Another reprint from the archives. The wildfire apocalypse that swept through California over the past week put me in mind of this tragic account, a true story, about forest firefighters who get overtaken by a drought-fed conflagration that chews across the landscape at a rate too fast to contain, or even escape.
I remember the first time I heard Cold Missouri Waters. It was back in the summer of 1993, in that last glorious vacation that came between being an articling student and getting called to the bar as a first year lawyer, when I, my brother, and our wives travelled together to Cape Breton. One of those happy memories, you know? All of Nova Scotia was then enjoying glorious weather, and there aren’t a lot of places on this Earth more beautiful than where we were, taking a Sunday drive down Cape Breton’s Margaree Valley (cue the homesick blubbering). I was in the back seat, CBC radio was on, and through the road noise I could just make out a song. Something about it grabbed my attention, and as the verses ticked over I got more and more fascinated with it. It was part country, part folk (in that, like traditional folk music, it told an important story), and powerfully sad, steeped in emotional devastation. There amidst all that light and beauty, I was transported for a moment to a dark, despairing place.
I heard the story of a fire fighter, whose team was trying to wrangle a blaze in the woods of northern Montana, under conditions that grew increasingly desperate. It all goes horribly wrong – the wind shifts, the fire starts moving fast, there just isn’t time or space in which to out-run it, and they’re doomed. Except – except the narrator deploys some trick, some technique, to save himself (what? I couldn’t make it out), and begs his men to do the same, but they panic, run, and die, all but two of them. Our heartbroken narrator arises to find himself and his two remaining men all by themselves in the middle of a smouldering Hellscape, and spends the night and all the next day carrying the bodies of the others to the river, where they now lie buried. End of story.
I was beside myself when it finished, and they transitioned straight to the news without saying what the song was! AAAGH! I did my best to commit the melody to memory – God knew I was never, ever going to forget the story – and often, over the years, would play it in my head, hoping some day to trip over it again. This was 1993, long before the internet worked its way into daily life, and it seemed that unless I was lucky enough to hear it at random while listening to the radio, or maybe as the backing track to something on TV, I’d never know what it was, or ever again listen to it.
About 20 years passed. Then one Saturday I was sitting at this very computer, and it occurred to me that I find stuff like this for a living, right? We now have an internet! And Google! You craft the search terms, hone the results, and get to the nuggets, I do it every day for law questions, why not this? Forehead slap! It took about three minutes for me to find the song.
Thus I finally reconnected with Cold Missouri Waters, and in looking further into it learned that it’s about a real event, and real tragedy, Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. It was one of those infernos that rips through dessicated growth in the wake of a long stretch of hot, dry weather, and sent to fight it was what today we’d call an “elite squad” of professionals, rapid response teams who were transported by air and parachuted out of C-47s right on top of forest fires. They were known as “smoke jumpers”.
It started well, but the fire “crowned” – leapt ahead by moving quickly through the tops of tress – and it was soon dangerously out of control, putting them in grave danger. Their foreman, a man named R. Wagner Dodge, really did have a freak moment of inspiration as the fire rushed toward them all – he set his own small blaze in the tall grass around himself, an “escape fire”, which started to chew outward, using up the combustible material and forming a sort of fire break. It saved him. For whatever reason, he couldn’t convince his team to join him in the safety zone, and they did indeed perish; then, just a few years later, poor Dodge himself died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The lyrics are written from his perspective on his death bed.
Few songs boast this sort of gripping, immersive narrative:
Sky had turned red,
smoke was boiling
Two hundred yards to safety
Death was fifty yards behind
I don’t know why,
I just thought it
I struck a match to waist-high grass
running out of time
Tried to tell them
step into this fire I’ve set
We can’t make it
this is the only chance we’ll get
But they cursed me
Ran for the rocks above instead
I lay face down and prayed
above the Cold Missouri waters
Cold Missouri Waters was written by Albertan folk singer James Keelaghan, himself inspired by Norman Maclean’s book about what happened in Mann Gulch, Young Men and Fire, published in 1992. It turns out it’s been covered several times, and I don’t know for sure whose take it was that caught my ear that day in the Margaree Valley, but I think it must have been Keelaghan’s original, which would have been freshly recorded at the time. The attached, recorded many years after the version I heard in the back seat, is my favourite.