Fisheye ...

August 31, 2015

I haven't taken too many photos of the lookout's interior, for some reason ... maybe because the place is in a natural setting that's so ridiculously photogenic that it attracts all the attention.  But the lookout cab itself has its own exotic charm, at least from my admittedly-biased perspective.  It's definitely not your typical studio apartment.

With that, here's a fisheye-lens shot of my living quarters.   I apologize for not cleaning up the place before shooting the photo. :)

This is taken from the doorway, looking southwest. The big thing in the center of the room is the firefinder. The wood stove is on the left side of the wall; then some shelving holding the water filtration unit; propane stove and refrigerator; my "kitchen" counter; and the bed, with recumbent dog. The work desk and radio are on the right edge of the view. The Post-it notes above the windows are reminders of the names of the mountains -- important knowledge for the job.

Everything you need, in 225 square feet!

And looking in about the same direction, here's a fisheye view from my catwalk on a recent rainy morning. There's something pretty cool about being in-between the clouds like that.

Canine photobomber ...

September 1, 2015

It was a gorgeous morning here at Baptiste, so I took a short walk with my iPhone to take some photos.

Unfortunately, though, I was accompanied by a crazed photo bomber! He got in the way of everything:

He's in this one, too, checking out the wildlife action down in Silver Basin: 

Charlie looks like he belongs up here, doesn't he? I think I do, too.


Unfortunately, though, my hitch at Baptiste is finally nearing its end – only a couple more days up here. As much as I'd like to stay, there are some signs that it might be time for me to head down the mountain ... the food is running low, and I used the last of the half-and-half in this morning's coffee. Will the mountains look as good with Coffee-Mate tomorrow?

The last night ...

September 2, 2015

I had some mild excitement here on Baptiste today ... a small forest fire that started about noon over on Pioneer Ridge, just a few miles to the west-northwest. Unfortunately it was on the other side of the ridge and out of my view, so I wasn't the first to call it in, but I started to see the smoke a few minutes later.

The Forest sent in two helicopters to do "bucket drops" of water, and also set up a temporary helispot to land a fire-fighting crew. The fire only covered about 2 acres, and they had it contained by dinnertime, but the crew is spending the night up there just in case.

And this is my last evening here at Baptiste. I've got a fire in the stove, and the last of the Bailey's in my hand, and I'm listening to the beginnings of a light rain on the roof. I watched a handsome sunset here tonight, Mother Nature's way of saying goodbye.

And, home ...

September 5, 2015

I'm back in Bozeman now, and my Baptiste hitch is officially over for the year.  My last day was a long one and a wet one, with a bit of misadventure at the end.

Because of the way the fire season had transpired, I'd told the Forest Service that I'd stay at Baptiste until lunchtime, to minimize the time the tower was vacant before the next lookouts showed up.  It proved to be a mostly unnecessary gesture, though, because it rained lightly nearly the entire day ... the last weather report I prepared for Dispatch recorded a temperature of 37 degrees, with 88% relative humidity and .28" of precip.  I put a couple of big plastic tubs under the tower eaves to catch rainwater for the next lookout, and spent the morning cleaning the cab and restocking firewood.

When Charlie and I finally did head out, we made good time down the soggy trail.  I was a little wistful about leaving, but Charlie seemed eager to get back to our low-elevation life.  He was a little surprised to meet another dog on the trail near the lower end of Silver Basin; it was accompanied, of course, by the two humans who were struggling up the trail to take the next lookout shift.  They were the first people I'd seen in over 10 days.  We talked for a few minutes, and all headed on to our respective adventures.

The rain finally let up just before I made it to the road, and the instant I saw my little Subaru waiting for me I pushed the key fob button to unlock the doors.  But ... nothing happened.  It took me a minute to accept the realization that my car's battery was completely dead, and that I was stranded on a remote logging road that wasn't likely to see another car until the next lookout shift change in 10 days.  Crap.

Luckily, I had a Forest Service transit radio with me, and I was able to reach my friend Kjell, who'd taken over the post at Firefighter Lookout a couple of days before.  he relayed my distress call to the ranger district, and eventually it was decided that the guy in charge of the lookout program would come down to jumpstart me.  I waited in my silent, humid car with a wet dog until the noble Leif got to me about an hour and a half later, and I was saved.

