tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:/posts Montana Journal 2019-03-13T15:32:28Z Mark Hufstetler tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/903279 2015-08-21T02:48:00Z 2018-07-24T10:34:46Z Baptiste Lookout ... August 20, 2015

"Kalispell Dispatch, Baptiste Lookout is in service. "


Woke up at a ridiculously early hour this morning, to finish organizing and packing for my two-week volunteer "hitch" at Baptiste Lookout, up in the Flathead National Forest.  Left Bozeman about 6:30, drove fast and subsisted on fast food as I headed to the Flathead.  Bought perishables and some fresh bear spray in Columbia Falls, and then stopped at the Hungry Horse Ranger District office to pick up a "transit radio," that I'd carry with me on the way in.  The long, gravel road along the east side of the reservoir was almost devoid of traffic, but on the way I managed to encounter Rick and Marli, the lookouts who were finishing the prior Baptiste hitch.  We chatted for a minute, swapped Forest Forest Service radios, and then all headed on ... them to civilization, and me to the mountain.

Made a short detour on the way to visit the grave of Mount Baptiste's namesake ... an old prospector who'd died in his lonely cabin there in 1909.  And then to the trailhead, where I stuffed my backpack to the brim before heading out -- clothes, bedding, laptop, perishables, lots of odds and ends.  (The Forest Service had packed up my dry food ahead of time, which was a story in itself.)  Charlie the Dog and I finally hit the trail a little after 2 ... a 5.7-mile hike that, with my overweight pack, I immediately realized was going to be brutal.  It turned out to be as grueling as my worst fears, and I stopped to rest ridiculously often; though the trail was a good one, it took me 4-1/2 hours to make it up the mountain.

It was after 6:30 when I made it to Baptiste; and I was wiped out.


This place has the potential to be ridiculously idyllic in a few days, but tonight it's just a little crazy. As soon as I turned on the Forest Service radio I started hearing an endless stream of traffic from Spotted Bear, which is about 15 miles south of here. A fire had just made an unexpected run down there, and the rangers are urgently working to evacuate backpackers and horses from a ridiculously remote stretch of country, while simultaneously figuring out how to fight the fire itself. The lookout down there is going to be evacuated in the morning.

I'm transfixed, sitting here alone and listening to all of this. It's just down the ridge from me,  but the radio makes it seem like it's a world away.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1020312 2015-08-22T01:13:00Z 2018-07-24T10:34:48Z Watching smoke ... August 21, 2015

It's been kind of an eerie day at Baptiste ... cool and unsettled, with smoke from the big fires blowing in and out of the valley. The lookout tower really shakes in the wind, something that makes Charlie more than a little nervous and is a bit unsettling to me, too.

For a lot of the day, the smoke was so thick that I couldn't even see the adjacent mountains, and it made my head hurt a little bit. But now we're getting a rain squall which is helping things a lot. The whitish-gray world that enveloped me has been replaced by a pallete of dark, muted blues, which are really quite lovely.

Charlie and I took a couple of short walks, but mostly it was a day to get acquainted with this exotic little place that will be my home for the next two weeks ... but I'm feeling comfortable quickly, and this little building and this isolated mountain are clearly a fit for me.  Mostly I sat quietly in the lookout cab, listening to the fire traffic on the radio and drinking a warm beverage.

I took this photo partly for my friend Scott, who's intrigued by the fact that in the old days, Forest Service lookouts and ranger stations had their own china pattern. I'm happy that there's some of it up here.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1020460 2015-08-23T03:17:00Z 2018-07-24T10:34:51Z Pie for strength ... August 22, 2015

I got to know my friend Joyce a couple of years back, via a now-moribund online forum for Glacier Park fans.  Joyce lives in Virginia, but she fell madly in love with northwestern Montana during a trip out here several years ago, and now she spends a few weeks here every summer, living out of her Prius, hiking and backpacking amazing distances.  We met for the first time last August on a hike to Thoma Lookout, a day that hatched the idea of my actually working at one of these places someday.

