On August 5, 1949, a DC-3 jump ship from Missoula circled over a fire in Mann Gulch just above the Gates of the Mountains on the Missouri River in western Montana, just outside of Helena. Sixteen smokejumpers would leap out the door into the deep canyon below. In just a few hours all but three of them would be dead, overrun by a fire exploding up the dry hillside at 70 mph.
Mann Gulch is the smokejumper's Alamo. One jumper, Wag Dodge, would survive by lighting an escape fire—something that was invented that blistering August day. We will never know how many of these brave young men, some of whom parachuted into France D-Day 1944 and fought their way across Europe to Berlin, would have survived if they had used Wag Dodge's escape fire technique*.
In tribute to Wag Dodge, a beautiful lake in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was named after him. In 1959, shortly after his death, a moving memorial to the 13 jumpers who died at Mann Gulch — constructed, appropriately, of aircraft propellers — was placed above the lake. No one has seen it in 45 years.
Since 1998 there have been three attempts to find the Wag Dodge memorial. Two teams of 10 jumpers each searched in 1998 and 2003. This year marked the third attempt. From June 20 to 24, I hiked in with Ron Watters, a professor at Idaho State and author of seven outdoor books, to look for it again.
Ron and I drove to the trailhead at Colt Killed Creek the evening of June 10 and hiked about five miles, stopping just before dark at a hunter's camp.
On June 11 we hiked another four miles to Dan Ridge, which is just above Dodge Lake. Ron found the ruins of the lookout right away, helped by a 1964 map that we had picked up in Missoula. The Forest Service folks at the Powell RS had been accommodating but we unable to provide any information. They told us, "There will be no evidence of the lookout."
They were wrong; there was much evidence. Two groups of up to 10 jumpers had looked in this area previously but hadn't located the lookout. I thought we would find the 1959 memorial immediately—after all, it was made out of airplane propellers—so I did a search, moving in concentric circles away from the lookout. We found cement foundation posts, rock cellars, and many artifacts, but no memorial.
We established camp about one quarter mile south along Dan Ridge. Then we hiked the mile long ridge to a point directly above Dodge Lake. I traversed the point and descended on snowshoes to just above the lake, then transversed a half mile back to the ridge, which I ascended. Ron returned along the ridge looking for evidence of the monument.
During the next three days we did about 36 transects of Dan Ridge from the top of the ridge to 250 feet on the west side. I know Dan Ridge better that my own neighborhood—actually better than my own backyard. Every time we traversed we found more artifacts—mule/horse packs, cast iron skillets, telephone wire, insulators, stone cellars, marked trees, but no monument.
My friend Ron is methodical as well as relentless. He was into the search as much as I was. We did transects 20 feet apart and 50 feet apart. We walked concentric rings around promising areas. And we scoured the ridgeline on both sides looking for evidence of a concrete foundation. It would be great to report that we found it, but we didn't.
In spite of our inability to find the monument, we had a wonderful time searching for it—Wag Dodge's true monument, a memorial to the jumpers who fell in the line of duty.
Jerry Dixon recently retired from teaching after 20 years. He lives in Alaska with his wife and two sons. He is an avid mountain biker, whitewater rafter, mountaineer, and skier, and, he says, has no intention of slowing down. (Read "Going to Extremes" in the Winter 2003 issue of Continuum.)
* In attempt to save his crew, foreman Wag Dodge knelt down in a small, grass-covered opening in the trees, took out a book of matches and lit the grass. The small fire within a fire began to burn up-canyon, up-slope. His intent was to burn out a small grassy area and have his crew get in by him, but they didn't understand what he was doing and raced frantically up a steep slope in attempt to escape the flames engulfing the group. Dodge put on his jump coat and laid face down in the area he had just burned. During the next few minutes he was lifted off the ground two or three times and slammed back down on the ground from the force of the main fire. But around him there was no fuel, so the fire essentially leapt right over the top of him, and he survived.
Information gathered from National Public Radio's "Living on Earth," July 30, 1999.
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