Day Two at Cyclone Lookout, August 11, 2018

By | August 15, 2018

Debo on Cyclone Lookout | photo from Will Urbanski's drone

The Lookout seemed to be floating in a grey soup this morning when I opened my eyes. I could see nothing beyond the clearing around the Lookout except for the vague outline of Coal Ridge to the west and Winona Ridge to the south. There was no river, no valley, no mountains, just an impenetrable barrier of smoke that not even the rising sun could break through.

Never before have I slept in a Lookout without a blanket or sleeping bag for warmth. Last night, I needed nothing although toward morning I pulled up a sheet to cover myself for the coolest hours. It was 80 degrees in the Lookout at midnight and 75 in the morning. I remembered frigid mornings of the past and shivering while starting a fire in the wood stove and hovering over it with a hot cup of tea.

Refrigerator tools | photo by Debo Powers

After breakfast, I worked on the refrigerator again. Although I got it started many times, the flame went out as soon as I let go of the primer. While hugging the refrigerator, raindrops on the roof startled me. It was too smoky to see any clouds. The rain lasted less than a minute, but it cleared the air enough to see scattered cirrus clouds overhead. The valley and mountains were still obscured by smoke, but the sun broke through the bathed the Lookout in light and heat.

Around the time that I had to report the morning weather on the radio, the winds changed radically from the southwest to the north and the temperature began to drop. The leading edge of the “cold front” had arrived! This “cold front” would not actually be cold, but would drop the temperature 10-20 degrees which was a welcomed change.

In early afternoon, I heard a squall coming. The winds were roaring and I rushed to close the windows and door. It crashed into the Lookout splattering rain on the south windows and rocking the tower violently. Although it lasted only a few minutes, the short blast reminded me of the strength of weather and what puny creatures we actually are.

Once the afternoon check-in was completed, I decided to hike down to the spring and fetch water. Leif had asked all of the volunteers at Cyclone to weigh in on a decision to have all of the volunteer lookouts haul their own fresh water from the spring rather than have “cubbies” (plastic 5-gallon water bags) delivered at the beginning of the season. I figured that I had better try it out before giving an opinion on the issue. I took the radio, cell phone, and empty containers for water.

Trail to spring | photo by Debo Powers

The trail was shady and silent. That side of the mountain was protected from the wind and the forest seemed absent of all animal life in the heat of the late afternoon. I noticed that the trail was in better shape than I remembered and that someone had recently cut out the blowdown. I kept going down down the trail taking one switchback after another. The trail to the spring was much longer than I had remembered.

Spring | photo by Debo Powers

I was almost to the spring when I heard Thoma Lookout calling for Numa Lookout on the radio on the work channel. When Karen responded, Leif said that he was hearing thunder to his northwest and asked if she would help watch for lightning. He also asked me if I copied and I responded on the radio that I had understood. I decided that since I was so close to the spring that I should continue as planned and filled my containers before heading back up. I tried to return as fast as possible and before long was sweating and panting. When I finally reached the Lookout, I saw that a storm was building to my southwest. After climbing into the tower, I positioned myself to watch the show. I looked at the weather radar app on my iPhone and saw that the storm to the west of Thoma Lookout was moving north of him and that the storm to my southwest was coming right toward my Lookout

A quarter of an hour later, the storm hit the Lookout blasting the south windows with rain, hail, and heavy winds and shook the tower like it was a small boat on an angry sea. It seemed like the thunder was above and all around me, but although I constantly scanned the landscape in all directions, I did not see any lightning at all. Soon, the storm moved toward Numa Lookout and Glacier Park. The sun came out and I actually saw some blue sky for the first time in a few days. Lookouts spend a lot of uneventful hours, but the excitement of being in the heart of a storm makes it all worthwhile.

Blue Skies | photo by Debo Powers

After the storm passed, there were a flurry of smoke reports through the Flathead Forest and Glacier Park. The closest one to residents of the North Fork was at Howe Ridge bordering McDonald Lake. This smoke was later confirmed and given the name of Howe Ridge Fire and I heard on the radio that firefighters had began to hike to the fire. Swiftcurrent Lookout reported a smoke near Heaven’s Peak in the Park and a helicopter confirmed it before dark. Options would be addressed the following day.

Sunset | photo by Debo Powers

As the sun set, the sky was clearing in the west. I was hopeful that the meteor showers would be visible in the night sky.

Leif called to tell me that there had been five lightning strikes in the North Fork. He gave me the locations. He was supposed to take Monday off, but had decided to stick around to see if any fires popped up from these strikes. There’s a reason why we call him the “lookout guru.” Not only is he an experienced lookout, excellent trainer for new lookouts, and a great manager of the volunteer lookout program, but he is totally conscientious and committed to his lookout role.

As I crawled into bed, winds from the west battered the Lookout as the cold front moved in bringing more storm clouds. Sleep was impossible due to all of the radio traffic. Dispatch was staffed all night and engines were roaming the North Fork looking for fire starts.

Late at night, Scalplock Lookout reported a fire on Tunnel Ridge that was an acre in size. It was later named the Paola Fire. A Blankenship engine reported a fire below Hornet Lookout a few hours later and put it out.

Strong winds beat on the Lookout all night shaking the tower and rattling the windows. At times there was rain and the sky lit up with flashes of lightning. Although I watched, I did not see any actual downstrikes. Sleep came between storms and radio traffic.

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About Debo Powers

Debo Powers is the NF News Polebridge correspondent. She has been hiking North Fork trails since 1979. In addition, she is a gardener, kayaker, mountain biker, and dance instructor.

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