2016 Days 1 &2 as a Volunteer Lookout

By | August 4, 2016

Debo is back at the lookout! Enjoy.

Lookout Desk
As the sun crept over the mountains lighting up the drainages to the east, I continued to stay cuddled in my warm bed watching the changes to the landscape as sunshine painted its morning canvas. The chilly lookout did not start to warm up until the sun popped over Baptiste Peak and flooded my House of Windows with its power.

At an altitude of 6732 feet, Baptiste Lookout sits above the Hungry Horse Reservoir just outside the boundaries of the Great Bear Wilderness.  The view shed includes peaks and drainages along the reservoir as well as the east side of the Swan Range.  The highest peaks like Great Northern, Mount Aeneas, Swan Peak, and St. Nicolas still display patches of snow this far into the summer season.

With NPR news on the FM radio interlaced with communications on the official Forest Service radio, I fixed breakfast and prepared for the day under a cloudless sky and gentle winds.

Amy, Rachel, and Alan leaving Baptiste

Yesterday, I began my third year as a volunteer lookout for the Flathead National Forest.  Hiking up the trail with three friends (Amy Robinson, Alan and Rachel Peura) who helped carry a heavy supply of fruits and vegetables, I noticed how much more lush the vegetation along the trail was compared to last summer.  With all of the rainfall in June and July, the landscape is still covered with green vegetation in contrast with last year’s hot, dry conditions.  The huckleberries in the lower elevations were plump and impossible to pass by.  We stopped many times to grab handfuls to stuff in our mouths.

It almost seemed like we would not have much of a fire season this year, but the dry, hot weather of the last week and the accompanying thunderstorms have created the right conditions for fire.  Small fires have been popping up in several places throughout the region.  I had been informed by Leif Haugen that there was a fire across the reservoir from Baptiste Lookout along Wheeler Creek.  I hiked to the lookout in anticipation of watching the fire.  However, the Wheeler Fire was declared out by 1200 yesterday after spreading only 1/10 of an acre thanks to the efforts of firefighters on the scene.

Upon arriving at the lookout, I dropped my pack and climbed the stairs to unlock the trap door.  Steve and Barb Penner, volunteers before my hitch, had left the lookout clean and organized.  The first thing that I did was hang the flag and call Kalispell Dispatch on the radio to announce that Baptiste Lookout was back in service.

Everything at the lookout was perfect except that we could not start the propane refrigerator.  This did not bode well for the stash of fresh fruit and vegetables that we had just hauled six miles!  We labored over the refrigerator with no luck until it was time for my friends (who called themselves “mules”) to hike out with their containers to fill with huckleberries on the way back.

Breeze Box

After they left, I continued to work on the refrigerator.  I consulted with three other lookouts:  Bill Fordyce, Steve Penner, and Leif Haugen to get ideas about what to do with the refrigerator, but nothing worked.  Luckily this lookout has a “Breeze Box,” a cabinet with screened slats in the floor that open to the outside air.  The wind blows through and keeps food cool.  I stuffed the Breeze Box so full of food that there was hardly any room for the breeze!

As the sun dipped below the Swan Range to the west, the temperatures dropped, the wind gently rocked the lookout, and I curled up in my cozy bed to read until my eyes would not stay open.  After a busy week, I finally caught up last night with 8 hours and 47 minutes of sleep and awoke this morning energized and excited about what the day would bring.

My lookout comes equipped with its own yoga mat that I took advantage of after breakfast to work out the kinks from yesterday’s hike. While bending and stretching, I gazed around the landscape looking for smoke.  Starting in the north, then northwest, then west, then southwest, and then south, I covered my territory with my eyes while stretching and breathing.  I realized last summer with the Clayton Creek Fire that a fire plume can appear extremely small and be easy to miss in this huge landscape.  My stretching routine gives me the chance to really take my time searching each section for smoke.  I think I’ve found a new and interesting way to scan the landscape and I’m wondering how many other lookouts have used this technique.

The highlight on a quiet lookout day (meaning one with no fires or lightening storms!) is the morning weather at 1000.  Every lookout (in a specified order) reports the weather at her/his lookout.  It is interesting to hear the similarities and differences in the weather conditions in different view-sheds.   The warmest temperature today was at Cooney Lookout in the Swan Range and the coolest temperature was at Jumbo Lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

I spent some time wrestling with the refrigerator this afternoon…..getting into contorted positions behind the refrigerator to take pictures of the thermal coupler to send by text to Leif and conferring with him on the phone about other things to try.  No luck.  Although Leif is an anti-technology kind of guy, he has discovered that he can text with other lookouts from Thoma Lookout using an iPhone.  Maybe Leif is officially part of the technology age now.  My vegetables are maintaining their freshness in the Breeze Box, but I’m guessing that they will go bad much quicker than if they were in a working refrigerator.  Needless to say, my meals are very veggie-filled so that I can eat them quickly.

After evening check-in, I hiked down to Silver Basin and hauled three gallons of water up the switchbacks to the lookout.  This chore provides my evening exercise and chance to look closely at all the wildflowers (while taking a moment to breath along the steep climb).  There are not many huckleberries this year between the lookout and the basin below.  I will have to hike further to get back to the huckleberry zone.

Sunset from Baptiste Lookout

The evening was cool and pleasant even with the warm afternoon sun blasting through the western windows of the lookout.  I am beginning to slow down and leave my busy life behind.  Even living in the peaceful North Fork, my summer days are filled with frenetic activity–meetings, potluck suppers, working in my garden, community river floats, hikes, and bike rides.  During the summer months, I rarely write or practice my ukulele.  Being at this secluded lookout, there is a different pace.  I breathe deeply and spend many moments just looking at the beauty around me.  I had no visitors today and the solitude was a balm to my soul. There is a difference between being alone and loneliness.  I am basking in the aloneness of this place and the natural world around me.

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