Anyhow, Joyce has been in Montana for the last few weeks, and just finished an extended backpack through the Bob Marshall with some folks from the legendary "Over the Hill Gang."  (That trip included a visit to Jumbo, the most remote of Montana lookouts, which made me very jealous.)  Then, today she hiked up to Baptiste look out to visit me. It was great to see her again, and to catch up ... we talked for hours, me with one ear cocked to the two-way radio, just in case.

Joyce also packed up the makings for a delicious pasta dinner ... and she brought dessert, too: huckleberry pie made by Glacier's most famous baker, and blueberries and vanilla ice cream to top it off:

(She packed the ice cream up in dry ice!)

It was a great recipe for a lovely evening.  She's here for the night, and will hike down in the morning, ready for more adventures.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1020686 2015-08-25T02:30:00Z 2018-07-24T10:34:53Z The invisible view ... August 24, 2015

I've had a couple more smoky days at Baptiste Lookout, but I'm still enjoying life up here.

My friend Joyce headed back down the mountain yesterday morning, but another visitor arrived a few hours later – my intrepid friend Scott, who's been training for this adventure all summer.  Scott made it up the trail in good order, and I immediately sent him to work handling the radio and taking meteorological readings. It was great to see Scott again, and I hope he enjoyed the adventure of hiking up a Montana mountain.

Unfortunately, the smoke was particularly bad the entire time Scott was here, and he never got to see the view from the lookout catwalk. This was how things looked the last couple of days:

In contrast, here's what the same view looked like to me a couple of days earlier:

A dirty trick by Mother Nature, and a terrible reward for all of Scott's work!

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1020692 2015-08-26T03:37:00Z 2018-07-24T10:34:56Z Mountaintop dining (human and ursine) ... August 25, 2015

As you'll remember, I agonized a fair amount over the food I was going to pack up here for my lookout stay. It turns out I worried about it more than most of the volunteer lookouts do; generally, it seems like they either eat only freeze-dried meals, or they simply graze on snacks. In contrast, many of the paid lookouts pride themselves on their high-altitude cooking. I know one, for example, who's mastered the art of creating mountaintop quiche.

I'm about midway between those two extremes. I brought enough freeze-dried dinners for about half my evenings here, but I'm still trying to do a fair amount of actual cooking. An emphasis on comfort food, as this sample breakfast indicates:

(Yep, I carried a dozen raw eggs up the mountain ... only cracked one of them.)

I baked some muffins for lunch today, and tonight they're all gone.

I'm quickly discovering that the issue up here isn't the act of cooking, but rather the fact that meal preparation and cleanup both require water. Water is a precious commodity up here; there's none available at the lookout, and my only source is a small stream about a mile down the trail. Hauling a few gallons of water up the side of the mountain is a regular necessity up here, but it's a giant pain in the butt.

After the radio check-in this afternoon, I called a neighboring lookout to let them know I was going to be away for a while, and hiked down the trail to replenish my water supply. I loaded my pack with about 5-1/2 gallons of water from the little, ice-cold stream, and poured another couple gallons of stream water over my head to wash up. That felt amazingly good.

On the way back, I was trudging through an overgrown area of huckleberry bushes and shrubs and suddenly I heard a crashing sound about 50 feet away. It was a black bear, putting together a dinner of huckleberries for himself. I think both Charlie and I were a little relieved that he only seemed interested in dining on berries.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1020698 2015-08-27T00:29:00Z 2018-07-24T10:34:59Z Mountaintop messages ... August 26, 2015

Continuing our tour of Baptiste Fire Lookout, here's a post showing a few of the messages that are posted here for the handful of travelers who come by.

This is the sign posted at the base of the steep stairway leading up to the lookout cab. Charlie is unconcerned about the safety warning.

Looking down from the lookout steps, you can see the word "Baptiste" spelled out in white-painted rocks on the mountainside. (This is visible on Google Earth, too.) All of the Forest Service lookouts once had IDs like this, placed there decades ago as navigation aids for aircraft. They must have been a big help back when there were hundreds of these lookouts, and aircraft navigation was more primitive.

