The Black Warrior Creek Gear Roll
by Steve Lloyd-Davies (McCall 78)
from the January 2003 edition
Well, you see, it was actually Bill Yensen (MYC 53) who thought it all up. You know how he was always telling stories about how they did things in the old days, when men were men, gear was primitive, parachutes let you down hard, and smokejumpers actually got some respect.
(I digress, but once I was walking along with Yensen and Clay Morgan (MYC 74) during my NED year, in 1978. Yensen started into one of his stories, Back in 55, Smoky Stover (MYC 46)and I were jumping the ... My jaw dropped, I stopped, and said, Bill, I was born in 55! Yensen froze and stopped his story (if you can believe that). He was speechless, albeit momentarily. Finally Morgan broke the calm. Well, Bill, so its finally come to that.)
Anyway, back to the story ... two years later in 1980, six of us jumped a small fire on a ridge above Black Warrior Creek on the Boise National Forest. Steve Loomis (NCSB 76) threw us out of the DC-3 in a howling windstorm with 400 yards of drift that scattered us all over the hillside. I was first in the door and managed to find a soft pile of gravel partway down the hillside. Yensen landed nearby. Mick Moore (MYC 77) burned out of a tree near us and miraculously escaped serious injury. Tom Koyama (CJ 74) hung up precariously between two big Douglas fir trees but managed to let down without incident. Lynn Flock (MYC 68) landed almost on the ridgeline, in a little saddle where we later made camp. The sixth jumper may have been Mark Acosta (MYC 79), but I'm not certain.
There were a couple of district helitack types on the fire already. The fire was maybe an acre in size, and we quickly lined it and later that day started mop-up. The summer of 1980 was wet and cool, probably because of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in May. Fires were scarce, and most of them didn't amount to much. This one was no exception. By the following day it was all but dead. In midday we were ordered to demob off the fire and leave the helitack crew to sit on it until it was dead. That's when Yensen came up with his brilliant plan.
"You know, in the old days, we would just pack all the gear in those big elephant bags and kick them off the hill, then follow them down and pick them up at the bottom," he said.
One side of the ridge overlooked the main valley with a gravel road, but the slope was murderously steep, and most of us had cached our gear partway down the other side where we had landed. This was the Black Warrior Creek side, and a trail ran along it and connected with the gravel road about two miles downstream.
Yensen was convinced that we could pack up all our tools, sleeping bags, and miscellaneous fire gear in the cargo boxes, strap them securely, then let him kick them off the ridge, follow them down the hill, kick them periodically if they hung up in brush, and meet the truck that was coming to pick us up at the bottom.
"That way, he assured us confidently, "you boys won't have to pack full loads all the way down the hill and then two miles down the trail. I can still teach you young bulls a few tricks from the old days."
Bill seemed to be coming into his prime, the sage and respected old warrior devising an ingenious labor saver that the young Turks could never have imagined
Several of us offered to help him roll the boxes. "Nope, he replied, "just take my main and reserve down for me, and I'll carry my jump suit, harness, and PG bag in my big blue bag. I can kick these three cargo boxes down this hill no sweat."
By God, we thought, that old Yensen was pretty damn sharp. Not only did he come up with a major labor saver, but he also volunteered to do the kicking himself. We helped him pack the boxes, carefully stuffing in sleeping bags, plastic tarps, collapsed cubitainers, tools, extra food, and garbage until the boxes bulged at the seams. We started reinforcing them with all the extra straps we had when Bill shooed us down the hill.
"You fellows better get going. I'll be down this hill so fast we'll end up waiting for you at the trailhead. It's going to take you boys a while to hike down to the road."
So we set off, confident that experienced ol' Bill had scored a major coup in pack-off labor saving. And it was a steep hike for us. Of course, downhill packouts are always easier than uphill, but steep downhill trips mandate careful, slow steps to avoid falls. It took us about 90 minutes to reach the bottom and hike out along the trail to the main road.
We had previously arranged by radio for the truck to pick Bill up first since we had estimated he would easily beat us to the road. We sat down and waited. Flock had given our only radio to Yensen so he would be sure to be picked up first. A half hour passed. Then an hour. We rested on our gear bags for a while, snoozed a little, then grew bored. Koyama and I played cribbage on my small leather crib board (another Yensen innovation), with a miniature deck of cards.
The hour dragged into two. Flock decided to hike up the main road to find Yensen. We fidgeted; worrying that maybe ol' Bill had fallen and hurt himself. Damn! We silently cursed ourselves because we hadn't sent another person with him. He could be lying out there with a broken leg! Poor ol' Bill. Had we failed this humorous, bandy-legged storyteller of the smokejumpers?
Well, it seemed like an eternity (actually it was probably more like two hours), but finally the U.S. Forest Service green six-pack pickup clattered around the bend upstream from us, both Flock and Yensen aboard. However, no smiles lit their faces. Yensen looked positively grim as if he had lost his best friend. The pickup stopped, and we silently loaded our gear. We all sensed something bad had happened. The cargo boxes in the back were in tatters. We quietly climbed aboard the pickup.
Yensen was silent for a few minutes. "Those boxes just don't hold up as well as the old canvas elephant bags," he finally offered. "After about the fourth bounce, they just sort of exploded, and tools and sleeping bags went flying everywhere. I spent hours trying to pick it all up and tie them back together."
"Did you find it all?" someone asked. Bill's silence was all the answer we needed. It was a long ride back to Boise, less cheery than it might have been. We ate dinner at Manley's, famous for huge meals and homemade pies. That buoyed our spirits a bit.
You see, in 1980, returning gear was being carefully checked and counted to prevent losses. We had to account for every shovel, pulaski, and sleeping bag, not to mention our chutes and jump gear. Now every jumper protects the latter to the max, but the everyday fire gear is often left to local crews as needed by local conditions. Of course, we never abandoned gear out on an actual fire, especially in the wilderness, but it was not uncommon to mix tools with other crews and come back a bit short. But in 1980 things had been tightened up quite a bit. When we returned from fires after hours, there was a big plywood box on the south dock of the loft into which we were supposed to stow all our tools so that they could be counted in the morning.
It was a long, quiet drive to McCall that night. The two hours from Boise seemed like four. That nighttime arrival is probably what saved our butts. Had we arrived during daylight, the tools would have been counted and found to be short. We simply pulled up to the back dock and unloaded our equipment into the box. We dragged our parachutes into the loft and hung them in the tower to dry. While we were doing that, persons who will be left unnamed slipped into the basement and brought up enough tools from the dull tool bin to make up for the shortfall and tossed them into the box. We all kept quiet about it, and as far as I know, the overhead never discovered the deception. But among the rank and file jumpers, no one ever again tried to roll gearboxes down the hill.