SMOKEJUMPERS -- The Saskatchewan Story

The following article on Saskatchewan's illustrious smokejumpers originally ran in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix in the summer of 1997, around the time of a smokejumpers' reunion in La Ronge. It was written by one of those jumpers, a young man named Bob Reguly who went on to a distinguished career in journalism. This article is reproduced with his permission.

By Bob Reguly

The hot, windy summer of 1953 had the Saskatchewan smokejumpers marvelling at their good fortune - forest fires were breaking out everywhere.

In a normal year, the fires came in two clusters: in June, when the northern bush was "greening up", then in August with "dry lightning" unaccompanied by rain.

But in 1953, the fires were unrelenting. Once my crew jumped on two fires the same day. We took off with the rising sun from Lac La Ronge, jumped and put out the fire, were picked up in the afternoon, repacked our gear back at base and were having supper when the call came.

By nightfall, we were mopping up our second fire. I was earning $7.76 a day less $1.50 for board. At that rate, I figured I was being paid three bucks a fire.

The smokejumpers ranged far and wide across the northland. And they walked into as many fires as they parachuted into.

A "jump fire" was one that was too far from a water body able to land a floatplane. If a pontoon Norseman could land nearby, we walked. An observation plane made the decision.

An urgent call that fires were threatening Uranium City sent my crew winging north. The Norseman with Freddy McClellan at the controls carried four of us with firefighting gear -- and a 170-litre drum of gasoline. Halfway there, we landed at the lake, unloaded the drum and refueled with a wobble pump. That enabled the short-range Norseman to go the distance.

We landed right beside the fire and worked all night and the next day, managing to turn it so that it burned back into itself. That was one down, but more to go along the shores of Lake Athabasca.

In the evening, we received a hurry-up call that a fire was sweeping down on a drilling camp a few miles away.

We were picked up by a motorboat and arrived to find all the camp's crew had fled. We spent the night throwing burning embers out of the fuel dump with gloved hands as the fire crowned and, luckily, roared past, hurling burning chunks of wood a half-kilometre.

A crown fire is the most fearsome kind. They're rare, but when they occur they're downright scary. They race through the trees faster than a man can run and have the roaring sound of a giant blowtorch.

The U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers have lost 15 men to crown fires. That occasion, however, was the only one I encountered in Saskatchewan; two previously while fighting fires in Ontario.

The Saskatchewan smokejumpers was a unique organization. It was the only province to have parachuting forest-fire fighters.

It was a unit that attracted adventurers; they were very fit and so, naturally enough, considered themselves indestructible.

Another requirement was that they had to be "temperamentally stable." I guess that meant we all had a screw loose, and maybe it was a subliminal requirement for the job.

The element of martinis aside, the smokejumpers were, above all, eager. They had the special swagger of cocky young guys who knew with supreme confidence that they were the best at their job. Yet they scorned macho posturing; after all, arriving by parachute was simply a way of commuting to work. The real work began when they landed.

Once a wannabe made the cut, he couldn't get enough jumps under his belt, sometimes offering a member of another crew a day's pay to take his place on a fire jump.

The training at Prince Albert airfield was rigorous -- eight-kilometre runs in heavy boots at 6 a.m., 50 push-ups several times a day, front and back rolls off the deck of a weaving truck going 30 kilometres an hour. I thought I was fit when I arrived, but I crawled to bed for the first week, too tired to eat supper.

Training was nine jumps: five field, four bush, from a wheeled aircraft.

The problem of jumping from a Norseman was how to avoid those pontoons. At first, a metal chute was fitted out from the side cargo door over the floats. The jumpers slid down the chute. The pilots didn't like it because it messed with the flying characteristics.

Then somebody got a brainstorm: drill holes in the chute to cut down wind resistance. Dumb idea: the slide whistled like a banshee.

So they cut a hole in the belly and inserted something that looked like an old coal scuttle with the bottom cut out, or if you prefer, a'gravy boat.

One jumper dangled with his legs hanging below the fuselage while the other sat on the lip with his legs around the other's shoulders. They dropped simultaneously between the pontoons, like plunging through a hangman's trapdoor.

The steerable 8.5-metre-diameter parachutes were primitive by today's standards. The landing jolt with 30 kilograms of gear was equivalent to stepping off a three-metre fence. The big fear was landing in an old "burn", with spiky dead trees, a source of ribald warnings New recruits were reminded that the 'chutes were bought by the government from the lowest bidder.

Firefighting tools dropped from tree-top level were pretty basic -- the combination axe-adze Pulaski tool, shovels, saws and 22-litre canvas backpacks with a squirt hose. You hesitated to radio for a gasoline-powered pump and hose to be parachuted down because you had to carry it out -- and that could be as much as 16 kilometres.

When I arrived in La Ronge in 1953 -- the year after the highway was pushed through -- it was the end of the road north. I revelled in the frontier atmosphere of a one-street settlement with about 800 Natives on the periphery reserve and the dozen whites along the shoreline.

There was one hotel peddling the only legal booze north of Waskesiu; one restaurant, with a jukebox, where the local maidens gathered to meet their swains; a fierce-looking hermit who rowed ashore for store supplies once a week from some island and spoke to no one; the rotund unofficial "mayor of La Ronge", a German stone mason who had fled Saskatoon during a 1926 strike to live by hunting and fishing and claimed to have fathered two dozen children; the little waiter "Smitty" at the local pub, a newly-emigrated Brit in his 50s (who hauled out his huge pocket watch at 10 p.m. cutoff, announcing "time gents," and even the rowdies obeyed, for he had a dignified air); and the tumbledown dance hall operated by the elderly, bachelor Olson brothers.

The Saturday night dances were the week's highlight: jugs of homebrew were passed around, spontaneous couplings occurred on the dance floor, and the imbibing fiddle-guitar band eventually tumbled, one by one, from the raised podium. The Olsons shrugged and turned on their jukebox.

Some of the memories I will carry to this weekend's reunion marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the smokejumpers will be poignant.

Dennis Kelly, the jumpmaster in my time, and Don Deets, both died in crashes of Cessna 180s they were piloting. Albert Bear, a gentle, funny, full-blooded Cree who had served in Korea, rejoined the army and drowned on a recreational jump.

The official excuse for the smokejumpers' disbandment in 1967 was that helicopters could take over the job with equal efficiency. That rationale misses the point.

What was lost was the pride of belonging to a unit, unmatched for its zeal in attacking a forest fire. Looking back, it was the best time in our lives.