Fire-tower abstract ...

August 23, 2016

So my friend Scott is on his way to Baptiste Lookout! He hit the trail about 10:15 this morning, and he's wearing a GPS tracker so I can follow his progress ... looks like he's not too far from Silver Basin, and so I'm guessing I'll probably see him in an hour or so. I'd better put some pants on. :-p

Most of the smoke has cleared off up here, so Scott should be able to see most of the view. We have some clouds coming in, though, and I think there's fair chance of rain. Kalispell Dispatch reports the likelihood of an increased LAL (Lightning Activity Level) for tonight and tomorrow. There's a fair-sized fire south of Kalispell and I'm hearing some of the radio traffic related to that, and there were a couple small fires in the Middle Fork country yesterday, including a house that burned down in Essex. Happily, there's nothing going on in my little valley, though.

Anyhow, I imagine you're getting tired of photos of my fire lookout by now, so even though I'm posting a couple more of them today I'm give them a little variety. Along with about half of the entire Internet, I'm experimenting with the new Prisma image-editing app these days, and I kind of like how both of these turned out.



On the ridgetop ...

August 25, 2016

So my intrepid friend Scott made it up to Baptiste on Tuesday afternoon ... I don't think he even broke a sweat on the hike. Both Charlie and I were happy to see him again, and there was an evening of good conversation and mountain-watching. (Scott was actually able to see the mountains this time, which was a nice improvement from his visit last year.)

He took off down the trail on Wednesday morning, and it's been a couple of quiet days since ... cool temperatures, lots of wind, and a lovely, ever-changing mix of sun and clouds. It's been very Zen, and just what I need ... and the sort of time that I think would enrich almost anyone's life, if they cared to open up to it.

Charlie insists that we go down from the tower every couple hours or so, which is also just what I need. I walk out to the picnic table along the ridge, or down to the outhouse, or a little ways along the trail, and he runs ecstatically through the grasses, with an unabashed joy that I've seen in him a million times, but that still makes me happy.

This trip, Charlie's developed a real knack for finding long-discarded animal bones on remote corners of the ridgetop ... giant ones, mostly. (I'd almost swear he found a mastodon femur a few days ago.) He carts them around happily but precisely, before carefully finding new hiding places to deposit them. I'm guessing that he's mostly finding the hidden bone caches of the summer's other lookout dogs, and those dogs will come back next summer and wonder who's been messing with their stashes.

I haven't seen any animals up here this trip, but Charlie's spent a fair amount of time out on the lookout catwalk looking intently off to the northeast, near where the trail makes the final climb up the mountain. It's the look he has when he knows there's something out there worth looking at. This evening Charlie and I walked down that trail a ways, him in the lead as always ... and about a quarter-mile from the lookout he suddenly stopped, looking intently downhill, until I caught up with him. I told him it was his choice -- we could either keep going down the trail or we could head back to the lookout. He turned around and headed back for the lookout.

Hmm.

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Anyhow, here are a couple more Prisma-altered photos ... I promise to go back to normal ones next time. The first one is an evening-esque shot of the lookout.


And here's a late-afternoon view looking down through the trees towards the lake. I've gotten so that I really love shooting directly into the sun.


Specialized gear ...

August 26, 2016

So when I knew I was coming back to Baptiste this year I requested that the Forest Service add a piece of specialized gear to the lookout's inventory, and they agreed. I tried it out for the first time today, and here it is:


It's a primitive, old-school external-frame backpack, over three feet high. Its distinguishing feature is a flat, horizontal platform on the bottom, about a foot square, designed to hold the 5-gallon refillable water "cubies" the Forest Service uses in the backcountry. Since there no water here at the lookout, I need to regularly carry an empty cubie down to a little valley about a mile below me, refill it from a small stream there, and then carry it back up. Cubies don't fit well in my own backpack, so having this one makes the job easier.

(Though not totally easy, since 5 gallons of water weighs about 42 pounds ... and when you add the weight of the container, the water scoop and funnel, and the backpack you're up to at least 50.)

