Scout Reporot: Mann Gulch, Montana

Just a quick scouting report. I couldn’t do this one because of time constraints, but looked into getting into Mann Gulch, Montana.

Why / History: Mann Gulch is one of most famous sites in U.S. wildfire history, where in 1949 14 smokejumpers + 1 smokechaser were burned over, and only 3 survived - two by outrunning the fire uphill, one (the crew boss) by lighting an escape fire and entering the “black” it created - which the others refused to follow him into… ( I was in wildfire for 6 years, so it hits close to home for me. Don MacLean’s book about, Young Men and Fire is also probably the best book on wildfire I’ve ever read. He’s the guy who also wrote A River Runs Through It and was a ranger himself at one point.

Location: Helena National Forest. I’m guesstimating it about 13 miles upstream of Helena on the Missouri River; motorboat access is commercially run from Gates of the Mountain - 6 miles upstream of Mann Gulch, 17 miles north of Helena on I-15.

Preliminary Scout: The usual way to do Mann Gulch is via motorboat, then hike. Obviously, packrafters have an advantage: we can cross the Missouri. I don’t have the maps I’d like of area available to me right now, but got this beta:

  • Option 1: Get a drop-off at Gates of the Mountain, float 6 miles to Mann Gulch, then float to Helena-area.
    Option 2: Probable hike in/river cross/Mann Gulch/river cross/hike out option.
    At the site itself, the Forest Service maintains a trail, and a cross marks where each man fell.

Packrafts would be an access tool or river-travel vehicle; sounds like the river is class 1 all the way (but check for yourself; I just did a cursory check). I REALLY recommend reading the book if you’re interested in this trip. Don investigated the fire for years, went there himself on the ground, and retraces all the events.