An ill wind ...

August 29, 2017

Yesterday was another picture-perfect day at Baptiste Lookout, completely gorgeous and completely quiet. The only distraction was about noon, when Charlie let me know that there were people down in Silver Basin, a mile or two from the tower. I heard it, too, a voice calling out as he hiked to alert the nearby bears. I put on a fresh shirt and gave the tower a quick, panicked cleaning, hiding my dirty dishes in the oven (which is what you do). But nobody ever hiked the final mile up to the tower, and I heard today that my almost-visitors might have been rangers scouting for a future controlled burn along the trail.

Last night was warm, and I could feel the weather beginning to change, and when I woke up at 3 AM and went outside to pee there was a strong wind from the south, where most of Montana's major fires are. There was a campfire smell in the air and the stars were gone, and I knew the forest-fire smoke was back. The smoke grew worse all morning, and by early afternoon the visibility had dropped to less than a mile, and my sinuses had started to hurt.

I couldn't have seen a new fire out there even if there was one, but the day went on. I baked myself a half-dozen cranberry muffins for lunch, preheating the oven before remembering that my dirty dishes were in there. Talked to some of the other lookouts, did the afternoon radio check, and then made an evening hike down to Silver Basin to fill a five-gallon container of water from the little stream. Before packing the water back up the mountain, I undressed in the stream and poured a few more gallons of icy stream water over my head ... the fire lookout's equivalent of a shower. It felt amazingly good.

And then tonight, as I was eating pasta and talking to my friend over at Numa Ridge Lookout, the wind picked up again ... but this time from the east, stronger and colder. Before long, the smoke started to dissolve and I could see pieces of the sky again. By the time the sun started to go down, this was my view:

It's so cool watching the weather up here.

And tomorrow there will be more of it -- this afternoon, Dispatch radioed a "Red Flag" warning out to us, a signal for extreme fire danger to come. A cold front tomorrow, with clouds and wind and dry lightening, but no rain ... it's the combination the fire crews worry about the most.

Fire ...

September 4, 2017

When I spent my first summer working in Glacier Park back in college, I discovered and grew to know any number of wonderful places, that together cemented Glacier's status as the most remarkable area on earth for me. Perhaps the very coolest of them all was a remote little backcountry hotel called Sperry Chalet, an ancient, beautifully crafted stone hostelry perched on the edge of a high, spectacular cirque, miles from the nearest road. With no electricity, and with the supplies hauled in by pack mules, the chalet offered wonderfully home-cooked meals, warm beds, fine camaraderie, and one of the most amazing views on earth.

At my urging, my family spent a night at the chalet back then, and it was a fond memory for my parents. I managed a couple more overnight stays there in the years since, and a long series of day visits, lured by both the camaraderie and the homemade pie. A couple weeks ago, I started talking with a friend about the possibility of going back there next summer.

Here's a shot of the main chalet building that I took on my last trip up there, five years ago:

Last week, a forest fire that that had been burning in Glacier since August 10th made a run toward the chalet, and the park's efforts did nothing to slow the fire's progress ... or ultimately, to save the hotel building. It was engulfed before the fire crews even realized it.

At Baptiste, I spent that evening looking for news, calling friends, and listening intently to the two-way radio, as a little fleet of helicopters shuttled back and forth with futile, too-late water drops. I was completely heartbroken, and I still am ... Sperry was the most wonderful place to stay in the entire national park system, and one of the most historic buildings in any of the parks, and now it's gone. 


Things have not gotten any better around Glacier since the night that Sperry was destroyed. The fire that attacked Sperry is still growing, and is now threatening Lake McDonald Lodge, another of the park's historic landmarks and the place where I spent six of my best summers. Farther north, another fire is within striking distance of the old Kishenehn Ranger Station, another place that I know and dearly love. Just to my south, the fires in the Bob Marshall Wilderness are growing at a frantic pace, sparked by strong, shifting winds and low humidity. Jumbo Lookout was evacuated last night, its occupant directed to hike miles in the dark to a spot of relative safety.

And the weather forecast? Hot and dry for the foreseeable future.

