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Ex-Smokejumpers Volunteer On Forest

by Choteau Acantha |

Former Choteau resident Lonnie Dale and five other former smokejumpers participating in the National Smokejumpers Association’s trail and maintenance program in July worked at the Sabido Cabin on Gateway Creek located in the Bob Marshall at the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

Dale, 69, a native of Choteau who now lives in Missoula was accompanied by fellow volunteers Dave Dayton, 70, formerly of Hamilton and now of Missoula; Mark Johnson, 68, a Kalispell native now from Highland Ranch, Colorado; John Stewart, 67, originally from Kansas City, Missouri, now living in Berkeley, California; Fred Axelrod, 66, native of Rockville, Maryland, now from Lakewood, Wisconsin; and Keith Beartusk, 67, originally from Lame Deer and now living in Billings.

All of the volunteers trained at the Missoula Smokejumper Base 46 years ago in 1969. Many of them continued to jump for several years after training, mostly while on summer break from college and/or teaching.
Four of the six are retired. Their occupations include two teachers, a counselor, an attorney and two foresters.

Each year U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials assign work projects to the National Smokejumpers Association (NSA) volunteers. The volunteers are mostly former smokejumpers who perform the assigned work at various, mostly remote locations throughout the country.

For this year’s project in the Spotted Bear District of the Flathead Forest, the NSA volunteers hiked 16 miles up Birch Creek, over the continental divide at Gateway Pass, then down to Sabido Cabin in the Flathead.
Ranchers who had sheep grazing permits in the Bob Marshal built the cabin in the 1930s, and the U.S. Forest Service acquired the structure after the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

It took the NSA volunteers 10 hours to walk in on July 11 and nine hours to walk out on July 16. The USFS hired packers to bring in the food and pack in and out the volunteers’ personal gear.

They spent the interim four days repairing the corral, staining the cabin and outbuildings, mouse-proofing the outhouse, repairing the cabin’s porch, building a bench for the cabin and constructing a hitching rail.

While the cabin had been re-roofed several years ago, the corral was in bad shape. Of the jack-leg type, the crossed-posts needed to be straightened or replaced. Many of the rails needed to be replaced. The swinging gate needed to be braced. The smokejumpers salvaged some of the material, but also had to harvest posts and rails from downed or standing dead lodgepole pine, putting to use their cross-cut saw skills.

An unexpected highlight of the project was interacting with a group of boys (ages 9-18) and sponsors from a boys ranch at Eureka.

They backpacked into the area and camped at a nearby outfitters camp. Hearing about the ex-jumpers at the Sabido Cabin, the lead counselor asked whether the men would tell the boys about smokejumping and they were happy to oblige.

The 75th anniversary celebration of smoke jumping was held earlier in July in Missoula. More than 6,000 men and women have been trained at various bases throughout the west since 1941.

The NSA program provides a substantial benefit to the forests that are strapped for maintenance funding and also serves as a great way for renewing old friendships.