Yesterday, Sarah and I finally hiked the Pulaski trail. It's something we've wanted to do for a while, but never got around to.
Timothy Egan's book The Big Burn recounts well the story of the 1910 fires. They wreaked havoc here in the Northwest and elsewhere. Entire towns were burned off the map. A lot of public policy and other political maneuverings grew out of these fires. The major story which transfixed the nation came out of Wallace, Idaho. If you read my posts, you know I am a big fan of this little town.
A man named Ed Pulaski, in a nutshell, knew that fire crews were about to be overrun by the fire and formulated a plan. He remembered an old mining tunnel and led 45 firefighters into its mouth. Pulaski soaked blankets in the mine's puddles and held them up at the entrance to create a barrier against the howling flames and crushing smoke. He eventually burnt his hands and became blinded from his efforts. At the beginning of the ordeal, guys began to panic and one made a break out of the mine and into the hellfire. Pulaski's response? He pulled out his revolver and promised to shoot anyone who tried to leave. How cool is that? When morning arrived, only six of the 45 men had died.
Climbing out of the tunnel and thirsty for water from Placer Creek, at the mouth of the mine, they found that its once clear current was now a befouled mess of debris and animal carcasses. The little water that flowed was an ashen, muddy elixir, unfit for drinking. Hard to imagine that today.
When they stumbled back into what was left of Wallace, they were offered whiskey and coffee. All they wanted was water. Pulaski checked on his home to make sure that it was still standing and that his family was safe. It was. They were. He then spent a long time in the hospital recovering from his wounds. Eventually his vision returned. His burns healed. The rest of his life he had difficulty breathing and his eyes never were the same.
When you hike to the cave, you are coming from the opposite direction that Pulaski took to seek its refuge. It's hard to imagine the terror of that day, while the beautiful creek rolls by, the wildflowers bloom and thimbleberries are begging to be eaten.
There are many sites and signage along the trail. The signs are hemmed in artistically by mounts of the fire tools which bear the inventor's moniker - pulaskis. This tool remains one of the most popular in wildland firefighting. Today, firefighters still use them to scrape an area out in the ground to create an area to deploy their fire shelters - their own personal tunnels - to survive being overrun by wildfire. Some die with their pulaskis still in their hands.
After that dramatic description, I realized I forgot to take a picture, so I borrowed this one from visit idaho.org. Thanks! You can see the pulaskis on the outer posts.
The hike is beautiful, historic and moderately easy with an elevation gain of 800 feet over two miles - terminating at an overlook of Pulaski's tunnel. After you hike back, there's coffee and whiskey waiting for you in Wallace.