Anyhow, the new pack worked well, and it was a good hike down to the stream. No bears, though I saw logs that looked like a bear might have recently clawed them in a search for insects. Unlike last year, though, the bears had ignored the two water bottles we leave at the stream crossing. They're also ignored by hikers nearly as often as not, but once in a while we get lucky:


I filled up the cubie down there, washed up a little bit in the ice-cold water, and watched some local "wildlife." There were a bunch of these little moths flying and landing near me, and they were absolutely gorgeous ... the picture doesn't do them justice. (They were a deeper, lovely blue.) Anyone know what they are?


And that was my evening. Surprisingly satisfying, really.

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Oh, and since this is supposedly National Dog Day, it's only appropriate that I post a photo of Charlie tonight, too. Here he is playing Lookout Dog, carefully scanning the valley below for signs of fire. Never mind that he's doing it from a recumbent position on a comfy pillow, and that his eyes might be closed.


Charlie's nose ...

August 28, 2016

So I had another visitor at the lookout today ... my old friend Kathy, who hiked up just for the afternoon. It had probably been 15 years since I'd seen her, and it was a good reunion. Kathy had a pretty cool life up here back when I knew her, living in the Flathead Valley, doing historic research, and hiking all summer.  She then moved to the Bay Area for a number of years, but is now thrilled to be able to be back home in Montana again. We're gonna have to do some hikes together.

Anyhow, Kathy headed down the trail about mid-afternoon, and I did some lookout stuff, fixed dinner, and talked to my friend Kjell over at Firefighter Lookout. Charlie was out on the catwalk, and about an hour ago he and I both heard a muffled, unidentifiable animal sound coming from Silver Basin ... the place that I hike to when I need water. So I took the lookout's binoculars and went outside, and before long spotted some movement in the avalanche chute there. I was both thrilled and slightly dismayed to see that was a mama bear and two cubs.

They were a little ways away, but I was able to get a blurry photo of one of the cubs before they headed off into the undergrowth. He was very cool-looking, with cinnamon/silver markings around his face and shoulders, and a dark-colored butt. I wasn't 100% certain of the ID, but I sent the photo over to Kjell, and he's pretty positive it's a grizzly. (His phone call to me: "Dude, you've got grizzlies!")


So now I know what Charlie's nose has been warning him about, and what he's been so fixated on. This discovery is going to make my next trip for water considerably more exciting!

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And for a less adrenaline-pumping image, here's a shot of tonight's sunset. I've got some smoke again tonight, and that always makes for great sunsets.


The light show ...

August 29, 2016

So I had yet another visitor today! This time it was Leif, the guy who manages the Lookout program for the Flathead National Forest. He showed up here a little after 8:30 AM, completing the entire hike in less than two hours ... half the time of most mortals. And he brought me a huckleberry bearclaw pastry from the Polebridge Mercantile, to boot.

Anyhow, Leif was here to do some maintenance work on the lookout roof, and he was finished in time for the morning radio check-in. I made a pot of coffee and we hung out for a while afterwards, and it was a good visit. He's a very cool guy. By lunchtime, he was off down the mountain, headed for the next lookout.

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It was a quiet afternoon. I've got less than three days remaining on my hitch up here, so I'm at the point where I need to be sure to eat all the food I don't want to carry down, so I baked muffins this afternoon and tonight made a huge egg scramble with chopped onions and peppers, and a can of tuna for good measure. It tasted way better than it sounds.

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Not long afterwards, I started hearing radio traffic about a fast-moving storm that was headed into the area, putting some firefighting efforts and aircraft flights on hold. I went over to the west side of the lookout and sat on the catwalk, legs dangling down, to listen to the thunder and watch the storm come in over the Swan Range. It was thoroughly beautiful even at the beginning ... but then as the clouds grew and split and the sun broke through the moment turned into one of the most spectacular light shows I'd ever seen. Massive, dark, blue-black clouds, a red-orange glow in the background, and bright streams of warm evening light flowing over the mountainsides. It was really overwhelming.

It only lasted a few minutes, and then it was over. We got lightning and a burst of rain, and then the clouds moved on over Baptiste and that was that. Now the radio traffic is all about lightning strikes and smoke reports, and we'll all have to keep our eyes open for a while. But at the moment, I feel like I need a drink. :)

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Anyhow, here are a couple of photos from tonight's light show. There are some days when you just don't need Photoshop or iPhone snapshot apps, because Mother Nature takes care of everything for you.




