Monday, May 14, 2012

The Full Circle of Smoke Jump Dreams

As Mugs and I, joined briefly by a friend, dropped down from Lolo Pass into Missoula, Montana on a cross-country road trip last summer, I glanced across the valley and over the Clark Fork to see if the Smokejumper Base was still there.

It was but the Missoula base with 85 smokejumpers now has been joined by nearly 10 others across the intermountain and coastal west including Alaska, all but two operated by the National Forest Service.

As we had tracked the 75-mile Clearwater River up across the north-central Idaho Rockies that day, I recalled how often I had dreamed of fighting forest fires, as I was growing up yet another day’s drive to the southeast along the Continental Divide in the shadow of the 1.6 million acre Targhee National Forest established in 1908.

More specifically I dreamed then of becoming a “smokejumper” and I could think of nothing more worthy in those early years than risking my life to save trees.Young Men and Fire  It seemed as noble as the work of any of the super-heroes evolving at that time such as Captain Comet, The Fly and Flash.

Growing up just west of the Ashton/Island Park Ranger District,  I had often heard the tragic story of how 13 jumpers died in another national forest two hundred miles north of that nook where the Centennial and Grand Teton ranges meet.

Much later, just a few years after I moved to Durham in 1989, where I now live and home to The Forest History Society, a 1978 forensic analysis of the Mann Gulch tragedy was published entitled Young Men and Fire.

The book’s posthumous publication was spurred by the huge popularity a year earlier of the movie A River Runs Through It, adapted from an autobiographical novella by author Norman Maclean and starring actor Brad Pitt in one of his breakout roles and directed by Robert Redford.

Growing up, as I did, in the Mormon culture of homesteaders along the famed Henry’s Fork of the Snake River where it drops out of the Targhee gave special resonance to a memorable line from the book and the movie:

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

While I didn’t grow up to be a smokejumper or to fight forest fires, I did spend nearly 40 years as a community-destination marketing exec which involves putting out fires far more frequently than people might think.

And now as if to come full circle to that dream of my youth, one of my issue-based passions in retirement involves “saving trees” not from fire but from the blight of roadside billboards and the careless disregard and indifference of a few state legislators.

Author and screenplay writer William Hjortsberg, a friend of Maclean’s once described A River Runs Through It as reaching “into that dark area where you don’t know how to help somebody you love until it’s too late.”

I hope it isn’t too dramatic to think about saving North Carolina’s signature tree canopy and what better place to start than along its roadsides.

No comments: