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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.)

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 of Scalplock Lookout as the wrapping crew was finishing up. Scalplock is shut down, at least for now, and its staffer has 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.

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!

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.