It felt a little weird to finally made it to a paved road and the little town of Hungry Horse, were I found other people to talk to, a convenience store to visit, and indoor plumbing to enjoy.  I wasn't sure if I approved, or not ... but that's the way it was, and I still had five hours of driving ahead of me to get home.

Goodnight, Baptiste.

Summer's gone ...

September 6, 2015

Today I heard from the couple who are staffing Baptiste Lookout for the remainder of the summer ... and they sent me the following photo.  Looks like Charlie and I might have gotten out of there in the nick of time!

They're taking it all in good humor, and I guess they got snowed on up there last year, too. Good thing I left them lots of split firewood!

Escaping the noise ...

September 14, 2015

One of the other fire lookouts I met this summer is a guy named Buck, who's staffed Swiftcurrent Lookout for maybe six years now. He's an old railroader on a disability pension, and as much as any of the lookouts it seems like the mountaintop is the place where he belongs.

He said once that one of the things he appreciates most about Swiftcurrent is "not having to listen to the world down there," and I can totally get that, especially after spending two weeks at Baptiste. At least partly, Buck was talking about the noise of 21st-century life ... but for me, it was considerably more than that.

Especially today, our world is filled to overflowing with people and organizations and institutions that enjoy telling you how to act, what to think, what to believe. You can't escape the preaching, and so most of the time your thoughts about what really matters are created by others. It's easy for that to happen, and maybe it takes some of the pressure off ... but to me it's kind of sad. You shortchange yourself by letting others identify and explain your place in the world, and you shortchange the world, too.

Escaping the noise that our fellow humans create, if just for a little while, is a remarkable opportunity ... to put those outside messages in their place, to listen to yourself for a change, to find your own voice. And it's a way to be reminded what you really are -- an integral but ephemeral component of an astounding natural world, far more poignant and amazing than anything that humankind has ever created, anything that the preachers have ever said.

Anyhow, those were my thoughts at Baptiste, and have been my thoughts after coming home. Here's another Baptiste sunset for you.

Aftermath ...

September 27, 2015

So I went on a rewarding but ridiculously long roadtrip yesterday -- left the house at 5:30 AM, and didn't get back until a little after 3 AM this morning. Here's a report on the first part of the trip.

Drove up towards the Flathead Valley, via the Swan country and Cooney lookout. When I got to Hungry Horse I headed down the West side road and its endless gravel, taking my first photos when I got to this view:

The view made me happy, and a bit wistful ... and a telephoto shot of that ridgetop will explain why:

That's Baptiste Lookout, my old home, all shuttered up for the winter.

I headed on towards the Spotted Bear area, the scene of some of the forest fires that were burning while I was up at Baptiste ... after listening to all that radio traffic, and watching the smoke and the helicopters and everything else, I wanted at least a quick look at one of the fires that so dramatically impacted my time up there. The Forest Service had recently reopened the Meadow Creek road, and I drove up it until I got to the edge of the area burned by the Bear Creek Fire, which had made its big run the first evening at Baptiste, and continued to burn throughout my stay there.

For safety reasons, the forest had already cut down thousands of dead trees alongside the road, and they'd even had to re-grade the road itself.

It went on for miles and miles.

After driving around for a while, I pulled the car off the road so both Charlie and I could get out and pee. Normally Charlie really loves little breaks like that, but yesterday he had to be coaxed out of the car and he just looked warily around for a moment before asking to get back in. He was really able to feel the death of the place.

Baptiste's dog ...

October 12, 2015

As I've mentioned a million or so times, Baptiste Lookout is a pretty remote place ... it's about 40 miles by road and trail from the nearest year-round human habitation. It was even more remote, of course, during the early years of white settlement in Montana, and in my historic research I've only read about one person who ever lived in the area year-round. His name, of course, was Baptiste!

The only written information I've uncovered about Baptiste was in a reminiscence that was composed around 50 years ago:
Baptiste was one of the earliest of the independent trappers and prospectors in the South Fork. Some say his name was Felix Baptiste. I have heard his name was really Baptiste Zeroyal. Like many of the area's early settlers, he trapped during the winter to finance summer prospecting. He never found anything in the South Fork of any significance, but he spent the greater part of his adult life in this area and remained in the South Fork until he died in 1909.

