Lessons Learned

This weekend is the 75th Anniversary Reunion of the Smokejumpers in Missoula, Montana. In 1940, the first individual jumped out of an airplane to combat a wildfire. Ever since that moment, young men (and now women) have followed suit to don the parachute and drop through the skies to fight fire. It is a history rich in stories, individuals, and friendship.

This past week, I headed down from Butte, MT to join members of the National Smokejumper Association (NSA), not to be confused with the other NSA, as they volunteered with the USFS outside Wisdom, MT. Myself and two other teammates joined five retired Smokejumpers at Hogan Cabin (just past Big Hole Battlefield) as they began work in the construction of a jackleg fence. Three other teammates headed over to Gordon Reese Cabin (on the Idaho border), where they joined another group of retired Smokejumpers who were cutting and splitting firewood for the winter.


When I first heard of this project, a couple weeks before it actually happened, I came to the conclusion that this would be a challenging project; Smokejumpers are the elite wildland firefighters. They constantly push themselves, find challenging obstacles to overcome, and are complete bad-[edited]es.  I was expecting these muscular dudes who were stoked about wildfire, jumping out of airplanes, and still fought fires.

What I never expected was to work with a lawyer, a surgeon, a retired marine, and some of the most humble firefighters in the world. These men did not consider themselves heroes, but were at one time young men paying their way through school. Smokejumping back then was not a career, but a way to survive, to gain experiences, and to explore the world.


We spent the first couple days dragging posts and rails out of the woods. These dead and live trees had been cut by these retired Smokejumpers to provide materials for the fence that we were scheduled to create. It was exhausting work, but we knew, and the guys we were working with constantly reminded us, that this project would have never gotten accomplished if we hadn’t been there for the “heavy lifting.”

Yes, a green tree 21 feet long, even when it is less than three inches in diameter and limbed accordingly, is still heavy. The 12 foot sections that were slightly thicker were just as heavy. Sometimes they were heavier.  Even the dead, dried out posts and rails were a struggle to drag out of the woods.  But we did it. We dragged what seemed like several hundred trees out of the forest, loaded them up onto the trailer, and towed them back to camp.


As we constructed the fence, cutting the posts to size with the jig, nailing them together to make jacklegs, fixing together rails, supports, and posts, the members of the NSA invited us to constantly learn.  Maybe we already knew some of the things they taught us, but we smiled and enjoyed the friendships and comradery that spanned the generations.

As the evening fell upon us, we sat around the campfire and listened as they shared stories of a time not so long ago, when they were young men and the world was before them. They shared how they trained, partied, and fought side by side and I saw the companionship and the family that they had become through this shared experience. I saw how they smiled and reflected on what made them into the men they were today.


As younger individuals, they praised us for our dedication to service and marveled at the adventures that we had been a part of through AmeriCorps. Many of them shared how they saw hope in us and poured out advice onto us.  I could probably write an entire post about the advice they shared, but I will shorten it and end with the (often conflicting) advice that the five of them shared with us:

When looking towards the future, we were advised to: Find a career. Find what makes you happy. Follow our dreams. Don’t work for the government. And if all else fails, it’s alright not to know. Don’t worry if it takes you until you are 30, married, or broke.

While I am not a smokejumper (and have no desire to jump out of an aircraft to fight fire), I am honored to have had the opportunity to work beside these amazing men. And while they are old in age, each of them have a youthful fire that continues to burn within.


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