West Yellowstone

It’s hard to believe that fire season is 1/5 over already, and I haven’t yet smelled a whiff of smoke.  I got four jumps during refresher training and all went well, and another jump yesterday near the base here in West Yellowstone.  In slow times it’s no insignificant consolation that I’m a 5 minute drive from the entrance to Yellowstone, and I’ve been heading in there whenever I get the chance.  I’ve got a few photos to post today, mostly from inside the park but a few from Virginia and Missoula also.




Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/13 sec at f/32, ISO 100, handheld

Another slow shutter speed shot of a seagull off the beach at Cape Charles.


chaosCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/13 sec at f/22, ISO 125, handheld

I just never know what I’m going to get with this technique.




Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/6 second, handheld

Erin and I were eating dinner one night when I looked out the window and saw this beautiful crescent moon.  I forgot my tripod and it was pretty dark, so the shot is somewhat blurred and noisy, but It still conveys the scene pretty well.


Flower_doubleexpCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, Gitzo Tripod

A double exposure of a flower in the forest along Rock Creek near Missoula.  For this shot, I took one normal exposure of the flower, and then adjusted the focus so the scene was blurred, and took another shot on top of the original.


Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

A pretty classic (and often photographed) scene in the park, but it caught my eye all the same.  A two-image panorama.


CoyoteCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/250 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, handheld

I followed this coyote through the woods for awhile, and got this shot of him digging after something underground.


Swallows_closeCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

I spent a night in the park last weekend, and in the morning found a small bridge that hundreds of Swallows were nesting under.  They were continuously streaming into and out of the tunnel under my feet, so I took hundreds of shots from above, trying to get them in focus and also in a good composition.  This was my favorite close-up shot, and the next  is my favorite wider composition.


Swallows_wideCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

It’s hard to tell because the photo is pretty small, but this was the sharpest shot I got that morning, and almost all the birds and in crisp focus.  I suppose choosing between this image and the previous one comes down to the size of the print: for a larger print this is definitely the one I would choose as there’s just more to see.


Pronghorn_blurCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/10 sec at f/22, ISO 100, handheld

I remember learning a long time ago that the Pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in North America and can run upwards of 45mph, because they evolved alongside a species of Cheetah that went extinct around 20,000 years ago.  They definitely exude confidence in their speed, and when I surprised this one resting in the sage it didn’t run, but pranced away gracefully.



Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/100 sec at f/11, ISO 100, handheld

A two-image black and white panorama of steam vents in Yellowstone.


Yellowstone_falls Canon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.8 lens, 1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

The view from above this waterfall is stunning, and right now the river is swollen with snowmelt and crashes with amazing force onto the rocks below.  The photo below is looking over the edge of the cliff.


crashingCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f/8, ISO 100, handheld








Frenchie Creek, Ohara, and 975 Fires

Today I’m posting photos of 3 fires from the meat of the season, when we were really busy and it felt like you were going to jump if you were at base and available.  The Frenchie Creek Fire was a neat one because it was several hundred acres in grass, while we normally end up on smaller fires in dense timber.


Bryce at the campfire.  The Ohara fire was not far from Grangeville, and we even drove by my house on the way out.  The jump was nice because the spot was pretty big and since I was the last guy on the plane with an odd number, I got to fly by myself with no jump partner to worry about running into.  The landing was a bit of a surprise because what looked from up high like small shrubs was actually dense ferns about 5 feet tall, so each person disappeared when they hit the ground.  The hike to the fire was pretty gnarly, and we all had a lot of weight to keep ourselves supplied with food and water for 2 or 3 days.  The forest was dense and seemed pretty unhealthy, so there was plenty of dead and downed timber to crawl over.  The fire itself was fine, and other than a violent storm that came through and knocked trees down around us, everything went well.


Ryg at the campfire.  I looked over from my campsite the first night and saw Ryg spending some time alone with the fire.


I took this photo and the one below on our first flight of the Frenchie Creek Fire one evening, and although it was certainly active and needed attention, there’s a limit on how late we can jump so we had to turn around and jump it in the morning.  Most of our fires are small and in dense timber, so it was exciting to look down at a running grass fire for a change.  When we jumped it the next morning it was much less active, but some edges were still burning.


A different view.


Russ Frei coming in to land his square parachute in the background, and my round parachute lays sprawled in the grass in the foreground.  Jumpers have used rounds since the 30′s, and they’re basically the same parachute used during the D-Day invasion, but squares have some advantages over them and there’s talk of switching everyone over within 10 years.


