The rocky face of Baptiste Peak greeted me when I opened my eyes this morning. It was still quite early and the peak was backlit by a glowing morning sky. The temperature was considerably warmer than yesterday even in the dawn hours. Kjell Petersen at Firefighter Lookout reported hearing wolves this morning.
The sounds of wolves remind us about the biodiversity that surrounds our lookouts. The wild country that we protect is public land, belonging to all Americans. We are fortunate to live in a country whose leaders had the vision to set aside land for the public good rather than allow it to be exploited by a few. Every day when I fly the flag from the lookout, I am proud to be working for the U.S. Forest Service and to play a small part in protecting our public lands.
By lunchtime, cumulus clouds were moving in from the west and smoke was moving up the reservoir from the south, probably from the big fires in the Lolo and Bitterroots. The smell of smoke was in the air long before the haze of smoke enveloped the lookout. A dry, cold front was expected in the late afternoon bringing possible thunderstorms and increasing fire danger. Everyone was waiting to see what would happen.
By mid-afternoon, the wind was pounding the lookout with gusts up to 30-40mph. The tower shook and the temporary window in the southeast corner continually squeaked from the force of the wind that seeped into every crack and crevasse of the building. The haze of smoke obscured the landscape transforming it into rounded edges and softened colors which made searching for smoke plumes extremely difficult.
I love being in a high lookout tower in the heart of the weather! You become a creature of the sky as the wind buffets you. You can feel it’s power.
After the evening check-in, I grabbed my bear spray, radio, and phone and hiked down the trail toward Silver Basin. I knew that my friend, Jenn Mayrand, was hiking to the lookout today and I planned to meet her on the trail. As I walked down the switchbacks, I could hear her coming up talking and singing for the Bears to get out of her way. When she came around a corner, I grinned at the spectacle before me! Jenn wore tiny hot pink running shorts with an equally bright sports bra along with a running vest that contained water, bear spray, a pistol, rain jacket, and a few items of clothing. We were glad to see each other and chattered happily on our way back to the lookout. Jenn had also brought elk steaks, salad dressing, and some huckleberries that she picked along the way.
Although I was loving my solitude, Jenn was not an intrusion because she brought with her, not only our long-time friendship, but a childlike delight to be in a lookout. She continually marveled at the different aspects of lookout life and snapped dozens of pictures. We cooked a real Montana dinner of elk steaks, corn on the cob, and salad from my garden. After setting up a cot and sleeping bag for Jenn, we talked and talked as the sun set painting the sky and clouds with color. When the sun disappeared, the temperature dropped and we climbed into our beds and continued to talk until too sleepy to continue.
That night, a cold front sent strong winds to beat against the lookout and send icy fingers into its interior. By morning, it was 40 degrees. A cozy wood fire was important for keeping the chill out of the lookout. Jenn put on every piece of clothing that she had brought and became a modern-day representation of “Rainbow Brite.” I made huckleberry pancakes which we devoured with enthusiasm accompanied by hard boiled eggs and coffee/tea as we sat by the toasty wood stove. By that time, the stove had raised the indoor temperature 20 degrees.
Jenn stayed to hear the morning weather reports which I buggered up by having a non- functioning radio. I called my weather report into Kalispell Dispatch on the cell phone and quickly fixed the problem with the radio after getting some advice from Bill Fordyce at Numa Lookout.
Jenn set off for the trailhead as a rainstorm began to move into the area. An hour later, I noticed a hiker coming toward the lookout in the rain. I invited him to come up and get out of the weather to eat his lunch. I had a delightful conversation with Mike Allen who had taken a year off from college in Pennsylvania to travel out west. Since last July, he has explored Utah canyons, California, and as far away as northern Alaska before ending up in Montana. He has fallen in love with Montana and plans to transfer to the University of Montana. As we talked, the lookout was shrouded in clouds and rain splattered against the west windows. I had not expected a visitor on a rainy day like today, but Mike commented that he didn’t let any weather keep him from spending time outdoors.
After putting on his rain jacket and pack, Mike left the lookout and disappeared down the trail into the clouds that have covered the lookout through most of the afternoon. There was nothing but grey outside the windows. Most of the time, I could not even see the green vegetation around the lookout. During the intermittent rain, I was able to catch rainwater from the roof to use later for washing dishes. The outside temperature stayed around 41 degrees all afternoon, so I kept the fire going and read a book next to it. By late afternoon, the clouds lifted and formed a ceiling above the lookout which gave me a view of the reservoir but no peaks. I love days like this.
After evening check-in, I hiked down to Silver Basin to search for huckleberries. Dripping vegetation rubbed my legs along the trail and clouds cloaked the peaks above as I descended into the basin. Last year, huckleberries were abundant between the lookout and the basin. Although there were berries on the lower part of the trail when we hiked up four days ago, they are scarce in this section. I only found a handful of berries to eat on my oatmeal the following morning. Before leaving the basin, I filled a gallon jug with water to carry back up to the lookout.
After cooking the rest of the elk steak, stir-frying some veggies, and using the last of the garden lettuce for a salad, I enjoyed dinner in front of the wood stove. As the sun disappeared behind the Swan Range, the embers of my fire died, and the cold began to seep into the lookout, I quickly got into my bed to read under a warm sleeping bag before falling into a deep sleep.