prepared to fight a fire located on the ridge near the opposite end of the gulch. Later that afternoon the crew made their way toward the river along the north slope of the gulch, unaware that the fire had jumped to their side of the drainage. The flames were hidden behind a bend in the gulch, and by the time they rounded that bend it was too late. Fanned by strong winds and fueled dry grass, the wall of flames raced uphill faster than the men could run.
A race that couldn’t be won.
All but three perished. One survivor, the foreman (Wagner Dodge), set an “escape fire” then laid down on the burned grass as the wall of flames burned around him. Two others, Bob Sallee and Walter Rumsey, made it over the ridge (“rim rock” on map below) where they found safety on a rocky area as the flames eventually burned around them as well. The only non-smokejumper lost in the fire was Jim Harrison, the guard at Meriwether Campground, who had hiked over to help fight the blaze. (Photo Tour)
Haven’t read it? – Should!
I became interested in the Mann Gulch Fire as a result of commemoration activities that took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster in 1999. That following year I read Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean (author of A River Runs Through It). Maclean’s account of the disaster raised my curiosity to the the level of “fascination”. Over the next several years I visited the gulch several times to see for myself the places described by Maclean in hopes of gaining a better understanding of how the events of that day transpired. I explored every nook and cranny, viewing all the significant places from different vantage points. With the photos I took and the insights gained, I built an online “Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip”, designed especially for those who’ve read the book and want to see more.
A good day to hike Mann Gulch.
Although not as obsessed with the gulch as I once was, I still like to go back every year or two. On my most recent visit this past Saturday (6/2/18) I was accompanied by a couple friends (Murray and Mark). We kayaked in from Upper Holter Lake (5 miles one-way), walked through the monuments, and then hiked to an unnamed peak near the head of the gulch (5 miles round-trip). It was satisfying to show my friends this special the place, and tell them what I knew about the tragedy.
I’ve included a condensed version of the “Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip” at the end of the photo tour. The original version is still online, but does not open on some mobile devices (not sure why). See link below.
- Photo Tour of Our Hike in Mann Gulch
Includes a condensed version of the “Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip”
- Map of Mann Gulch.
Zoom in or out.
- My original Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip.
Does not open on some mobile devices.”
- Previous Blog Post: Ridge Walk Above Mann Gulch.
Includes some great photos from the other side of the gulch.
- Article about the life and death of Bob Sallee.
The last survivor of the fire to die (1931-2014).
- Listen to this song – “Cold Missouri Waters” (YouTube).
Great tribute, includes photos of the men who died.
- Smokejumper Visitor Center.
In Missoula, Montana.
Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far, including several in Glacier Park – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.