Brian's dinosaur ...

September 5, 2017

Those of you who know me, or have followed this blog for a while, know that I'm a major fan of the Firewatch video game ... not too surprising for a lookout geek, I guess.  I'm one of the moderators on the game's Subreddit, and a few days ago I took a photo here at Baptiste specifically for the Firewatch fans:

The game developers saw the photo and retweeted it, and it's gone at least semi-viral ... I suspect it's been seen by a few tens of thousands of people at this point. Not bad for a plastic dinosaur out in the middle of the Montana mountains. :)

This is at least the third photo of mine that Campo Santo has reused.  Considering all the free advertising I've given them, you think they'd at least send me a free poster, or something.  :-p

Smoke, and a visitor ...

September 8, 2017

The last few days here at Baptiste have been pretty dreary, at least in terms of the sky. We had a front come through a few days ago, but then the wind mostly went away and a temperature inversion built up over the local valleys, and my part of the world filled up with wildfire smoke. When I called in the weather report this morning, my visibility was only a half mile. There's a heavy, warm stillness to the air, and even the thought of exertion just wears me out. I was planning to hike down to Silver Basin for water tonight, but just couldn't face the thought of lugging 40 pounds of water up a mountain filled with so much smoke.

There's a good side to the smoke, though ... the still air and the inversion are keeping the Glacier fires mostly at bay. No more historic treasures have been lost so far, and the Incident team there is going all out to make sure they don't have a repeat of their Sperry Chalet debacle. (I'm not exactly confident, though.) The fires down in the Bob Marshall remain a little more active, and I still find it utterly compelling to listen to the Spotted Bear backcountry guys on the Forest radio. I'm immensely impressed with them.


The highlight of my week, though, was ... a visitor! My friend Marjorie hiked up on Wednesday, the first human I'd seen in 13 days. Both Charlie and I were thrilled, and Marjorie earned major "Intrepid" points for bravely tackling the long climb through that thick sea of smoke. She even brought up dinner, including lots of organic greens to make big salads. I'm saved from an almost-certain case of fire-lookout scurvy!

It was great so see you, Marjorie, and thanks so much for coming up. You'll have to do it again when there's no smoke, so you can actually see my view! :)


As for the weather, there's supposed to be a front passing through tomorrow, but then we're back to more of the same, for possibly another week or so. (Things might cool off a bit after that.) This is the time of year when Montana fire-lookout seasons start to end, but nearly all of the lookouts here are still up, and both the forest and the park are planning to keep some of us on duty a few days longer than planned. It will depend on the weather, but I'm guessing I'll be up here another 7 to 10 days. (Last year, Baptiste went out of service for the season on September 3rd.)


That's it for now, I guess. Here are a couple of evening shots of my lookout for you.

Weather front ...

September 10, 2017

With all the smoke the last few days, Lookout Dog hasn't had to do very much looking out ... but that seems to have been OK with him:

That finally started to change this weekend, though, when the winds picked up and a cold front made its way into northwestern Montana. The winds started picking up yesterday, the temperature dropped, and the relative humidity increased. By this morning, nearly all the smoke was gone, and the temp stayed in the 50s most of the day, with big banks of cumulous clouds moving across my valley to the east. Made it feel like fall.

The wind of course brought new worries for the area's firefighters, especially the folks down in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. A major fire advanced frighteningly close to one of their backcountry patrol cabins yesterday evening, forcing the guys stationed there to abandon the place, surrounded by gas-powered pumps and sprinklers, and hike down to the South Fork confluence for the night. Everyone was anxious this morning when they made the trek back, to see if the cabin survived ... but it did.

It's still cool and really blustery up here at Baptiste, but the weather's supposed to warm up again tomorrow. A larger cold front is supposedly heading this way late this week, though, and some folks are wondering if that one might actually signal the beginning of the end for the fire season.

We'll see. In the meantime, here are a couple of shots I took of my lookout this morning ... this first one is from the trail down to the outhouse:

And this shot is from the lookout helispot ... looks pretty autumn-like:

Anyhow, I guess that's it for now. It's almost time for the afternoon radio check-in, and then I think Charlie and I might tackle the hike down to Silver Basin for water. It's a longer trek than before, since the little stream I'd been using for water finally dried up a few days ago, and I have to go to a larger one farther down. Autumn in the high country.

