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Smokejumpers and Class Trips

July 26, 2013

Montana – Sunday, July 14

I was heading for Missoula today, but wanted to get Tula out for a little walk first. We went back to the shady avenue with all the pretty homes and walked for a mile and a half before the drive to Missoula. Montana is a big state, and distances between towns can be pretty long. But it’s such a pretty state that that doesn’t bother me! I was in some wide open country and there weren’t many exits or services. When I saw a sign for a rest area, at first I thought I would pass it by, but then figured both Tula and I should get out since who knew when the next place would come up, and that stop unexpectedly led to a donation opportunity! At a rest area of all places! It turned out there was a fund raiser going on there for the Powell County High School’s trip to Washington DC. Only one of the students was at at the rest area this particular day (and his mom was there too) and they had plates full of homemade cookies and brownies and hot coffee and cold water, and were simply collecting donations for whatever snack one might want. And on a beautiful Sunday afternoon during the busy summer tourist season, and no other facilities or services around for about a hundred miles, they appeared to be having a very successful fundraiser! And this was a new location for a donation for me – I never thought I would make a donation at a rest area! I talked to Will – either an incoming junior or senior – and he told me a bit about the upcoming trip to Washington DC. He seemed to really be looking forward to it, and although many schools in the east have school trips to DC, it’s a bit more of an expensive project from rural western Montana. Will (and most of his classmates) are in one of the sprawling western Montana school districts – with a 30 mile commute each way – that gets to be some pretty long school days, especially when you add in sports or other extracurricular activities. Will has never been on a plane, and hasn’t been farther east than South Dakota, so a trip to Washington DC (and then a few days in Manhattan) is going to be quite the adventure! Another young lady was supposed to be selling cookies that day, but she couldn’t be there, so I gave Will the whole donation – I was happy to support a class trip that will be such an amazing experience for all these kids! I’m really glad I pulled off at that exit! And it sure seemed to be an unexpectedly good idea for a fundraising venture – it wouldn’t work in an area where there are lots of exits and other services, but in remote Montana with lots of travelers passing through, it’s a wonderfully creative idea!

Once I walked Tula, we continued on for another hour or so to Missoula. My first destination there was to visit the Smokejumpers Base – I knew they had tours on Sunday, and I arrived just as the 3:00 tour was starting. I have been on this tour once before and it’s fascinating. Becoming a smokejumper is a demanding and competitive quest. Women can go through the training, but they are held to the exact same standards as the men, as it should be for everyone’s safety. Smokejumpers have to weigh between 120-200# (200# is the maximum weight the parachute can carry on its descent) and they go through a grueling training regimen. All of them have to have several years of firefighting experience, and some of the applicants are former military paratroopers. They have to be able to carry 80-85# packs, and all of them have to learn how to sew, since they make and repair a lot of their own gear. There are really long tables in the chute packing room, and only certified packers can pack the chutes. All of the parachutes are hung up and inspected for rips and tears after every jump, but there are not as many repairs needed as one might think. When a call comes in, they only have a matter of minutes to get fully suited up and head out to the smokejumper plane, which is always full of provisions and is ready to go. The smokejumper base is located right by the Missoula airport, and the smokejumping plane (which looks different from other planes – a different tail and wings attached at the top of the plane for faster takeoff) gets top priority for takeoff – other takeoffs and landings are temporarily delayed until the smokejumper plane is in the air. The spotter (also a smokejumper but not jumping on the current mission) selects the “safe zone” and it’s his/her responsibility to tap each of the jumpers on the shoulder at the exact moment they need to go. The jumpers go out in pairs, and their food, tools and gear is all packaged in pairs, and is dropped on the next pass around. The jumpers land (and if they accidentally land in a tree, they have to know how to climb down), then gather up their gear, establish their safe zone and get to work. They never know how long they’ll be out on a job, and if more food or provisions are needed in a couple days, a plane will come by again and drop more supplies. Once a fire is successfully out, they have to pack up all their gear (the 80# or so) and hike out to some road where they can be picked up – it might be a 2 mile hike, or it might be a 30 mile hike – hence the long training hikes in full gear. There were only 4 smokejumpers on base today – the rest of them were out on other missions. There is a dormitory at the base, and everyone has assigned lockers for their gear, and they use a buddy system to make sure all the gear is put on and fastened correctly. They are not particularly well paid – starting at $14/15 dollars and hour – they do it because they love what they do, and also partly for the thrill of it – it is said they might all be just a little bit crazy! I made a donation here to the Smokejumpers Wellfare Fund – there was one fund for them, and another for maintenance of the visitor center, but I wanted mine to go toward injured smokejumpers and their families. They’re brave and courageous people!

After visiting the Smokejumper Base, it was time to get some walking in, and there were lots of places to go. I started out in the unfortunately-named Rattlesnake Wilderness Rec Area, on a trail that followed a creek – Tula and I covered nearly 3 miles there. And there were no rattlesnakes to be seen (although I wonder if I would have ventured out if I didn’t see families with young children in the area!). Then I went downtown and covered another mile and a half. There seemed to be an unusual number of long-haired, shaggy-bearded, guitar-carrying young men, and some women, hanging around. They all seemed to head over to one of the riverbanks, and it sort of seemed like a hippie sort of gathering. They weren’t menacing or threatening, but from some of the old vehicles I saw, and the packs some of them were carrying, it sort of seemed like a young homeless, but musical(!) crowd that were just hanging out together. I wanted to ask someone about it, because there was definitely a presence, but I never found anyone to ask. And I saw more of it when I walked a couple more miles along the river trail. There was certainly a gathering of some kind going on!

By then it was pretty late, and I stayed in Missoula for the night.

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