Two summers ago, we spent a couple of weeks vacationing in Montana and Idaho. On the last day of our trip, we took a boat ride through the majestic canyon on the Missouri River that Meriwether Lewis named “The Gates of the Rocky Mountains.” From the boat, we oohed and ahhed at the towering cliffs and forested canyons, the blue herons fishing on the riverbank, and the ospreys and bald eagles soaring above.
You would not expect to find tragedy and controversy in this remote and rugged place. But at the farthest point of the boat ride, you arrive at Mann Gulch. Tragedy and controversy have dwelled in Mann Gulch since August 5, 1949, when thirteen smokejumpers from the U.S. Forest Service lost their lives here fighting a horrific forest fire. Ever since, people have been asking the questions, how did this happen? And why?
The authoritative source on the events that transpired in Mann Gulch that day is a great book called Young Men and Fire (#8 on my list of 10 Books to Read Before You Die). The book was written by the late Norman Maclean, a Montana native and the author of the memoir A River Runs Through It. Maclean fought fires in his youth before moving away from Montana and becoming a college teacher and man of letters. Haunted by the Mann Gulch tragedy all his life, in his old age he returned to Mann Gulch to settle the questions in his own mind once and for all.
On that August afternoon in 1949, sixteen young men were dropped into Mann Gulch to contain an ordinary-looking forest fire. Less than an hour later, the canyon was engulfed in a conflagration of flame. Within minutes, eleven of the smokejumpers were dead, two were mortally burned, and only three survived. Among the survivors was the crew foreman, Wagner Dodge, who had miraculously survived by starting an “escape fire,” laying down in its ashes, and letting the main fire burn over him. Dodge’s escape fire and its effects engendered the controversy that haunts Mann Gulch to this day.
The story Maclean tells in Young Men and Fire is as much the story of his quest to find out the facts of the Mann Gulch tragedy, as it is the actual facts he uncovered. Enlisting the help of friends in the Forest Service, he pored over documents from the investigation and the testimony of the few survivors. He returned to Mann Gulch numerous times to study the terrain, analyze the winds, and determine the sequence of events. He interviewed survivors, analyzed topographical maps, and studied mathematical models.
Maclean’s enemies were time, bureaucracy, and his own physical limitations – not to mention the faulty memories of the two remaining survivors. And yet he persisted, and the result is a book that is a fascinating look at obsession and persistence, as well as an engrossing study of a haunting tragedy. While I sometimes grew impatient with Maclean’s writerly asides, it was only because I couldn’t wait to find out the next piece of information he had uncovered. By the time the last piece falls into place, the questions are all answered, and the Mann Gulch dead are finally at peace. Highly recommended.