Saving the forest ...

July 29, 2017

So Charlie and I started our next volunteer hitch as fire lookouts today -- we're up at Cyclone Lookout, just west of Glacier Park, and we'll be here for the next week.

Drove up this morning from my sister's house, stopping in Columbia Falls for groceries and then heading up to Polebridge to pick up the lookout key and radio from the previous volunteer. A quick stop at the Polebridge Merc for baked goods, and then we hit the trail. Made it to the lookout about 12:15.

Four hours later, I looked across the valley into Glacier Park, and saw this:

A new forest fire, over on the slopes of Numa Ridge, and I was the first lookout to see it. Got a quick azimuth reading on it, and then called my boss, who's staffing the lookout just to the north of me. He confirmed the sighting, got a second azimuth from his location, and the resulting triangulation allowed us to pinpoint the location very precisely. Since the fire is in the National Park, we contacted the park's Incident Commander as well as Kalispell Dispatch, and within minutes there was a helicopter heading for the smoke. The helicopter was able to put out most of the fire with "bucket drops" of water scooped up from Bowman Lake, which is just to the right of the smoke in the photo. They sent a ground crew in, as well, to handle some of the mop-up; the crew worked till dark, and will be hiking back in at 0600 tomorrow.

So I think I earned my keep today. Glacier Park is saved! :-p

Firefighting diary ...

July 31, 2017

So after all of the effort on Saturday, I figured the firefighting work on my little fire was just about over ... but things picked up a little bit overnight, and when I woke up yesterday morning this was the view of the fire location. It was actually really lovely, with the temperature inversion creating a long smoke trail into the valley above Bowman Lake:

I texted the photo to Leif, my lookout supervisor, but of course the crews were already planning to head back up to the fire location. They reserved helicopter Six Papa Juliet for 10 AM, and ordered a refueling truck for the copter to base at Moran Meadows, so the flights could continue throughout the day. Meanwhile, the crews hiked up to the fire and began cutting down the "hazard trees" -- ones that had already started to burn, and that could potentially fall and injure the firefighters.

The ground crews and helicopter worked on the fire all day, with the ground crews clearing a line all around the fire perimeter, and the helicopter making repeated "bucket drops" of water on the fire's hot spots. The ground crews directed the helicopter to each needed drop location, placing targets on the ground at locations where the water needed to go. The lookouts monitored the weather and wind from above, and I was close enough that I could watch the helicopter work through my binoculars, which was extremely cool. Leif served as the radio relay for the crews, constantly conveying messages back and forth to Kalispell Dispatch.

I stopped seeing visible smoke by lunchtime, and the helicopter wrapped up its work as I was eating dinner. The crews headed down a little before dark, after radioing in that the fire was 95% contained. A smaller crew is heading back in this morning to wrap things up. And for now, that's probably it!

So even though I was mostly just observing, it felt like a busy day. I spent a lot of time on the phone, sending news back and forth to 4 different lookouts ... and at the same time had to play host to a string of hikers who'd come up to visit the lookout. There were 15 of them yesterday, and six the day before -- this in contrast to Baptiste, where I've only had five visitors in 4 weeks of duty! I'm looking forward to getting back there, since I'm apparently not going to get my peace and quiet up here. :)


Anyhow, enough fire talk ... here are a couple other random photographs from the last day. This was the view towards Glacier form the lookout catwalk last night:

I took this one earlier this morning, walking back from the outhouse:

Finally, here's a shot of the tower itself. The tower is 41 feet high, and it's turning 50 years old this summer. I'm sure the thing is solid, but it feels rickety enough at times to to be slightly unsettling.

P.S. I really appreciate the comments I've gotten, and I'll respond to them all ... but it might not be until I get back down. My only internet up here is a very tenuous data connection on my phone, and using it is really, really painful.

Tourist destination ...

August 2, 2017

Charlie is definitely a dedicated Lookout Dog, and when we arrive at a lookout tower he immediately recognizes it as home, and adopts it as his own. In his eyes, of course, that means keeping vigil at the tower to protect it from intruders. Here at Cyclone, some days that's a full-time job. Charlie sits on the catwalk or up on the lookout bed, watching the trail and listening for the sounds of incoming hikers. He lets off a low growl when he thinks he hears something, and that transforms into a deep, ominous barking when the hikers come into view.

