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Phil and I have been staying at lookouts each summer since 1996, shooting photographs for the U.S. Forest Service in the process. At Idaho’s Lookout Butte — a giant among giants at 60 feet tall — a pulley system makes getting gear up to the cabin less of a chore. Other lookouts are perched only a few feet off the ground on bald peaks. No matter how many steps you must climb, views are always vast.
From other lookouts, such as Castle Butte in Idaho and Gird Point in Montana, Phil and I saw lightning-ignited forest fires. Through binoculars, the spectacle of helicopters and planes skillfully dropping water and chemicals on the flames mesmerized us.
Not all of our lookout rental experiences have been so dramatic. Though we often see purple-streaked clouds and lightning from distant storms, most days and nights are quiet and scenic. Sometimes we sit in a cloud where only the catwalk railing is visible. Wind is a constant. If we grow weary of the wind, we can always find a quiet spot on the lee side of the cabin. The same technique works for the view. When we want a change of scenery, we just pick up our chairs and move to another side of the lookout.
Campfires by the base of the lookouts are the dessert to our day. Once inside the cabin for the night, we fall asleep under the Milky Way.
Our inner world becomes as expansive as the outer on a tower. Since Phil and I have spent a lot of time together in the wilderness, we feel comfortable in silence. We also share conversation, hikes and games of cribbage.
Top of the world
The lookout experience is a retreat of sorts for us. We don’t anticipate grand insights, though the setting inspires thoughts and feelings that go beyond our daily spheres. Judging from the logbooks available in each lookout, other visitors seem to get what they need on top of the world. For some, it’s an opportunity to plumb the depths of their souls or reconnect with their families or friends. For others, it’s nothing more than a respite in the woods.
For Phil and I, the cabin and lookout rental program was a pleasant revelation. “It was getting hard to sleep in a tent every night on our mountain trips. This way, we can backpack or drive to a rental unit if we choose, and it’s great to have a roof over our heads,” Phil said.
To Mary Laws, recreation program manager on the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana, the rental program offers two benefits. “It gives the public a chance to enjoy history and the outdoors, which is part of our mission. Then, with the rental fees received, we can afford to maintain and restore these historical structures.” Once people try it, they often return, she said.
Phil and I are proof. We have rented 28 fire lookouts and 15 cabins since we discovered the program in 1993, and each had its own charm. We’ve seen elk and bears, owls and hawks. On clear nights, stars seem to rest on the cabin roof. Northern lights paint a living canvas overhead.
The seeming silence, at first overwhelming, doesn’t really exist. The sounds of wind and wildlife take over from vehicles and voices.
From the majesty of mountain and valley vistas seen atop a tower to the closeness of the forest that envelops a cabin, we have experienced immense beauty because of the rental program.
To us, two middle-aged kids, whatever the wear and tear on truck or body it takes to reach these havens is worth it.
Jim Umhoefer is an outdoor/travel writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.