Frenchie Creek Campsite.  This was one of those stunning campsites where you sit around the fire in the evening after a hard day’s work and completely forget that you’re getting paid to be there.


There was no wood near our campsite, so three of us each carried about 40 pounds of firewood up 1000 feet so we could have a nice fire.


I found these baby birds on the ground while we were cutting line through one of the only brushy areas on the fire.  It was strange, but there was no nest on the ground near them or a tree nearby they could have fallen out of, so I assume it was some sort of ground nesting bird.  They were alive when we found them, but I doubt they lasted long.


The rotor wash from a departing helicopter blows dirt in front of the sun on our last morning on the Frenchie Creek.  We got our gear slung out, but for some reason they decided to have us hike out instead of fly.  The hike was beautiful but pretty long and hot, and we gained about 2000 feet of elevation before hitting the dirt road.


Our next fire was the #975, and this is what it looked like from the air.  It was in a nice, open Ponderosa forest, and was cleaning up the understory well without killing any trees, so it was kind of a shame we suppressed it.


We dug line late into the night after jumping, and I took this photo around midnight on the way back to camp with the help of my tripod.  It was hard to find a spot where I could see the moon through the trees.


Eight McCall jumpers reinforced us on the second day so the campsite was pretty packed that evening, and it was tough keeping up with the spam and coffee cooking for everyone.  As usual, the view from our campsite was spectacular.


This is what our campsite looked like a few days later, after the McCallies left and we were just mopping up whatever heat was left on the 8 acre fire.



Winding Down

The fire season seems to be winding down around here, and actually it’s the first time I’ve spent more than 2 days at the base in quite a while.  My last fire jump was the Mount Two Top Fire, which was 140 acres and straddled the Idaho/Montana border.  It was my 8th fire jump of the year, and looks like it could be my last unless we get another lightning bust in the next week or so.  It’s been a great season, and this job is definitely all that it’s cracked up to be.

As far as my photography goes, I’ve been using an Olympus OM-D E-5 this season.  It’s a micro-four-thirds camera, the idea of which is basically a smaller body with a bigger sensor.  The image quality is very good, though I do wish I could bring my big Canon out on the line with me.  I’ve got four photos in the semi-finals of the Windland Smith Rice International, the competition I won a category in last year, so I’m awaiting any news from them.  Today I’m posting photos from some fires earlier this summer.


Flights early in the morning and later in the evening are my favorite because the views can be amazing.  I took this photo out the window during a pretty late flight, and since they were only going to drop 4 and I was 6th, I was able to concentrate on getting photos.  This is the best one I got of the fire, but it’s a little blurry.


A view into the cockpit and of our pilot, Nels Jensen.  I was looking at old photos on the wall here the other day and saw him in the smokejumper class of 1969 photo.


A small pot of coffee brews on the Nut Hill Fire a few weeks ago.  We dug line late into the night and a gal from a local district got hit by the top of a tree when it burned out and fell from about 40 feet up.  Luckily her vitals were stable and she wasn’t bleeding really badly, and she ended up not even having any broken bones.


Bryce, one of my fellow rookies, goes out the door on a small fire.  We have to jump out hard but then tuck into a ball quickly so the 100mph wind doesn’t send us ass over teakettle.


The Ring Fire from the air.  This was one of my favorite fires this year because it was way out in the Frank Church wilderness at about 8000 feet.  There were huckleberries everywhere and a clear stream ran through our campsite.


Our jump spot on the Ring Fire was a little opening on a ridge with a 360 degree view of wilderness.  Here somebody comes in for a nice soft landing.


Another view of our jump spot.  The blue strip of paper Francis is holding up is called a streamer, and is used to show incoming jumpers the wind conditions on the ground.


I started packing a compact tripod about halfway through the season, so I’ve been able to take some long exposures.  The wooden tripod in the photo is used to dry clothes and hang our cooking pots over the fire.


The hike out from the Ring Fire was 7 miles or so along a good trail, with gorgeous views of the Frank Church.  We were able to get our jump gear slung out by helicopter, so all we carried were our fire packs and tools.


First Fire Jump!

After graduating from rookie training in late June, I went to the southwest for a little while as part of a throw together crew, and mostly ended up just cutting dead trees and getting poured on by the monsoons for a week or so.  Once back at Grangeville, it wasn’t long before I got my first fire jump on the Crescendo Fire up on the Idaho Panhandle.  It was good to get it out of the way, and since then we’ve been pretty busy.  The photos I’m posting today are from that first fire, which was a pretty tough one in general, but especially for me because I had an incredibly painful IT band issue pop up on the fire, something i’ve never dealt with.  It seems to be somewhat common that people have physical issues for a while after rookie training until your body is able to heal up.


