Thirty Years, Part Three

1984. Jimbob’s in Middle Sister lookout. His dad dies toward the end of July, and he has to go home to California. It’s still fire season, who can they get to fill in at the lookout? I’ve expressed interest, would I be willing to spend 6 weeks up there?

Yes.

I get to spend one day with Jim before he has to leave. He shows me the firefinder and the radio, and points out some of the prominent peaks. Quickly we go over the form to fill out before calling in a smoke. It just so happens that a lightning storm comes over in the afternoon. We watch a strike explode a snag over on Bathtub Peak. Smoke puffs up from the dry wood, then a rain squall obscures the view. There’s no more time for training. I watch Jim work as the storm passes.

In a few days, I am the lookout at Middle Sister. I’m not sure why I wanted to be a lookout. Certainly, the solitude was appealing. The little cabin on the tower, the view, the excitement of storms and smokes. The sense of self-reliance, but also belonging to a network. The firefighters–my friends–counted on me to find fires, and to relay their radio messages back to the Avery Ranger Station.

It was an experience that left a lasting impression, that wore a groove into my psyche. I loved learning the intimate details of the landscape. I could lie in the bunk with my eyes closed, and picture the contours of the horizon. I could name every peak and ridge and creek. I had spent hours looking through binoculars. I loved the sound of the wind through the guywires and the stiff branches of the subalpine firs. I watched ground squirrels and birds. Deer walked under the tower. A family of mountain goats came to the switchback on the road to visit the saltlick Jim had made. I named them Floyd, Molly and Buster. I was never able to figure out their relationships, except that one of them had to be Buster the kid’s mother.

It was my time on Middle Sister that started me on the path to becoming a weather nerd. I learned to take weather observations with a belt weather kit, and recorded the weather passing over the Bitterroot Divide. I gained an affinity for air and the subtleties of its movements. There’s a relationship between topography and air, and the careful observer will see how fires burn depending on that relationship. One must be willing to be surprised–it’s not possible to know everything about weather and fires.

I saw the moon and stars. I watched them change as September approached. I saw magnificent sunsets, woke with the sun in my face. I spent days in the fog, and shivered when rain lashed the tower. I survived a Palouser that left dust on the windows. (See my post from December 7, 2009)

The next season I returned for a few weeks, and trained the next lookout. I became the lookout trainer and relief lookout for the rest of my time at Avery. My weather observation skills were put to use when I became a fuels technician. I moved back to Washington to work for the Wenatchee National Forest and acted as a lookout numerous times. Some of my best fire assignments have been when I’ve been left on some mountaintop with a radio, binoculars, and a weather kit. I’m content to watch a fire, the weather, the world. I call in my reports. It’s not for everyone, but I’ve always liked it.

Even after all these years, I still have night dreams of being in a lookout tower. I think it’s about the windows, and having a clear view all around. It’s about being up high. It can be an adventure to get up to a peak. Sometimes a fire is there in these dreams, and I never know what it’s going to do. I love having lookout dreams.

I was 24 when I first went to Middle Sister. After those 6 weeks, I knew I wanted to be down, digging fireline with my friends and chasing smokes. But when I was older, being a lookout would be a good job. That was 26 years ago…it would be a good job, and I’d do it again. In a heartbeat, I would.

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