Fluffy white clouds filled the reservoir valley below the lookout when I opened my eyes to the clear, crisp dawn. Perched above the clouds, they looked so soft and substantial that it seemed that a person could bounce on them and roll around in their gauzy fleece. Being in the high country on a morning like this is a vision of heaven.
The temperature was in the 40s as I climbed out of bed and started a fire in the wood stove. The pouring rain during the previous evening had filled my rain bucket. This water will be used for washing dishes. I like to wash my dishes every day…… unlike some lookouts who collect their dirty dishes in the oven and wash them when they have nothing left on which to eat! Their method is great for saving water especially when you have to carry it uphill from a creek, but I would rather save rainwater and wash dishes every day. In a wet year like this one, this method is possible.
After breakfast, I sat at the desk typing on my iPad as the sun appeared over the top of Baptiste Peak shining in the east windows. It’s warm rays landing on my dark t-shirt heated me as much as the wood stove.
Baptiste Lookout is a beautifully restored structure that was built in the 1960s. It was abandoned in 1972 when the Forest Service cut its number of lookouts. After years of neglect, Baptiste Lookout fell into a state of disrepair. Decades later, the stairs were no longer there, trees were growing up under the structure, and the inside was trashed. Leif Haugen began resurrecting Baptiste Lookout from decrepitude beginning in the fall of 2011. (The pictures below show the inside of the lookout before renovation and what it looks like now.)
After the trees were cut and the stairs were rebuilt, the trash and old furniture were removed from inside. After renovations, Leif built cabinets (to match what was there before), as well as the desk, Firefinder stand, and bed. He had to work for 8 weeks (12 hour days/7 days a week) in the fall and spring to get it ready to staff in 2012. Since then, it has been staffed with trained volunteers during every fire season. The volunteer lookout program also staffs Firefighter Lookout and Cooney Lookout.
Leif provides training for all lookouts in the Forest Service and Glacier National Park–both full time, paid lookouts and volunteers. Besides trainings, renovations, and repairs, he staffs Thoma Lookout in the North Fork near the Canadian Border.
After morning weather, I started painting. The materials that the helicopter deposited a few days ago included paint for the trim that Leif will use when he installs a new window this fall. I painted the trim with two coats of light green paint so that it will be ready for that project. The day was sunny and quiet with blue sky and white cumulus clouds. I listened to an audio book as I painted the trim. No visitors came by.
Without any thunderstorms or new smokes reported on the radio, the day seemed quiet and uneventful. Since this was my last full day at the lookout, I worked on the painting and getting the lookout in order for the next volunteers who would arrive the following day.
Before taking my evening walk, the Western Tanager visited me again. She perched on the railing of the catwalk and cocked her head to the side listening every time the Forest Service radio came on. She stayed around long enough for me to get some pictures.
Every day before my walk, I called Kjell Petersen at Firefighter Lookout to tell him when I was leaving the lookout and when I expected to be back. This is a safety precaution. We, lookouts, look out for each other. Each day when I returned, I called Kjell to tell him that I was back safely. He would usually ask: “So, what was the most interesting thing that you saw on your walk today?”. Today, my answer was that I found ripe huckleberries…… A lot of huckleberries!
My last sunset at Baptiste for this year sank behind the Swan Range splashing the sky with red as I crawled into bed to sleep the sound sleep of lookouts up where the air is pure and magical.
My peaceful sleep was interrupted at half-past midnight by a huge black storm moving my way from the south. Lightning streaked across the sky sometimes with down strikes that ended in a ball of flame. A part of me realized that the storm would hit the lookout, while the other part was resigned to the storm slipping east and missing the lookout like it had been doing all week. Within a few minutes I realized that it would be a direct hit. And, hit it did.
The lookout shuttered and groaned from the battering ram of the storm. Rain and hail beat against the south windows making me wonder if they would hold up against the onslaught. The lightning hurt my eyes as its brilliance crashed through every window. I cowered under the covers with only my eyes peeking out as the thunder clashed, simultaneous with the flashes of lightning. The sound was deafening. At some point, I noticed how tense my body was and that I was sweating profusely. So, I started yelling “WAHOO!”……tentatively at first and then with more enthusiasm and volume. With every WAHOO, the tension eased and was replaced with excitement. I certainly did not have to worry about waking anyone up because the only person for many miles was already very much awake and WAHOOing with the storm.
Just when I thought that the storm had passed, it began again with new vigor. Only this time, it pounded the east side of the lookout. It seemed as though I was getting the backlash after it hit up against Baptiste Peak and Unawah Peak.
And then, suddenly it was over. The noise died. The winds stopped. All was quiet. Stars came out. I watched lightning dance its way across the sky to the north. The distant sounds of thunder came from the other side of Baptiste, Unawah, and Felix. Then, the night was completely silent as though it had never happened.
Lying in my bed, I thought about the storm I had just experienced. The night was quiet and I gazed at millions of stars through the west-facing windows next to my bed. While pondering the mysteries of the universe, two meteors streaked across the sky as though to place two exclamation marks on my thoughts before I drifted back to sleep.
The following morning, I was busy packing, fixing breakfast, and cleaning the lookout because my time at Baptiste Lookout was ending and I had to make room for the next volunteer lookouts. The sky was filled with dark, rain-filled clouds and more thunderstorms were predicted.
Kjell from Firefighter Lookout called to say how much he had enjoyed “sharing outer space” with me during this hitch. I told him about my storm the previous night and his response was, “You have been complaining about all of the storms missing you, now you need to just SHUT THE HELL UP!”
After the morning weather reports from lookouts, I was ready to go. My last duty was to call dispatch.
“Kalispell Dispatch, Baptiste Lookout on Desert.”
“Go ahead Baptiste.”
“Baptiste Lookout is going out of service until later today when my replacements arrive.”
“Copy that, Baptiste. Baptiste Lookout out of service at 1035.”
After hoisting my backpack and locking the lookout, I started for home. On the trail, I met Rick and Marli Davis who were the next volunteer lookouts at Baptiste. We exchanged radios and information and went our separate ways as the sky opened up and the rain started pouring down.
I had a lovely walk in the rain, brushing against dripping vegetation, singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” to let the Grizzlies know that I was coming their way.
They say that lookout life changes you in new and different ways. I find that this is true and that there are new discoveries about myself every year. My lesson this year was to slow down and notice. In other years, my evening walks had always had the purpose of hauling water from the creek to the lookout……very goal oriented. I would walk as fast as I could and accomplish the task. This year, I rambled in the evenings, stopping to look at things and take in the sights and sounds around me. I usually brought back water, but that was not the goal. Kjell helped me in this by always asking, “What was the most interesting thing that you observed on your walk?” This simple question changed the experience for me. I looked at wildflowers, watched pollinators, observed the interaction of light and rocks, communed with springs, and listened to birds. Hauling water was the secondary task.
As I walked through the rain back to my parked truck, I did not hurry. I just rambled along and noticed things. What better way to transition from lookout life than to take a piece of it back with me.