Fire lookout towers in the backcountry provide not only soaring views of wild lands, but also cheap, unique shelter.
While enjoying the evening campfire at the base of Yaak Mountain Lookout in northwestern Montana, Phil and I were complaining about three days of sunny weather. That’s when the rumble of thunder silenced us.
Overhead, the broad, blue sky was dappled with fleecy clouds. But weather changes swiftly in the mountains, and the 45-foot-tall lookout tower we had rented was in the path of a fast-moving lightning storm.
We smothered the fire, tossed our chairs in the truck and scrambled up the four flights of 56 steps to the security of the glass-enclosed, electrically grounded cabin.
The storm clouds, black and ominous, scraped over the Cabinet Mountains to the southwest, racing toward our snug home. We pulled up chairs to watch the show.
Our fireside complaints were because we bemoaned the sweep of sunbathed mountains stretching to the horizon in all directions, but that we wanted the thrill of weathering the elements when the wind howls and the day turns moody while we’re safe inside.
Luck and lightning were on our side.
U.S. Forest Service lookouts are usually 15-foot by 15-foot cabins circled by a catwalk and wrapped with windows. Most were built in the 1930s to house firewatchers. At the height of their use in the 1940s, the Forest Service operated more than 3,000 lookouts in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. Before the relative luxury of these cabins in the sky, firewatchers often lived in platform tents and climbed tall trees to watch for fires atop “crow’s nest” platforms.
Today, computerized lightning detection systems and air patrols have taken over much of the role of lookouts in detecting and locating wildfires. In severe fire seasons, some fire lookouts are still staffed because they offer views not covered by other systems. But for the most part, lookouts are a dying breed.
The Recreation Cabin and Lookout Rental Program has brought new purpose to these iconic symbols of the backcountry. The Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service, based in Missoula, Mont., administers the lookout rental program in the national forests of Montana and northern Idaho, where more than 30 lookouts reach above the trees, more than in any other part of the country.
As Phil and I hunkered inside Yaak Mountain Lookout, the wind blew free and cold. Lightning strikes punctuated the brooding southwestern sky; foreboding thunder followed. We knew from past experience that storm tracks can be fickle, yet we morbidly hoped for a close call.
Every five seconds between a lightning strike and thunder clap represents one mile. A 30-second gap means that the thunderstorm is within a dangerous radius. We counted a 40-second gap once we scampered up to the lookout cabin.
Good timing. Safe inside, we watched the storm through the sturdy windows. First, the gale howled and the driving rain flew sideways. The tight windows with heavy frames and small panes never moaned. The lookout shuddered, but barely flinched. Like other lookouts, all built on exposed peaks, it was made to withstand strong wind and direct lightning blows. Lightning rods and grounding cables anchored into the mountain protect it — and whomever happens to be inside.
The lightning kept spearing closer — we counted 15 seconds, then 10, then 5. “We’re going to get hit, Phil!” I yelled as we sat back to back.
Then, in a great white flash and roar, lightning struck. One big strike forked just in front of my southwestern window while Phil saw another strike just off the northeastern corner. Thunder pounded our ears in the same moment.
“Did you see that?!” we exclaimed to each other at the same time.
The storm churned past us, still pelting the lookout with horizontal rain. Now the lightning strikes blazed from cloud to cloud as well as pummeling the forest slopes to our east with elongated ground strikes. We were speechless in the midst of nature’s raw force.
The show was intense, but short-lived. While it still spit and blew overhead, we caught glimpses of clear sky to the west. Soon the evening sun warmed our refuge. On the east catwalk, rainbows arched over the Purcell Mountains, now in the path of the storm.
Changing views from on high
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.