Remembering Mann Gulch

Panoramic view of Mann Gulch

Panoramic view of Mann Gulch

In June I took a boat out to Mann Gulch and hiked to the ridgetop where Smokejumpers lost their lives 70 years ago. Yesterday was the anniversary and walking their last footsteps decades later gave me an appreciation for the fire conditions they faced. At best Mann Gulch is inhospitable, with steep ridges, minimal tree cover to shelter from the hot and dry Montana summer sun, loaded with ticks in the gullies, and whipped by ridgetop winds on either side. A deer kill on the trail made me grateful for my bear spray and the intermittent clouds lessened the heat. Vultures perched on a dead tree driving to the boat ramp set an eerie tone.


What lacks for a comfortable hike is made up for by the view and solitude of a wilderness area. If it weren’t for the weathered stone crosses dotted on the hill marking where the men fell one by one as they scrambled to the ridgetop, you’d never know the smokejumpers tried to race for their lives in a struggle most would lose. I followed the same path they did, trying to beat the clock in the race, as Norman Maclean, author of Young Men and Fire put it. I lost.

Where smokejumper James Harrison fell


Despite being in decent shape I huffed and puffed my way up the ridge but couldn’t hack it and probably would’ve been overtaken by fire in 1949 just a few hundred feet from safety over the lee side of the ridge. Each cross marked where they fell. Passing each one I felt a sense of place and history, a solo hike tempered by the ghosts of fatal wildfires past. Each gust of wind carried with it a whisper from those departed souls.  


Once I made it to the top I took in the vista of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. I could see down to the Missouri River, over to Helena, and off into rugged and wild country. The trail itself was a simple footpath, with tall grass revealing the minimal foot traffic. I saw nobody for 4 hours.

Racing to the ridgetop


Walking the trail back to the beach, I contemplated the fire behavior and the things we put firefighters’ lives at risk for and the lessons we may or may not have learned since then. Burned tree trunks from recent fires past dotted the trail, a reminder that Mann Gulch is a place to visit but where we cannot stay.


Waiting at the river, a tour boat came by with a loudspeaker blaring about Mann Gulch, snapping me back to human interaction. Summer tourists leisurely took in the trailhead of the Gulch from the water, shielded from the actual site by topography, conveniently separated from feeling the full weight of the place.


The tour cruise departed, and I sat on the beach taking in the Ospreys soaring above and the vertical cliffs across the river. No sooner than I put my pack down to water up, the boatman showed up to take me away down the river back to civilization.


I bid a silent farewell to Mann Gulch and the souls that haunt it’s hillside.

Leaving Mann Gulch
Stuart Palley