Yesterday, my canine burglar alarm was set off a little before lunchtime, in unprecedented intensity ... there was clearly a crowd approaching. When I went out to the catwalk and looked down a couple minutes later, this was my view:

I'd been invaded by 27 8th graders! They were from all over Montana, out here for a short summer camp sponsored by the Glacier Institute, which is based in the canyon a little south of here. (The camp is designed to introduce the kids to potential outdoor/environmental careers, or something.)

Anyhow, much to Charlie's dismay I invited the kids up into the tower cab in groups of three or four, where I showed them how forest fires are spotted, and introduced them to the life of a lookout. (I'm not certain, but I may have convinced one or two of them to consider this ridiculous career path.) They ate lunch down on the ground, and had an assignment to write about the experience in their journals. And then three of them agreed to help out the lookout by going on a water run for me ... so I gave them an empty water cubie and a backpack, and along with one of the camp counselors they set off for the Cyclone spring, which is about 3/4 of a mile down the mountain:

The kids managed to bring back about three gallons of water, and they were pretty proud of themselves. The kid with the pack said it was a piece of cake, because he helps his dad pack out murdered elk during hunting season. (I don't think he used the word "murdered," though. :-)

Charlie was very happy to watch the kids and their counselors head back down their trail, abandoning their brief occupation of his home.

I figured that was it for the day ... the weather was hazy and unsettled, and not the best for hiking. But Charlie's burglar alarm went off again not long after I finished dinner, and soon we saw another dozen hikers heading up the trail. It was an informal hiking group from the Flathead Valley -- they'd apparently connected via Instagram -- and they'd decided they were going to have a dinner party at Cyclone Lookout. They'd brought camp stoves and pasta and cookies and beer, and they invited me to join them. Since I'd already eaten I skipped the pasta, but did help them consume the cookies and beer.

I wasn't necessarily in the mood to host last night, but they turned out to be a fun group, interesting to talk to. They were thoroughly awed with the lookout and the view, and spent much time shooting pictures with expensive DSLRs. The photographers acted like paparazzi around Charlie, and I suspect there will be a dozen adorable new portraits of him on the Internet this morning. Charlie, of course, was not amused by that. :)

Anyhow, it turned out to be a fun evening. The group stuck around to watch the sun set over the Whitefish range, and then headed off into the dusk, headlamps at the ready. Here's the photo I took of them:

So it was a record traffic day for me: 27 kids, three counselors, and 12 yuppies. Today, the valley is cloudy and cool, so I'm thinking it will probably be a lot quieter up here. I know Charlie hopes so!

Wanted poster ...

August 3, 2017

I thought you guys would be interested to know that there's an actual Wanted Poster tacked to the wall inside my lookout! Here it is:

Watch out for those bears during huckleberry season!

Casual Friday ...

August 5, 2017

I've mentioned before that the fire lookout people up here are one of the best groups of men and women I've ever encountered. Far from being the cranky old misanthropes that one might expect, they're nearly all truly warm, engaging, and fun people. I honestly feel privileged to have been a part of their community the last three summers.

We talk on the forest radio, of course, but surprisingly I also spend more time on the phone up here than I do back in town. We swap weather observations, wildlife sightings, reports of interesting visitors, and old stories from our past lives. Other things, too. A couple of the older guys (both pushing 70) are particularly hilarious, discussing things like the finer points of peeing off the tower at night. (Choose the leeward side of the tower, obviously.) And they'll start text exchanges like this one, from yesterday morning:

A few minutes later, one of the other lookouts called me and said, "It's a great morning to be out on the catwalk, only wearing my Crocs!" Proper footwear is definitely important at the job site. :)


Anyhow, to cleanse your visual palette from that last mental image, here's a shot of the sun coming up over the mountains yesterday morning:

We're getting a lot of smoke here from the British Columbia forest fires, brought in by some strong, cold north winds. I'm sorry that it's blurring the view of the mountains ... but days like that have their own beauty, too.

Chilly morning here today, 49 degrees with more of that north wind. I've got a fire going in the woodstove, and I think everyone's going to be wearing pants today. :)

Houseguests, and watching the moon ...

August 6, 2017

So my sister and her dogs hiked up to Cyclone Lookout yesterday afternoon, to visit me for the weekend. Charlie was thrilled to see them all, of course, and it's nice having a little more activity up here for a day, especially the hyper-happy dogs.

Both my sister's dogs were initially a little hesitant about the idea of living atop a 41-foot-tall tower, and one of them still is ... but they've also realized that it's a perfect vantage point for squirrel reconnaissance.

Charlie's just happy being part of a pack for a couple days, even though the dog in the background stole his spot in my bed last night:

Anyhow, they'll be heading down later this morning. And sadly, I'm heading back to the city tomorrow, myself.