There are some more painted rocks a little to the south; these mark the location of the lookout's helispot:

Finally, let's take a walk down to the lookout's outhouse. All outhouse buildings come with graffiti, and mine is no exception ... but this might be the classiest graffiti I've ever seen. It's an excerpt from a poem by the famous Beat poet Philip Whalen:

I love that.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1020450 2015-08-27T23:00:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:03Z Radio rituals ... August 27, 2015

The days at a fire lookout are mostly pretty unstructured ... though you're supposed to be "on duty" at the tower from 8 to 4:30, watching for smoke, the details of the workday are mostly left up to you.  The only exceptions are the required, twice-daily radio checkins, which are something of a lookout ritual.

The check-ins are at 10 AM and 4:15 PM.  We all listen in as each of the on-duty lookouts calls into Kalispell Dispatch, one at a time, always in the same order:  Thoma, Numa Ridge, Cyclone, Huckleberry, Swiftcurrent, Loneman, Scalplock, Spotted Bear, Jumbo, Baptiste, Firefighter, Cooney. Though the transmissions themselves are all business, it's good to hear everyone else's voices, to be reminded that we're part of what Jack Kerouac called "the community of lookouts."

"And there we all were in a high world talking on a net of wireless across hundreds of miles of wilderness," as Kerouac said.

Anyhow, the afternoon check-ins are pretty perfunctory, just letting Dispatch know that we made it through the day alive, but in the morning we call in a brief meteorological summary for the dispatch center's records.  The weather reports are fun to prepare and fun to listen to, though I'm not sure how important they are in this era of weather satellites and computer modeling.  A great part of the ritual, though.

Here's a recording of my morning check -in today:

(My use of the phrase "on direct" in the transmission means that my radio is communicating directly with the dispatch center. Because of distance and terrain, some lookouts need to contact Dispatch using a repeater station on another mountain, which transmits on a different frequency. When I was staffing Cooney Lookout, I'd say "Cooney lookout, on Elbow," because my transmission would go via the radio repeater station at the old Elbow Lookout site.)

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1021093 2015-08-28T19:48:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:06Z Wrapped ... August 28, 2015

So it's now Friday afternoon, and I haven’t seen another human being since my friend Scott headed down the mountain early Monday morning. And I’m surprisingly OK with that.

Anyhow, things up here at Baptiste Lookout are starting to get more eerie and uncertain again. There’s a weather front moving in, so the temperatures are cooling and the winds are picking up, with gusts coming from all directions. Sometimes the sky is almost clear, and other times the smoke is so thick that I can’t see things a mile away. Right now it’s mostly the latter, and I can sometimes pick up a campfire smell and notice little flecks of ash in the air.

The conditions are perfect for the forest fires up here to make a run, and people are getting pretty concerned about that. The little town of Essex was evacuated yesterday, and two of the three lookouts closest to me have also been evacuated. Both those lookouts have been “wrapped” with a fire-resistant material, in hopes that the buildings could be saved if the fires progress that far. (The wrapping works most of the time, but not always — a wrapped lookout building in Idaho was lost in a big fire a couple weeks ago.)

Here’s a photo my friend Bill took of Scalplock Lookout as the wrapping crew was finishing up. Scalplock is Bill’s normal post, but since it might not be used again this year he’s been moved to Cyclone Lookout, over by Polebridge.

And here’s how Spotted Bear Lookout looks after being wrapped. The lookout actually stayed there a couple of days after the wrapping was completed, but she was finally helicoptered off yesterday afternoon.

I’m still listening to the two-way radio constantly, still transfixed by the unfolding fire stories. Much of the Bob Marshall Wilderness is completely shut down now, with major fires going in several locations. There are small crews on the ground in a number of locations, trying to protect backcountry guard stations and monitor the fires … but there’s only so much they can do, and since they’re on foot they need to be very cautious. There’s too much smoke for aircraft to even enter the area to see what’s going on.

The lifeline for all of these people is Amy, the woman staffing Jumbo Lookout this summer. She’s been on the radio constantly, relaying messages from the ranger station to the various fire crews, and helping choreograph personnel movements, trail closures, and backpacker evacuations. I’m sure she put in a 16-hour day yesterday, and her presence and knowledge were crucial to holding everything together during the crisis.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1021110 2015-08-30T00:55:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:10Z Running water ... August 29, 2015

I’ve gotten a couple of comments from friends wondering how I manage to survive up here without running water … so tonight I thought I’d show you how that works.

