The forest was dark and quiet this morning. Occasionally, I heard a chickadee but bird song was noticeably absent. A chipmunk scurried down the trail in front of me and the ground seemed to shake as some large animal crashed through the brush, but mostly the forest was silent and peaceful in the early morning. I felt like an intruder in a sacred cathedral with the sounds of my boots on the trail and my calls to alert the bears breaking through the silence.
The temperature was 33 degrees this morning (instead of the predicted 26), so my plants would have survived even if I hadn’t gone home last night to protect them. I was at the trailhead before sunrise and reached Cyclone Lookout before I felt the sun’s rays upon my face as I entered the clearing.
Although I enjoyed tending my plants and sleeping in my own bed last night, it was good to be back on duty at Cyclone. I walked around the catwalk in the warm morning sunlight gazing at the valley and surrounding mountains veiled in smoke.
It was a quiet day with calm winds and clear skies. The sun shone brightly, reflecting off Cyclone Lake like thousands of glittering jewels.
On this clear day, the smoke from the Sprague Fire was visible. The Adair Fire had only a small plume of smoke. Every day, firefighters have been checking for hot spots at the Cyclone Lake Fire, but there is nothing there. The smoke from the Gibraltar Fire was flowing down the Trail Creek drainage and spilling out into the northern part of the North Fork valley. The Crucifixion Fire in the Badger Two Medicine put up a huge 20,000 foot plume today and could be seen from Lookouts in the North Fork.
Lookouts spend their days in the extremes. We can go from an adrenaline-driven day with fire-fighting activities and constant radio traffic to a day where we are in the heart of violent weather to a day that is calm and quiet with nothing happening. Some days there are many visitors to greet and some days we never see another human being. We have to be hyper-alert and in the middle of the action on some days and comfortable with the quiet and solitude on other days. It takes a certain personality to be a fire lookout. We have to be attentive and able to act in times of crisis, but also know how to keep from becoming bored when nothing is happening.
In the evening, the sun dropped below the mountains without fanfare since there were no clouds to bounce around the light. The only red colors in the sky were created by the smoke from the Gibraltar Fire as it continued to slip into the North Fork valley. Trees could be seen torching in the Sprague Fire. The wind whistled around the Lookout as the sun disappeared and the temperatures dropped. A crescent moon was visible in the western sky.
As darkness increased and the orange glow along the Whitefish Range diminished, I crawled into the Forest Service sleeping bag for one more night. I love going to sleep in a glass house on top of a mountain with starlight in every window.
The bright yellow-orange sun blasted in through the Lookout windows announcing my last morning as a fire lookout this season. With classical music playing on Montana Public Radio, I made breakfast, packed, and cleaned the Lookout to make way for the next volunteer.
My favorite lookout duty is sharing weather information over the radio every morning. Each lookout, starting with Thoma, shares the temperature, relative humidity, wind direction & speed, cloud cover, precipitation, visibility, and lightning activity. It is interesting to hear the differences in the weather conditions at each Lookout from Thoma near the Canadian Border to Jumbo in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Around noon, Barb and Steve Penner arrived to take over Cyclone Lookout and I headed for home. My backpack, which no longer had any food in it, felt almost like it wasn’t there as I hiked down the trail on my way back to my truck.
I love lookout life, but I love my home and garden too. I am proud of being able to make a contribution to protecting the North Fork from wildfire …………and I look forward to returning to my cabin, my friends, my life.