Mickey Wagoner told me of his part in finding Baptiste's body. In the spring of 1909, Wagoner was living on a homestead he had filed on the previous year on the present east side South Fork road above Martin City. One day Baptiste's dog, bedraggled and hungry, came to Wagoner's place. Mickey knew something must be wrong with his master. Mickey notified the sheriff. When Sheriff O'Connell arrived, Mickey accompanied him up the South Fork to Baptiste's cabin on Hoke Greek. Wagoner and O'Connell found Baptiste in his bed; he had been dead for some time. They buried him near his cabin.

It's quite a story, and I think the dog is the most remarkable part of it ... the animal who found his master dead and then trekked 40 miles through the wilderness to find another human. I wonder what happened to him.


On the topographic map showing the area around Baptiste Lookout, there's a spot labeled "Baptiste Grave," and on the way to the lookout back in August I made a side trip to try and find it. I followed an unmarked, overgrown path up from a disused logging road, and eventually found a ground depression with some metal debris that might have once been part of an old stove. A few yards away, there was a small, collapsing structure of saddle-notched logs, about three courses high. It was about three or four feet wide and maybe seven feet long, and it was slowly melting into the earth. I imagine those logs marked the site of Baptiste's grave.

Return to Baptiste ...

August 20, 2016

Time to head into the backcountry again! Charlie and I got up early last Thursday morning and made the long drive into the Flathead Valley to start our last fire lookout hitch of the season. Checked in at the Forest Service office about lunchtime, picked up the government radio, and hit the dirt road down towards Spotted Bear and my lookout trailhead. Though it had been a year, Charlie knew where we were immediately, and he was ready to go. 

Here's a shot of my new backpack, loaded to the gills and ready for the trail. It rode well on my shoulders, but it still weighed a ton.

It was perfect weather for a tough hike: cool and cloudy, but with good views of the lake below and the mountains beyond. By the time I got to Silver Basin, though, things were starting to feel ominous. The weather turned cold, and a dark storm front appeared over Mount Baptiste. I added some clothing layers and kept going, remembering the weather forecast warning of near-record winds in the valley below. 

I finally got to the lookout about 6:30, at almost the exact instant the storm hit ... and it was wild. The gale made it nearly impossible to climb the tower and unlock the hatch, especially carrying 50 pounds or so of backpack. I was sure I was going to be blown over the side.

I built a fire in the woodstove and huddled next to it for the next four hours while the storm passed over. I'm sure the winds topped 50 mph or more, and rain blew through the cracks in the tightly-closed door. The hatch opening crashed open and closed constantly after the wind sheared off the metal pin that had kept it locked. The whole tower shook like crazy, and it was both extremely cool and a little frightening. 

And then, almost all at once, it was over. The wind stopped, and during the night the skies cleared. It was cold the next morning, but absolutely gorgeous, and I was above the clouds.

And it's been like that the last two days. It's immensely beautiful up here, and utterly quiet, and I feel like I'm at home. I'm very happy to be here.

Forest fires and dinosaurs ...

August 22, 2016
  • A quiet couple of days up here at the fire lookout.  Beautiful weather all weekend, and I was half-wondering if any hikers would come by ... so I made sure the lookout was clean, and I made sure I was wearing pants!  Nobody tackled the trail, though.

  • Did some more baking the last couple of days, which somehow always seems more satisfying up here, for some reason.  And the last lookouts left me a package of pork sausage, which was an excuse to make a big eggs-and-sausage breakfast yesterday.

  • The conditions here started to change yesterday afternoon, though. A big forest fire near Thompson Falls really took off yesterday, and despite my distance from it the valley here filled up with smoke pretty quickly. Visibility dropped to a couple of miles, and a hard, cold wind started up and continued for most of the night. And that's how things stand this morning ... nothing but smoke out the windows, and a burnt smell in the air.

  • It's all part of the experience and I wouldn't mind, but for the fact that my friend Scott arrived in the area yesterday afternoon as well, with plans to hike up to the lookout for a visit today. He's decided to delay the hike for a day in hopes of better weather, and I really hope it works out ... especially since the poor guy had to do the hike a year ago in a similar sea of smoke. It really sucks, because Scott has put a huge amount of effort into getting up here, and he deserves to be rewarded with a pleasant hike and a stellar view. (And of course if he doesn't get to see the view this year, it means he'll have to come back next year and try again!)

  • Finally, here's a picture I took here a couple of days ago for Reddit, which has proved to be a big hit:

  • I know most of you are just rolling your eyes and going WTF? at this ... but that's because you haven't played the Firewatch video game. If you had played the game, you'd be going "awww" right now.