Four of us pack our jump gear into our waterproof bags, called Alaska bags, after my first fire jump.  The hike was a mile or so up to and along a ridge to get to a road that took us to the Crescendo Fire.  Sometimes you have to jump fairly far from a fire because there’s no jump spot nearby or the winds are unfavorable.


A view of the Crescendo Fire from the ridge.  It was 25 acres when we arrived and we nearly got a handle on it before getting demobed.  I saw on the National Sit Report yesterday that it’s now 1100 acres and 5% contained.


So you’re not allowed to wear a smokejumper t-shirt until you get your first fire jump, and this shirt was tossed to me by one of the other guys after I hit the ground.



Rookie Training Journal: Part 2

Tue. May 28th 5:50 AM:

We’re meeting downstairs for PT at 6:30, and I’m really nervous.  I suppose I’m traumatized from last week and am wondering what’s in store for us, it’s the not knowing that’s hard to deal with.  It consoles me to know that 15 other people will go through it with me, and I know I can handle it if they can.  I know this is what I want for right now, but it’s kind of hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel this early on.

8 AM : The PT session this morning was pretty tough, but it only lasted an hour and then we started on the units.  We were in our jumpsuits from 8 until noon, going from station to station learning different skills.  It was good to be finally learning about jumping since our first trip out the plane is scheduled for next Thursday.  I re-injured my thigh pretty bad trying to get up in my jump suit today, so my bad leg now has to be my good leg.  It started hurting towards the end of the 110 lb pack test, a sharp pain in the upper middle part of my quad, but I thought it healed this weekend, but it definitely didn’t.  My PLF’s (Parachute Landing Falls), were pretty good, but I need to work on my exits and letdowns.

Sat. June 1:

I thought I’d be better about journalling through this, but I’m really tired in the evenings and things are going fairly well, while i’ve noticed in the past that I usually journal when I would otherwise need someone to talk to.  The PT Tuesday morning was pretty bad, a long run at a fast pace, starting with our carrying the metal bars for a mile or so and then going basically as hard as we could uphill for awhile.  Actually I just remembered that that was Wednesday’s PT, Tuesday’s was a fairly short run but at a really fast pace and we all felt gassed afterwards.  For yesterday’s PT they drove us to a quiet part of town and said the engines died, so we pushed the trucks in groups of 5 for an hour or so, which was tough but actually sort of fun.  The Units have been enjoyable, at least for me, because despite roasting while running around in our jumpsuits all morning, we’re finally learning the nuts and bolts of jumping.  It’s fairly simple stuff, but it has to become muscle memory to overcome the nerves that we’ll inevitably have when we’re actually in the aircraft door.  I still haven’t really gotten the PLF’s down yet, but I’m counting on the practice i’ll do this weekend to help me figure them out.  Letdowns are no problem, and my exits are getting better though I need more “vigor”, which seems to be the default critique when there’s nothing else to criticize about an exit.  My right quad seemed to spontaneously heal on Wednesday, so I feel basically injury-free for the first time during this training.  Russ, one of the trainers, said that two guys from his rookie class washed because of getting injured on their first jump.  Our first is scheduled for Thursday, and I hope that’s not the case with our class.  Erin’s parents are with her in Jackson, doing some fishing and wedding planning.  Being in the dorms over the weekend is pretty depressing, so maybe i’ll camp out tonight.

Monday June 3:

There was no PT this morning, which was strange, and I feel like they’ll find a way to hurt us this afternoon.  I did great on all the units today except landings, and there I was awful.  Keeping your feet together when you land just goes against 30 years of experience regarding what to do when you land on the ground.  I don’t consciously spread my feet apart, it just happens, every time.

Thurs. June 6:

Yesterday was test day on units, and everyone made it through to jump today, although my whole squad did really poorly on landings.  In letdowns I had a tough time for a minute trying off the the bowl of the tree, and I forgot a shroud line check once, but after that I was fine.  In exits I did great, but landings was awful.  We were issued our real parachutes and reserves in the afternoon and weighed with all our jump gear on (I was 270 lbs, so 85 lbs of gear!), and then they gave us a long talk about how we’re moving to Phase 3 of training, jumping.  In the evening we circled up and one of the trainers said “Ok guys, it’s a little tradition here to run to Frenchtown and back, 25 miles and you have 3 hours to complete it.”  I was pretty distraught, because I was already exhausted and hungry and didn’t know if I could do it, but I figured that if I went down, a lot of other people would to.  The trainers took off at a good clip and said that first we’d run through the dorms, and as we ran down one hall I started smelling pizza and thought, “Great, I have to run right by someone eating pizza.”  Turned out the pizza was for us, and two rookies from the previous year were there to answer our questions and show us a video to get us pumped up about our first jump.  It was such a relief I wanted to cry.  After this morning’s PT it’s time to jump.  I’m not that nervous yet, but I’m sure it will come.