Winding down ...

September 11, 2017

Day 19 at Baptiste Lookout ... a quiet and lovely one up here, as nearly all of them are. A warm day, only a hint of smoke in the air. Good conversations with the other lookouts, and an evening hike through autumn colors to Silver Basin for water.

Right now, a lot of the lookout thoughts are focused on the cold fronts that are supposed to be heading our way soon. If there are a couple of good autumn rainstorms (or snowstorms!) up here, there will be little reason to keep most of the lookouts open any longer, and so we're all starting to think about shutting down. My boss said today that it was up to me to decide when to close Baptiste for the season, and I'm thinking that I'll ride out the smaller cold front that's due here Thursday, but then head down Sunday or Monday before the extended bad weather gets here. I'll hate to leave, but it will be time.


Anyhow, I imagine you're all getting tired of fire-tower photos by now, but here's one more. This is how Baptiste looked during yesterday's sunset.

The last days of fire season ...

September 14, 2017

  1. The first few days of this week were rough ones up here, in terms of fire. The biggest concerns came from a couple of major wildfires just over the Canadian border, both threatening the Glacier country. Driven by high winds, the larger of those blazes took off on Monday night, quickly burning much of the northern half of Waterton Lakes national Park in Alberta, and coming perilously close to destroying the Waterton townsite itself. It was an extraordinary and terrifying night up there.

    The next night, the largest fire down in the Bob Marshall Wilderness had its turn. The fire is south of me, in the same forest where I'm volunteering, and I listened to everything unfold on the forest's two-way radio. There's a very-remote fire lookout down there on Mt. Jumbo, which found itself pretty much in the center of things.

    This year, Jumbo is staffed by a guy named Bill, and he's been doing the lookout thing for years. I don't know him at all, but after listening to his radio voice for the summer I have a lot of respect for the guy. He's clearly good at what he does, and he clearly loves being stationed at one of the most remote Forest Service outposts in the country. He's soft-spoken and unflappable, and even when he's told to take days off he prefers just to stay up at the lookout. (Of course, he's so remote that it would take him days to hike out of the wilderness even if he wanted to.)

    Anyhow, there's been a fire burning west of Jumbo for weeks now, and its threatened to make a run towards the mountain a couple of times. Bill was actually evacuated once, when the danger seemed particularly severe, but he was back up there with a co-worker on Tuesday. That evening, very quickly, Bill started to see fire heading rapidly towards his mountain, a view confirmed by the forest's other backcountry observers. The fire kept moving, and when it was clear that the mountaintop was about to burn the Jumbo staffers hurriedly evacuated the place, taking shelter in the rocks below ... with Bill still sending reports out on the forest radio. A couple miles away, the guys staffing another backcountry Forest Service cabin also had to evacuate, spending the night on a sandbar out in the creek as the fire passed by.

    I was on the edge of my seat all evening, glued to the radio waiting for Bill's next quiet, matter-of-fact transmission ... and I'm sure everyone else with a forest radio was, too. I couldn't go to sleep until I heard the report that everyone was OK. (Remarkably, the lookout and the cabin survived, too.) It was an evening experienced vicariously, but still an immensely compelling one. I would have given almost anything to have been there, regardless of how terrified I would have been. And as I've said before, I have tremendous respect for the guys working down in the Bob Marshall.

  2. That night of fire might have been about the last one of the season, though ... the weather here is changing fast. The temperature at Baptiste began dropping yesterday, and a frigid east wind started hitting the lookout about 10 last night, and it's been blowing almost ever since. The temperature here stayed in the low 30s all day, with a ridiculously cold wind chill, and I've spent most of the day huddled by the tower's little woodstove. It started to snow lightly a little before lunch, the snow blowing around the mountain in 30 mph waves rather than sticking to the ground, and that's still what's happening tonight. I'm wondering if my world will be covered in ice tomorrow morning.

