The year was 1966, but Gary Buck can still remember the first time he walked into the administration building at the Siskiyou Smokejumpers Base, near Cave Junction. Taking one look at the guys swaggering around the room, barking gibes at each other, he froze.
"I was thinking I was way out of my league," says Buck, an inexperienced teen at the time, needing a job. He was ready to back out the door, thinking he could never belong to this toughest and craziest fraternity of firefighters — guys who parachuted out of planes to confront blazes in some of the most remote and rugged places imaginable.
What: Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum
Where: Illinois Valley Airport, Highway 199, four miles south of Cave Junction
Hours: Open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., from March 15 to Nov. 15. Admission is free.
Note: Because it's staffed by volunteers, there may not always be someone around to let you inside the buildings. But a self-guided tour takes you around the base, from one interpretive placard to another, with shaded picnic tables available.
Fast-forward to 2013, and see Buck welcome visitors to the new museum dedicated to preserving U.S. smokejumper history, especially those chapters written in the Illinois Valley, from 1943 to 1981, when this base was open. It was one of the first four aerial firefighter bases in the country.
Buck stands inside the same building he entered decades ago as a nervous young man, its walls now covered with photographs from the glory days. Many of the men in the pictures he knew personally.
For 17 years, Buck served as a smokejumper, flying to countless wildfires around Southern Oregon, plus to blazes all over the country. Those long-distance flights were not as boisterous as you might think, given the sort of men on board.
"Usually we were all just tired and trying to sleep," Buck says, "because we had just finished a fire."
The pay when Buck started was a puny $2.20 an hour, but it was important work just the same. Smokejumpers were often deployed as first responders, arriving at a fire when it was small and easy to control. Their job was to squelch the blaze before it grew into a huge, expensive inferno.
Buck's greatest battle may be the one he won to get this museum up and running, spearheading a volunteer effort to save the buildings from demolition, and then restoring them to their original appearance.
Since 2009, he has been consumed with gathering items for the museum collection. His queries to Forest Service personnel and private individuals have netted parachutes, jumpsuits, helmets, firefighting tools, flight logs, thousands of photos — even a plane.
The silver Twin Beech aircraft, capable of transporting up to five smokejumpers, sits on the airstrip outside the parachute loft, not quite ready to take to the sky once again.
"It can still fly," Buck says, but its wings would have to be reattached first. They were removed for the trailer ride from Bandon.
Buck hopes that a training tower, now in storage, can be reassembled and displayed at the base, too, so visitors can appreciate how the smokejumpers practiced jumping.
Except for the administration building, the smokejumpers built all the structures at the base themselves, including the barracks, mess hall and parachute loft, where the chutes were inspected, repaired and packed. They were a handy bunch, even when it came to using sewing machines.
"Every smokejumper became a very good sewer," Buck says, adding that each man was in charge of maintaining his own silk parachute. Stitching tears was a part of the between-mission routine that the crews took very seriously. Their lives depended on their parachutes functioning properly.
According to Buck, 250 jumpers are still around from the old days, including some local elders, who stop by the museum occasionally to razz the volunteers.
"They're cantankerous," Buck says, chuckling. "They tell us we weren't tough enough to jump in the '40s, when they were doing it."
Some of the very first Siskiyou Smokejumpers were conscientious objectors, mostly Quakers and Mennonites whose religious beliefs did not allow them to take up arms during World War II. The base was on high alert back then for fires started by Japanese incendiary balloons.
Other Siskiyou crew members featured at the museum include Stuart Roosa, who went on to become an Apollo 14 astronaut. The 500 tree seeds that he took to the moon were planted after his return to Earth, thus establishing the Moon Tree program.
Allen Owen, nicknamed Mouse, proved that anyone with enough moxie could serve ably as a smokejumper. Mouse stood one inch shy of five feet and weighed 112 pounds.
Mick Swift's deftness with a parachute earned him the reputation as the greatest smokejumper of them all. But even he could miss the mark, like the time he landed atop a 150-foot-tall tree.
Undaunted, he got himself down from his lofty perch without any help, and extricated his parachute, too, without ripping it. His legendary feat won him a $100 bet.
Every smokejumper hoped for a nice meadow landing, but Buck describes the parachutes as only "moderately steerable." Besides, meadows weren't always available.
"Sometimes the jump is easy, and the fire difficult," Buck says, "and sometimes the fire is easy, and the jump difficult."
After finishing the fire, the crew would pack out from the site. A hike of 10 or 15 miles was typical, with only a map and compass as guides.
"This was before GPS," Buck notes, wryly.
Fortunately, finding the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum, located at the Illinois Valley Airport, right along Highway 199 about four miles south of Cave Junction, won't require complex navigation. It's open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., until it closes for the season on Nov. 15. It reopens March 15. Admission is free.
Because it's staffed by volunteers, there may not always be someone around to let you inside the buildings. But a self-guided tour takes you around the base, from one interpretive placard to another, with shaded picnic tables available.
To arrange a guided tour, see www.siskiyousmokejumpermuseum.org.
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at email@example.com.