Mon. June 10:

The last few days have been pretty memorable.  We jumped twice on Thursday, once on Friday, and twice today.  The first jump was pretty crazy, especially standing in the door right before I got the slap.  My adrenaline was through the roof and I’ve never felt my heart pump that hard before.  They steered us in by radio on the first jump, so I was basically just following instructions all the way down.  The landing felt pretty hard, and Sarah, the base manager at Grangeville, was there to shake my hand.  I was so relieved to be on solid ground.  The second jump actually hurt pretty bad because I was running with the wind and came in hot, and my right leg shot out to break my fall and took a lot of the force (as I type this up 2 months later, it still hurts).  Third jump was a 2-man stick at Hanson Ranch, and all went pretty well though they said we didn’t split the wind line very well.  The second jump that day was cancelled because the wind picked up.  Our first jump today was right at the base in what’s called the field of shame, and everything went well except my feet came apart on landing and my legs dropped when I exited the plane.

Tue. June 11:

PT this morning was rough, mostly bear crawling in full jump gear and practicing PLF’s.  I think we all lost several pounds of water weight.  Our first jump was good, though I set up pretty low and my feet came apart on landing.  Bagan and Waerig almost ran into each other 60 feet off the ground and the trainers were pretty steamed about that.  My second jump was really good, and Jamie and I both got with 15 feet of our panels and the trainers didn’t have much to say in the way of criticism, which was nice.  They told us to be sure and get rest tonight, and that combined with the fact that it’s supposed to be too windy to jump tomorrow has me worried about a big run.

Sat. June 15:

Another week over and one to go.  The last 3 days went pretty well for me save for 1 bad exit and my feet coming apart on basically every landing.  My flights were all good and I feel pretty well physically.  They washed Waerig on Tuesday night, probably because of his exits.  Right now it feels like that would be the end of the world, which is silly, but still I wouldn’t trade places with him for anything.  I’ll be so relieved when this is over and I know my job is secure.

Rookie Training Journal: Part 1

Sunday May 12, 2013. -

I haven’t written in this journal for quite a while, but I want a written record of what I’m about to go through.  In 8 days I start rookie training on my way to becoming a Grangeville Smokejumper.  The notoriously brutal 5-week ordeal will be in Missoula, Montana and the rookies from the region 1 bases (Grangeville, Missoula, and West Yellowstone), will all be there, probably about 15 in all.  On Wednesday Erin and I will load up yet another U-Haul and head for yet another new home.

I just re-read the first few pages of this journal from mid-season 2011, my last year with the Wolf Creek Hotshots, and I was complaining a lot about my knees.  To pick up from there, my left knee has me doubtful that i’ll be able to finish rookie training.  I’ve had a pretty bad pain in it for almost 2 months now, and lately it’s been getting worse.  Normally the pains in my knees don’t slow me up much, but this one definitely is.  From what i’ve been reading it seems like just a bad case of runner’s knee, which improper tracking of the patella rubs on and can damage the cartilage beneath it, but i’ve suspected that I might have a meniscus tear for years.  Either way I’m favoring it a lot and it’s not improving, and in a week I’m going to be put through something harder than any fire roll.  I expect i’ll make it through, but I do have some doubt.

It’s amazing, but my dad says that his knees feel the same as they did when he was 10 years old, no pain at all.  He also never really put them through very much, not even sports in school I think.  Mom’s knees are not as good, and her dad’s have been bad for a long time.  I’m sure most of the people who show up on the 20th with be dealing with something or other, so i’ll quit whining.



Monday May 27, -

Clearly i’ve done a great job journaling.  Last week was easily the hardest physical trial i’ve been through, and i’d say there have been many.  We did some of the hardest workouts i’ve ever done while being more sore than i’ve ever been.  I’m so grateful week 1 is over and am hoping that there’s a bit more of an emphasis on learning from here on out.

