With classical music playing from the public radio station, I watch the early morning sun as it strikes the highest peaks to the west. As the sun rises higher in the sky, it’s light moves down the slopes toward the reservoir while the Lookout is still in the shade of Baptiste Peak to the east. The shadows in the drainages hold on the longest, but eventually give way to the sun’s brilliance. Warming my hands around a cup of hot mint tea, I watch the waters of the reservoir become a dazzling blue. As the music reaches a crescendo, the sun bursts from behind Baptiste Peak spilling its light and warmth into the eastern windows of the Lookout. And so begins Sunday morning as a volunteer lookout.
As the Lookout warms up, I cook breakfast. Baptiste Lookout has a lovely kitchen area equipped with a small propane refrigerator and stove. There is counter space for washing dishes and a large stainless steel Berkey for filtering water that is hauled up from Logan Creek. I use captured rain water heated on the stove for washing dishes.
Before the fire season begins, each Baptiste volunteer prepares a box of non-perishable food and supplies to be packed up on the backs of mules and stored under the bed. Fresh food is carried by each volunteer from the trailhead for six uphill miles to the Lookout at the beginning of her/his hitch. My backpack is always heavily loaded with enough fresh fruits and vegetables to last the entire time. This year, I was lucky enough to have a friend hike with me who carried half the weight.
Reporting the 10:00 morning weather is one of the day’s highlights. All twelve lookouts, starting with Thoma and ending with Cooney, report temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, cloud cover, precipitation, lightning, and visibility. It is interesting to listen to the differences and similarities. Following the weather reports, Dispatch reads the Fire Weather Forecast. Although there is a slight chance of dry, scattered thunderstorms with lightning and high winds this afternoon and evening, tomorrow is actually the big worry. There is a Fire Weather Watch for Monday from noon to 9:00pm. Any lookouts on days-off will be back in their towers by early afternoon.
Paid lookouts in our area usually work for ten days (eight hours a day) followed by four days off. Not so this year. Because of the high danger of fire, most of the paid lookouts are working twelve days followed by two days off. Their eight-hour days have been stretched to ten or twelve hour days when conditions warrant it. Everyone is hyper-vigilant about the fire potential. The Lookouts that are staffed with volunteers are continually in-service and volunteers serve in 7-14 day hitches.
Since things could get very busy soon, I decided to start staining the picnic table pieces this morning. I worked on the project until mid-afternoon while listening to the reports on the radio about a new fire in Glacier Park. The Thompson Fire started near Thompson Creek and quickly traveled up the Nyack Creek drainage toward the Continental Divide at Red Eagle Pass. It produced a large plume that I was unable to see from my Lookout for quite a while. However, after the evening check-in at 4:15, the plume appeared from behind Unawah Peak. Listening to the Thompson Air Attack on the radio was interesting …..almost like a military operation with helicopter names like “One Hotel Quebec.” The first priority was finding the backpackers in the area and getting them to safety. Other priorities were to save the historic Nyack Patrol Cabin and keep the fire from dropping over the Continental Divide.
All afternoon while staining the picnic table parts, I watched the sky as the clouds and wind moved in from the west. For a while it looked like Baptiste Lookout would be hit with a big storm, but it moved north and crossed the reservoir near Firefighter Lookout. After the storm passed, the helicopters on the Thompson Fire reported that they were waiting for the storm cell to pass. Once it did, they resumed their attack on the fire. They reported that the fire was very active and was spotting ahead. Before they had to stop for the night, they dropped as much water as possible on the cabin. At that point, the fire was within a quarter mile of the cabin.
Smoke was also reported by Jumbo Lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness which was located a few miles from the Lookout. Smoke jumpers from Missoula were called in. They assessed the fire at a quarter an acre and jumped into the area before dark with plans to work on the fire until midnight.
Fire chatter on the radio continued into the evening…..
Last night, I was reading a book on my Kindle and the Lookout was dark. I heard something on the roof scratching around and wondered what it could be. I went back to my book, but suddenly saw a large flying bird in the corner of my eye. Then, another bird flew off the roof. What could ibe? My first thought was Night Hawks, but the shape wasn’t right. I sat on my bed to watch and was delighted to see three owls returning to the roof and flying off again. They were using the lookout as a staging ground for their night hunt. I watched them for quite a while. Unexpected wildlife encounters like this make a lookout’s life seem magical at times.