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.

Endings, and beginnings ...

February 26, 2018

As nearly all you guys know, for the last three years I've spent part of each summer volunteering at a remote fire lookout on Mt. Baptiste, up by Glacier Park. It's definitely been one of the cooler experiences of my life.

Well ... as early as 2016 there were rumors that the Forest Service was thinking about ending the volunteer program at Baptiste, and placing one of its paid employees there instead. Those rumors gained steam last year, and by the fall I was hearing on the grapevine that it was all a done deal. The official word finally came down last month.

My boss up there knew that I was a good fit for the place, and he called me right after the holidays to suggest that I apply for the job myself, even though we both knew that it was an insanely long shot. The new job at Baptiste was instantly one of the most desirable summer posts in the entire Forest Service system, and of course it ended up going to one of their most experienced summer employees -- a 71-year-old guy with years of lookout experience who had been a Forest Service smokejumper before that. (He was a veteran, too ... and veterans receive preference in the federal hiring process.)

So my summer weeks at Baptiste are over, at least for now.


And then on Friday morning I received a call from an unfamiliar number in the tiny town of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. It turned out to be one of the guys in the Fire Management program for the Forest Service up there ... and he was looking for someone to be at their lookout this summer. My letter of interest in Baptiste had been forwarded to him, and he wanted to talk to me. You can see where this is leading. :)

The lookout is at a place called Porphyry Peak, in the center of a range called the Little Belt Mountains. The place couldn't be more different from Baptiste ... mostly because there's a dirt road that goes up to the tower, so most days there would be visitors. It's the same tower design as Baptiste, but it's been remodeled with luxuries like double-pane windows and carpeting and on-the-grid electricity. Not nearly as picturesque a view as Baptiste (no place is!), but at least the horizons are broader. And it's the only remaining fire tower for a good hundred miles in any direction.

It's also only two hours from Bozeman, which has some practical advantages. And it would be a paid Forest Service position rather than a volunteer gig. The pay is minimal, to say the least, but of course I could take some day-job work up there with me as I did at Baptiste ... and more importantly, the paid status would give me an "in" if I wanted to try for a future summer working full-time at a wilderness lookout.

So one door is closing, and maybe another is opening. I'm talking to the Forest Service guy again this afternoon.

Red card ...

February 27, 2018

So had a long conversation yesterday with the Forest Service guy about my next potential summer. It was a good talk, and I learned a lot about what they do up there, but the guy did casually add one sentence that's left me pondering things ever since. He told me, "We'll probably have you get your Red Card, too."

Now, a Red Card is the certification that qualifies you to fight wildfires for the Forest Service ... and it is *not* something to be taken lightly. The job is like being a normal firefighter who's on a permanent, quadruple dose of steroids. These guys will hike for miles, battle the craziest, most unpredictable fires you can imagine using only the tools they carried in with them, and they will sometimes do it for days at a time, from dawn to dusk. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's easily one of the most hardcore jobs in existence -- not to mention one of the most dangerous. At least two of these guys were killed fighting fires here in Montana last summer.

As you might guess, a job like that attracts a pretty hardcore group of applicants, too. They're kids, most of them, in their late teens and 20s, and they're astoundingly fit. Most of them act like they constantly have an extra dose of adrenaline constantly running through their veins. They live hard, but do it in a pretty endearing sort of way ... not at all toxic. And of course they live for the outdoors. I've met a lot of these guys over the years, and liked pretty much all of them.


So, yeah. The guy said I probably wouldn't actually have to *go* to a fire -- I'd mostly be their communications link -- but I'm wondering what it would be like to do the training with that crowd, the old man in a group of super-hardcore outdoor kids less than half my age. Would I survive it, and would I have even a tiny shred of self-respect left afterwards?

There's also the fitness requirement. To get a Forest Service Red Card you need to pass something that they informally call the Pack Test. It's very straightforward: you need to carry a 45-pound backpack for three miles at a walking pace, in less than 45 minutes. I've backpacked enough to know how hard that is, even for a youngster. If I go through with this, I'm going to need to do some serious training. (And find a friend with a portable defibrillator! :-)

Incoming correspondence ...

April 12, 2018

So I got an e-mail today from my prospective summer boss at the Forest Service. He'd cross-country skied up to the top of Porphyry Peak yesterday, and sent me a photo of my future summer home, all boarded up for the winter, and in a sea of snow:

I would have loved to have been there, and I can't wait for summer to arrive.

In the Forest Service ...

May 29, 2018

Got up early this morning and made the drive up to White Sulphur, to start my Forest Service fire training. It's about 80 miles from Bozeman, up Bridger Canyon, over Battle Ridge, and down into the Shields Valley. Everything was bright and green and the mountains were shining, and I decided it was nearly the most glorious commute possible.

Made it to the ranger station a little before 8, met my boss, and signed the Oath of Office that made me an official Forest Service employee. Most of the day was orientation and training with the other new fire employees ... a group of about 10 of us, sitting in a ragged arc of mismatched chairs in the district's garage-like Fire Cache building. I'm the only lookout here; the other guys are with the district's engine crews, the ones who will drive around in their trucks all summer and do the on-the-ground fire work. Mostly college-age kids, as I suspected, but a surprising variety of backgrounds and personalities.

At least today, it seems like I'm hooked up with a really good group of people, both the seasonal crews and the year-round supervisors. I doubt I'll make any close friends, since I'll be on my own most of the summer, but I think they'll be good co-workers, and people I can rely on if need be. They'll be scattered over the district, of course, and occasionally sent to fires far away. My boss is leaving in the morning, in fact, for a two-week hitch at a fire in southern Arizona.


Tonight I'm settled into a room at the district's bunkhouse, which is actually just a normal old house, and surprisingly nice. There's a big pile of government-issue gear on the floor next to my bed -- my tools for the summer. A big canvas duffel, a tent, a sleeping bag, a high-end "line pack" with a fire-shelter compartment, a hard hat, gloves, fire-resistant shirt and pants, headlamp, two-way radio, water bottles, earplugs, first-aid kit, a spare MRE. Probably some other things I haven't investigated yet.

The T-shirt at the top of the pile marks me as a member of the Forest's fire crew. Check out the design on the back ... guaranteed to make all the girls (and boys) swoon:

It's definitely going to be an interesting time.