When I feel the need for some running water I load up my backpack with a 5-gallon water jug, a smaller jug to use for a scoop, and my Forest Service radio. When I’m ready, I call my friend Beth over at Firefighter Lookout and tell her that Baptiste will be out of service for an hour or so, and then Charlie and I climb down the tower and hit the trail:

My trail’s looking pretty autumn-like these days, isn’t it?)

Anyhow, Charlie and I hike for a little over a mile, down a long series of switchbacks and into a pretty area called Silver Basin, a few hundred feet lower than the lookout. There’s a black bear down there that always gets a little flustered when Charlie and I go for a visit.

And then, I get to my running water!

This is the South Fork of Logan Creek, three or four inches deep and ridiculously cold. I take off my pack, pull out the smaller jug, and use it to scoop water into the 5-gallon container. After my container’s full, I pull a towel and some biodegradable soap out of my pack, dump a few jugs of creek water over my head, and take the most exhilarating shower ever.

Then it’s time to load up the pack and head back up the mountain. The uphill hike is a little slower, since the two containers hold around 50 pounds of water, but eventually Baptiste is back in sight.

Back in the tower, I put the water in the big silver container on one of my shelves … the thing is called a “Berkey,” and it has filters in it to purify the water to make it safe for drinking.

And just so I don’t waste my hard-earned drinking water, I’ve got that enamelware coffeepot sitting off to the left. The enamelware pot contains rainwater, that I can use for washing up.

I’m all set!

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1021119 2015-08-31T02:48:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:14Z Weather ... August 30, 2015

Well, today might have marked the end of the fire weather that has plagued western Montana for most of the summer. At about midnight, it started to rain here at Baptiste Lookout.

It changed everything. The temperature grew cooler, the smoke disappeared from the valleys, and it felt like autumn. The sense of urgency disappeared from the two-way radio traffic, and everyone started to relax a little.

There was a break in the weather this afternoon, and I took Charlie for a walk, but now the rain is back. I made a big bowl of pasta for dinner, built a fire in the woodstove, and am sitting here with a cup of tea, chatting with the other lookouts and watching the weather sweep over the mountain.

Life is pretty good.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1027631 2015-09-01T02:00:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:21Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1027622 2015-09-02T02:19:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:24Z 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?

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1022115 2015-09-03T02:58:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:26Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1044693 2015-09-05T14:00:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:29Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1032420 2015-09-06T19:39:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:31Z 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!

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1022114 2015-09-15T03:39:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:35Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1044300 2015-09-28T00:32:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:39Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1028872 2015-10-05T02:12:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:41Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1132621 2016-08-21T01:54:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:45Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1132623 2016-08-22T17:50:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:49Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1133335 2016-08-23T19:14:00Z 2018-07-24T10:35:57Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1133336 2016-08-26T03:06:00Z 2018-07-24T10:42:30Z 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.



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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1133348 2016-08-27T02:48:00Z 2018-07-24T10:44:10Z 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.


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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1133350 2016-08-29T02:57:00Z 2018-07-24T10:45:16Z 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!


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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1133356 2016-08-30T02:56:00Z 2018-07-24T10:47:19Z 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.


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.


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. :)


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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1133380 2016-09-01T15:22:00Z 2017-11-11T22:42:12Z 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.


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.


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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1137969 2016-09-05T04:06:00Z 2018-07-24T10:54:23Z 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.


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:

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1137980 2016-09-10T03:09:00Z 2018-07-24T10:54:55Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1137985 2016-09-23T03:05:00Z 2018-07-24T10:56:00Z 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.

Mark Hufstetler
tag:montana.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1385156 2017-07-27T03:08:00Z 2019-03-13T15:32:28Z Preview ... July 26, 2017

This weekend, I'll be starting another few days of fire-lookouting ... but this time I'll be at a different lookout, one that's new to me as a staffer. The tower's most recent volunteer had a weekend visitor who brought a drone up there, and the drone caught some pretty cool photos of the lookout. Here are a couple of them -- a preview of the tower where Charlie and I will be living next week:

Not bad, eh? The mountains in the background are in the North Fork country of Glacier Park ... you can see Bowman Lake in the background, for those of you who are familiar with the area.

Mark Hufstetler