Downstrikes ...

September 1, 2016

So the lookout phone rang this morning at 1:55 AM, jarring me from a very sound sleep. The call was from Kjell over at Firefighter Lookout, about 18 miles north of me as the crow flies. Kjell's been doing this for a few years, and he's a retired Forest Service dispatcher, so he knows his stuff ... and he was all excited.

We had a small storm cell come up across the valley about 1:30 AM, enough to wake him up but not me. He'd gone outside with his camera and watched a pretty cool lightning strike on a ridge off to the south, between our two lookouts.  Here's the photo he sent me:


The strike "torched," starting a small fire on the ground, and he was able to watch it burn for a few minutes ... and then a second strike hit nearby, and he caught this photo:


If you look closely, you can see a small dot of light just to the left of the big lightning strike ... that's the fire burning from the first strike.

And then the new little fire disappeared. I hustled out onto the catwalk with my binoculars, but neither of us could see anything. I know that we were both secretly (or maybe not so secretly) kind of hoping that the little fire would stay visible, so we could call it in.

We're both still watching the area this morning, in case there's a flare-up ... sometimes a lightning strike like that will smolder for days or weeks before turning into a significant fire.  The forest will send a helicopter over the area later today, to check for smoke from other angles.  So nothing major, probably, but it made for an interesting night.

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And unfortunately, this is my last morning at Baptiste for the season.  I'm frantically packing and cleaning, and I'll probably start the hike down sometime after the morning radio check-in.  The couple who are staffing the next hitch -- the final one of the summer -- will be here later this afternoon.  I'm going to miss this place, a lot.

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Addendum:  Helicopter Eight Charley Mike located our smoke report about 10:15 this morning -- it's still burning.  They're landing on the ridgetop right now with a couple of firefighters to put the fire out before it grows.  Another successful day in the Forest Service!

Addendum #2:  I listened to the Forest Service radio as I was hiking out, to get some updates on the fire.  About 11:30 or so, the fire's IC (Incident Commander) called in a Type 3 helicopter to do bucket drops of water on the fire, and that mostly took care of things.  The fire was officially declared out at about 3:30, and another helicopter was called in to retrieve the fire crew.

Back to earth ...

September 4, 2016

Well, Charlie and I are back in Bozeman. I'm not particularly happy about that, though I think Charlie is relatively pleased ... he was getting a little stir crazy up there on the mountain.

Made the hike down on Thursday in good time ... less than 2-1/4 hours, not counting the 15 minutes of conversation on the trail when I stopped to meet the replacement lookouts hiking in. Car started right up this year, and an hour later I was enjoying the first flush toilet I'd used in two weeks. Turned in the Forest Service radio, grabbed my favorite fast food meal at the local A&W, and was in Bozeman by 9:30 or so. And that's the end of that for another year.

Even though I was depressed about leaving, it turned out that the end of my lookout hitch was actually pretty well-timed, since a cold front started heading into Montana not long after I got home. There's a possibility of mountain snow in the vicinity of the lookout tonight and tomorrow, and so the Forest Service has shut down Baptiste and a couple other lookouts for the weekend, and my successors have been sent home. It's the smart thing to do, I suppose, though in a way I think it would be a blast to ride out a snowstorm in one of those things!

Anyhow, my first couple days back in Bozeman have been pretty uneventful. It takes a while to catch up on errands, and sort through two weeks of junk mail, and answer a zillion or so e-mails ... and just to get acclimated again. But I suppose I'm just about there. We're not going to get snow here, but it still feels like autumn outside, and I had to take Charlie for a walk in the rain today.

And just a couple more fire lookout things. One is an article on Montana fire lookouts published by the British newspaper The Guardian ... a couple of you have seen this, but I thought I'd post the link here anyway. It's fairly well done, and includes interviews with a couple of folks I know.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/30/us-national-parks-fire-lookout-forest-wildfire

From now on, just call me the Freak on the Peak. :)

And a couple more Prisma-manipulated photos from Baptiste. Here's what one of the "light show" photos from a few days ago looked like after I ran it through Prisma:


And yet another shot of the lookout itself:


An early autumn ...

