The sun rose in a red, smoky sky. After arriving at the trailhead, I hoisted my backpack and headed toward Cyclone Lookout. The early morning sunlight filtering through the trees on the trail had an orange, smoky look. The heavy backpack filled with food, clothing, and bedding sat familiar and comfortable on my hips as I climbed the switchbacks leading to the Lookout. Although I left home early heeding the prediction of a 100 degree day, the temperature was already rising and causing my shirt to become wet with sweat as my heart pumped rapidly under the weight of my load and the steepness of the trail.
In my younger years, I would never have hiked alone in grizzly country. Five summers of hiking alone to and from Lookouts have cured me of my fears, although my bear spray is always close at hand. To be honest, I always start out a solo hike speaking aloud to the invisible bears in the forest asking them to grant me safe passage through their home. It seems only right. As I walked along the smoky trail this morning, I noticed the beauty around me and quietly celebrated my freedom to enjoy these public lands and the wisdom of protecting them for all of the wild species that live here.
Shortly before reaching the Lookout, the Forest Service radio in my pack came alive with the morning weather reports from all of the lookouts from Thoma Lookout near the Canadian Border to Jumbo Lookout far to the south in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. As the last report was made, Cyclone Lookout came into view and I climbed the 57 steps up to the tower.
When I reached the top of the stairs, I was met by another volunteer lookout, Rich Kehr, who had spent the last 10 days on Cyclone. This was the first time that we had met. Rich is the recently retired Swan District Ranger and we had a delightful time getting acquainted. He briefed me on things that had happened during his hitch. Despite the extremely high fire danger, there had been no fire activity in the North Fork at that point.
After Rich left to hike out, I was busy unpacking and making the Lookout my home. One of things that makes my backpack heavy when I hike into a Lookout is the comfortable flannel sheets that I bring with me. The reason that I carry the extra weight is that once I make up the bed, it is a symbol that this is home…..at least for the duration of my hitch. It is a small symbolic act that places me solidly here in this Lookout in a definitive way that a mere sleeping bag could not accomplish. While a sleeping bag connotes travel and adventure, real sheets mean stability….at least in my mind.
Cyclone Lookout is equiped with a propane refrigerator and stove, a wood heater, a Berkeley (for filtering water), a bed, desk, chair, and cabinets with drawers and counter tops below the windows. This Lookout has 26 five-foot high windows and even the door has a big window. In the center of the room is the Osborn Firefinder which is used to determine the azimuth of a smoke that is spotted. Solar panels power the radio for communications and a power station for charging other devices like a cell phone.
Usually, the view from Cyclone Lookout is spectacular, but today the visibility was only about five miles due to the smoke that covered the entire valley. A red flag warning was in effect from noon this day to midnight the following night…..and with the extremely high temperatures, everyone was being extra vigilant about fire starts.
At mid-day, Numa Lookout came back into service. The voice sounded like Karen Reeves and I later called her on the phone and learned that she had volunteered for a week. Numa Lookout, usually continually staffed by a paid lookout, was being pieced together by volunteer shifts much to the chagrin of the local community who counts on Numa Lookout to see into the Whitefish Range drainages that channel fire directly to their homes. However, this week, Numa was in good hands with Karen. Shortly after noon, a fixed wing aircraft (called Six Delta Lima) reported to Thoma Lookout that it was reconnoitering in the northern part of the North Fork. The pilot asked Thoma if Cyclone was up too and I was glad that the answer was yes and that I was here.
I spent most of my first day reading the manual, reviewing protocols, and running scenarios to refresh my knowledge. All of the volunteer lookouts are well trained and competent, but because we don’t do this work full time for a whole season, we are not as nimble as the more experienced, professional lookouts. With that said, the volunteer lookout program is a great way to staff lookouts that would otherwise be out-of-service. In a hot, dry fire season like this one, the more eyes on the landscape the better.
A hot, dry wind blew all afternoon baking the Lookout. Leif at Thoma Lookout said that it was his hottest Lookout temperature since 1994. No visitors braved the high temperatures to hike up the trail. Biting gnats buzzed my face, ears, arms and the only place of relief was sitting in front of an open window with a strong, hot wind blowing through the Lookout.
More frustrating than the heat or the gnats was trying to get the propane refrigerator re-started after the winds blew out the flame. The igniter no longer worked, so I had to get into a contorted position to push the primer on the front with my right hand while putting a match (duct taped to a knife) through a small opening on the back with my left hand. Although I get get it to light, it would not stay lit no matter how long I held down the primer. After an hour of effort, covered in sweat and aching from the pretzel position, the red sun dipped behind the mountains in a smoky sky and I decided to wait until morning to try again to light the refrigerator. Leif, who I had earlier called for advice, said that some of the volunteers were having trouble with the refrigerator and to keep trying and have patience. My body and the daylight failed before my patience ran out.
The temperature did not immediately drop when the sun disappeared as is common in the northern Rockies. Rather, the hot winds whistled through the screened windows and beat against the tower. It seemed like there was even more smoke than before. As the light faded on this unusually hot evening, I wondered how long my food would last without refrigeration.