    Here's a photo I took of Mt. Baptiste this afternoon, on my way down the tower to get another load of firewood.

A loo with a view, part two ...

September 15, 2017

Some of you enjoyed seeing the view from my outhouse door a couple weeks ago, so I thought I'd show you how that same view looked this morning. I's not for the faint of heart:

I have to confess, this morning I really wished my outhouse had a heated toilet seat. ;-)

Here's the path down to the outhouse. Charlie hasn't been able to play in new snow for months, so he thinks all of this is very cool.

I agree that it's pretty cool ... in a way, at least. The temperature stayed near freezing here all day, with a cold wind that gusted up to 30 or so, and light snow falling and blowing around. The lookout of course is completely uninsulated, and the cold air and the snow blows in through the cracks, and even though I fed the wood stove all day the best I could do was get the interior temperature into the 50s. So in between my regular trips down to the woodpile, I mostly just curled up by the stove with my laptop or some Sudokus.

But still ... it's an experience, and a gorgeous one.

One more day ...

September 16, 2017

It was another cold night here at Baptiste, but in the early-morning hours the wind finally died down and the clouds started to break up, and when I finally crawled out of bed to start the coffee this is how my world looked.

After all the days I've spent gazing at the view from this mountain I think I'm getting a little jaded ... but the way the valley looked this morning really made me happy.

Anyhow, it was a fairly quiet day up here, mostly planning what I need to do to close up the lookout, and starting to pull the things together that I need to pack down tomorrow. Towards the end of the morning, I was more than a little surprised to see some hikers coming up my trail ... three very-fit guys and a big dog named Numa. They were on their way to climb Mount Baptiste, which seemed rather daring to me considering the new snow. I was pretty impressed when I scanned the mountain with my binoculars just two hours later, and saw at least two of them (and the dog) standing on the summit.

Cleaned out the refrigerator for dinner, scrambling eggs and cheese in a frying pan, with some tuna thrown in for good measure. Then as it got dark, Charlie and I roamed across our ridgetop one last time, and I took some grainy photos with my phone. It wasn't the most amazing sunset I've ever seen up here, but it was still a good one.

Goodnight, Baptiste.

Symbols of civilization ...

September 18, 2017

I used to know a guy who spent his summers as a river guide in Utah, taking people on multi-day raft trips through the desert wilderness. He and his fellow guides had a ritual that happened after every trip: as soon as the boats were pulled out of the water and the guests boarded their bus back to town, the guides all headed straight for the closest Wendy's, and ordered large Frostys for themselves. They started talking about those Frostys long before the end of the trip, with great wistfulness ... that cup of soft ice cream was the symbol of civilization they missed the most, more than clean clothes or hot showers or anything else.

I was on a trip with him where he sliced his hand open very badly with a kitchen knife, prepping dinner the first night out. He needed stitches, but he also had to row for two more days to get to a doctor, and so he did it, a roll of tape and gauze wrapped around the wound. The last morning, the guides were talking about the trip's end, trying to decide if they should go to the hospital first, or go to Wendy's first. Their decision: get the Frostys first, and then hit the ER.


Anyhow, I've developed a similar ritual at the end of my lookout hitches: as soon as I get back to town and drop off the Forest Service radio, I treat myself to one of these:

It's a Bacon Double Cheeseburger from the A&W Drive-In just outside Columbia Falls, Montana. After three weeks of mostly pasta and oatmeal and Mountain House, it's the perfect indulgence ... a reminder that civilization isn't *all* bad. :)


Anyhow, yeah ... Charlie and I made it back to Bozeman late last night. Yesterday was a lovely day on Mount Baptiste, and I took my time packing and closing up the tower. It was close to 3 when I radioed Kalispell Dispatch to tell them that Baptiste was going out of service for the season, and I locked the door and hit the trail. Made it back to the car in about 2-1/4 hours, my only excitement being the discovery that a mildly incontinent bear had used my trail a few days before. I could feel the beginnings of a cold front moving in as I hiked, bringing the rain and snow that will carpet northwest Montana this week. Summer's over.

I'm going to miss that place, that life.