September 9, 2016

Not a very exciting week back here in town ... mostly just work. Still cool outside, and it feels later in the season that it really is. The cool weather has put the brakes on the fire season, too, and most of my fire lookout friends are coming down for the year. Only three of the twelve lookouts in the Kalispell Dispatch area are occupied tonight.

That makes me surprisingly sad, for some reason.

Anyhow, here's a Prisma-manipulated shot of my fire-lookout bed, during one of the few times it was dog-free, and a couple shots of the view from the tower. The last two shots are from the same original, but I thought the difference in mood from the post-processing was interesting.




An open day set out before you ...

September 22, 2016

I've mentioned a friend of mine named Amy Pearson, who worked at the super-remote Jumbo Lookout a summer ago. She's a poet with a lovely vision, a view of the world that I appreciate, and her fire-lookout writings resonate with me.  Here's a poem from her Jumbo Lookout summer ... except for the cigarettes, it could pretty much apply to my mountaintop days, too.

your life is
boiled coffee in the morning
a swift glance towards the unending horizon
a lookout for that griz and cubs
grouse chirping on the rock ledge
sunlight streaming through the windows
weather reports to give, to receive
radio clatter
an eye on the smokes calmed down since last night
a rationing of cigarettes
a dream of family and friends
a dream of foreign lands once seen
a rationing of water
tired legs and creaky knees
radio clatter
a trip down to the pit toilet, bearspray in hand
an open day set out before you,
only you

And in that vein, here's another photo from last month at Baptiste Lookout. Just a handheld shot with an iPhone, but I liked how it turned out.


Ever vigilant ...

August 25, 2017

Well, Charlie and I made it back to our home-away-from-home last night ... starting our third season at Baptiste Lookout. This is how the place looked in the morning light:


Yesterday was kind of a brutal day, as the trips up here often are. Still a lot to do at home, so I didn't get on my way until 10. An amazing amount of forest-fire smoke in the upper Clark Fork Valley. Fast-food lunch in Deer Lodge, then on to Drummond, Helmville, and up the Swan. I was happy to see that most of the smoke was gone from northwestern Montana, thanks to the morning's storm front.

Got to the ranger district office a little before 3, picked up the two-way radio and a couple of things the forest asked me to pack into the lookout for them -- some towels and (of all things) a new broom. So yes, I hiked all the way up to the lookout holding a full-size broom in one hand! I told them I'd use it to fight off the bears. :)

(I can't complain about that little favor at all, of course, especially considering the fact that the forest packed 60 pounds of food up here for me this year. And other lookouts pack stuff up here all the time -- Leif, for example, hauled a 16-foot aluminum extension ladder up here on his back a few years ago.)

Filled the car with gas, stopped at the store in Hungry Horse for perishable and liquid groceries I'd carry up -- a couple quarts of half-and-half, 2 dozen eggs, butter, cheese, oil, and so on. Made the long, dirt-road drive down to the trailhead, repacked everything, and hit the trail about 5. I'm guessing my pack was in the 50-pound range.

The hike up was uneventful -- just a bit of rain, a little thunder, and a couple piles of bear shit on the trail. Carrying the pack up there totally wore me out, though, as it usually does. (The hike is a bit less than 6 miles, with 2,700 feet of elevation gain, and a lot of the trail is brushy and overgrown.) The hike was tough on Charlie, too, which concerns me; he was slow and cautious and worried, and gave me looks like he thought we should turn around. I hope he's not getting too old for this.

Anyhow, we got to the lookout around 9, just a little before dark, and it felt good to settle in. It's really good to be here, above the world and away from the follies of man. And this morning, at least, I'm pretty sure Charlie agrees.

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This morning I radioed Kalispell to tell them that Baptiste was back in service, so I'm back to being an official lookout volunteer. ("Ever vigilant," as one of the other lookouts kiddingly texted me.) Here's a shot of my work desk, all ready to go. I bet my office view is prettier than yours!