Day 1 started with everyone doing the minimums, 7 pull-ups, 45 sit-ups, 35 push-ups, and the mile and a half run.  The sit-ups were harder than I expected because we had to do them so slowly, but the rest was easy.  The 1.5 mile run was not easy, and pushing it hard I got 8:39, which I think was 6th out of the 17.  From there we ran to a separate area and maxed out, and I did 19 pull-ups, 120 sit-ups, and only about 50 push-ups.  I’m not sure why, but other people said they didn’t do many either.  From there we drove out of town and started running up an inclined dirt road, and after a while we were split into 2 groups of 6 and 1 of 5, and each given a 5 pound water bladder to carry.  Each group was given an extra that they had to pass around while we jogged up the road, so every once in a while you were jogging while carrying 90 pounds of water on your shoulders.  Eventually we topped a hill and were told to drop the water and get into the plank position.  After a while I looked over and Nolan, one of the Grangeville rookies, was lying face down on the ground with his hands over his head.  We ran on and never saw him again.  We ran about half a mile up a good incline to where the trucks were parked, and were given three tires, a couple steel poles, and some rope, and told to construct something we could use to haul 3 concrete dummies that probably weighed 200 lbs each.  It was during that exercise that I felt the first cramps in my abs and thighs.  Then we went and started the line dig at about 3 PM, and dug until 2 AM, slept for a couple of hours, and were woken up and dug again until 10 AM.  All told we dug 3 miles of line in 16 hours.  Next was the 85 lb pack test.  85 lbs was heavier than I expected, and there was a lot of elevation change on the 3 mile course, including a super steep section called Cry Baby Hill.  I finished 2nd behind Bagan and the muscles in the top of my butt burned like they were on fire, which was something i’d never felt before.  When the last person finished, we put on tennis shoes and ran to where our camp would be for the week.

That evening was a hard PT, and each morning and evening for Wednesday and Thursday was bad, pushing our exhausted muscles as far as they could go.  They’d wake us at 4:30 AM with a bullhorn and we’d run and do calisthenics for 2 hours in shorts and a T-shirt in the freezing cold.  Much of the time we ran in 2 lines of 8 carrying 20 foot steel poles over our heads.  We got 1 real meal during the week, pulled pork and chicken, but otherwise it was MRE’s, Cliff Bars, and Mountain House dehydrated dinners.  Each morning I felt too sore to get up to piss, but would find myself on a strenuous run, amazed that my legs were functioning.  During the days we learned tree climbing and cross-cut sawing, and practiced getting into our jumpsuits as fast as possible.  On Friday we ran out of the mountains to a camp below, and loaded up in vans after 200 jumping jacks and headed back into town for the 110 lb pack test.  It was brutal, and within 100 yards of starting my right backstrap muscle was hurting because the pack was pulling to the left.  I remembered that my friend Shawn Murphy from Carson washed from the McCall rookie training because he hurt his back during the 110.  I made it through ok with a sore back, pulled muscle in my right quad, and sore arch in my right foot.  They let us off early on Friday, and I left town to spend the weekend with Erin in Jacksons, a 6 hour drive away.  After driving for 20 minutes or so I was overcome with exhaustion, so I pulled over and walked off into the woods and slept on the ground for several hours.  For the next couple of days my body felt rock hard though not in a good way, and I had a pain in my chest like someone had knocked the wind out of me.  Eventually it went away, and Erin pampered me well, of course.  I’m back in my bunk at the base now, feeling mostly healed and ready to take whatever they throw at us this coming week, but I do hope it won’t be so damaging.

Smokejumper Rookie Training Ends!

Two days ago I did my seventeenth and final training jump over a field near the Missoula Smokejumping base, attended graduation, and “got my wings” as they say.  It’s been an incredible 5 weeks, definitely the hardest thing i’ve ever done.  Soon i’ll post the journal that I kept during training, which I wasn’t nearly as good at keeping as I thought I’d be, but it will still give a glimpse into what went on.  We started with 17 people and finished with 14, and two of the rookies that finished were sent on assignment within hours of graduation.  The word is that we should expect to be called out soon to boost, or reinforce other bases, most likely to Alaska.  Today Erin and I are picking up our cat from the folks who were babysitting her for the last month, and are driving over Lolo Pass back to Grangeville, our new home.  I start work at the base tomorrow, and don’t really know what to expect.  I have one photo to post today, taken by Drew Pattison, one of our trainers, of me going out the door of the plane during one of our practice jumps.  Thanks Drew!



This is the most nerve-wracking part of the jump for me, the 30 seconds or so from getting in the door, getting the slap, and jumping into the 90 mile per hour wind and waiting for the canopy to open above you.