Probably like a lot of you, once in a while I have to take a photo that I know won't really turn out, but that will just remind me of something really, really cool. That's what this last photo is.

Cyclone Lake is just a little south of the lookout I'm at, and about a thousand feet down, and almost no one ever sees it unless they take the time to hike up to the tower. It's really a lovely little spot, and I've really enjoyed watching the lake at different times of day.

Anyhow, my sister and I were playing cards last night about 10:30 or so, and I looked down at Cyclone Lake and saw a sliver of moonlight reflecting over a corner of the lake, and it was one of the most beautiful things I'd seen in a very long time. So of course I tried to take a photo, and of course it didn't even come close to capturing how wonderful the view was ... but here it is anyway, to help me remember the moment.

Smokey sunset ...

August 13, 2017

Well, I'm back in Bozeman for a couple weeks ... got home late Monday night (the 7th). I hear there were a bunch of new lightning strikes east of Cyclone Lookout that night, but I wasn't there to see them. :/

And there was yet another lightning storm near Glacier Park yesterday, and it ignited another forest fire -- this one just above Cyclone Lake, and less than two miles from the lookout. As of last night, it was spreading fairly rapidly, and there were three helicopters dropping water on the blaze. I'm a bit worried for my poor old lookout, and also a little jealous that I'm not there to see the spectacle. (The person staffing the lookout now is only two days into her first volunteer lookout hitch ever ... what a way to start.)

But ... I guess it's not my concern while I'm sitting here in town.  I'll be heading back to the Flathead in a couple weeks, though, returning to my beloved old home at Baptiste Lookout.  I can't wait.

In the meantime, here's another photo from last week -- a smokey sunset from Cyclone Lookout. Looking at this, you'll think that I must have cranked up the saturation when I post-processed the photo, but I didn't.

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.


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!

Photogenic mountains ...

August 26, 2017

Well, Charlie and I are well into our second day at Baptiste Lookout this summer, and we've both settled into the slow, easy rhythm of the place. We each spend a lot of time gazing out at our amazing world ... I slowly scan the ridges for smoke, marveling at the grace and the quiet of it all, while Charlie maintains a less-distant focus, watching the trail for approaching hikers, and scanning the lookout meadow for squirrels and marmots.

While there may have been marmots, there have been no other human hikers, and it's all been blissfully peaceful. And the view here is as gorgeous as I've ever seen it, which is saying something. No smoke at all, just bright blue skies and green forests and the shimmering blue lake.

No fires in my area, but there are a couple of worrisome ones around Spotted Bear, the district to the south. Most of that land is wilderness, and visitor protection and firefighter work are managed without roads or vehicles ... mostly animal pack trains and long human hikes. I've been listening in on the two-way radio, hearing them plan their response to the new fire out by Sabido Cabin, east of Schafer Meadows in the Great Bear, and it's fascinating ... going back into another era. I respect the lives of the wilderness rangers a lot, and I'm a little envious of them.


Anyhow, here are a couple of photos for today. Those of you who have been with me for a while have seen innumerable sunsets from this spot, but I never get tire of them. Living on top of a mountain, the sunsets seem to go on forever across the horizon.

When Charlie and I were out walking yesterday evening, I looked out across Silver Basin to Mount Baptiste at just the right moment, and saw my shadow outlined against the trees and the mountainside. I caught the moment with my iPhone, and posted the original over on Instagram ... but I liked a couple of Prisma versions of the photo, too, and I thought I'd share those here.

A loo with a view ...

August 27, 2017

Some of my more ... delicate friends have told me they couldn't stand staying at a place like Baptiste, because there's no indoor plumbing. That's a rather sad statement, I think, and one that deserves a rebuttal.

The Baptiste outhouse is a couple hundred yards from the lookout, down a little trail that meanders through a meadow and ends at the lip of the ridge. Really, it's a surprisingly nice place:

The outhouse is immaculate, but the place has another attribute that makes it a real joy to visit. You leave the door open when you use it, of course, since there are no other humans around for miles ... and instead of sitting there hunched over a magazine or an iPhone, you gaze out past the door and get to look at this view:

Really, no flush toilet could ever compete with that, no matter how shiny the porcelain. :)

One more shot of my outhouse view. The photo above was from yesterday evening, and this one is from the morning:

Nearly all the fire lookouts I've been to have spectacularly-sited outhouses ... I love how the people who designed these places clearly had an eye for beauty.