When I was studying forestry in college, a guy who shared a lot of my classes told me kinda, sorta jokingly that he thought I would end up manning a fire lookout tower. Yeah, he was essentially right: I was and will forever be introverted, and I am happy to be alone with my thoughts. Though I never was stationed on a fire tower, I could have been perfectly happy doing so, and would have followed in the tradition of beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, both of whom manned lookouts in the North Cascades of Washington State. Alas, spotter planes have replaced fire lookouts in most areas of America, so the option of being a fire lookout has closed in on those of us suited for the job.
I have known a few fire lookouts, and they conformed to no real stereotypes. The first one I met was an elderly lady (probably about my current age!) who was staffing a lookout about 50 road miles from anywhere in California’s Lassen National Forest. At the time, I was a 19-year-old on a forest fire water tanker crew, and one of our routine jobs was to deliver water to that lookout, which lacked a nearby spring. When the lady lookout greeted us, she was wearing a dress and long white elbow-length dress gloves–which she considered to be the proper way to greet visitors. She certainly made an impression!
Fire lookouts in the past were sometimes the wives of firefighters, back before the US Forest Service routinely employed women on fire crews. Every morning we would hear the four or so lookouts announce that they were starting their workday on the radio that blared across the fire compound where I worked. I recall one lookout from Horse Ridge in California saying that the lady lookouts with the sexiest radio voices were often the most overweight (hey, a little snarky commentary is always fun!).
Several years ago, we encountered a young woman staffing a fire tower in Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. She hadn’t seen many fires that summer and, when I asked her what she really thought her job was, she said “public relations.” She was to put a good face on the Forest Service for all the hikers who came her way, and to establish a sense that someone really was caring for all the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. I envied her lifestyle: immediately after leaving her Forest Service temp job as a fire lookout, she was heading to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station for a long season working in the cold. She was having a series of lifetime adventures!
Fire lookout towers come in various configurations. When I was growing up in the Midwest, fire lookouts had to be tall to rise above the trees; they were set atop spindly steel towers that could rise roughly 100 feet tall. When I was younger, I had a fear of heights, and even on a calm day, I was afraid to climb all the stairs to the top of a tower. One time, when I was about 12 years old, I climbed several levels on the tower at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and was able to see a Black Bear foraging in a meadow below. But I didn’t like seeing the ground through the gridded metal stairsteps … it looked so far below that my boy’s legs wobbled.
When I was in college in 1970, attending a forestry summer session in the Upper Peninsula, my buddies and I drove from camp one evening to visit a nearby fire tower. Two of the guys climbed the tower to smoke marijuana while watching the sunset (as in “Oh wow, man”); the two of us who didn’t like heights stayed on the ground and didn’t toke. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was descend 120 metal steps at twilight after smoking dope! But my friends made it down without incident and appeared to have had one of those hippie spiritual experiences made possible by drugs.
Fortunately, I’ve outgrown my fear of heights and can now lean over cliffs to get a photograph whenever the opportunity arises. In fact, one time at Palouse Falls I almost took a step too far on an extremely steep and loose slope, but I’ll leave that story for another time.
Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout is different from those Michigan lookouts. The cabin is about the same size, and they used the same Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint fires (in combination with other lookouts, the location of a fire was precise). The big difference lies in the location. Gobblers Knob commands a stunning location atop a rocky promontory right in the face of Mount Rainier. It doesn’t have to rise above the trees, because the rock it sits on rises above most of the trees. There is only one short set of stairs to climb–after sweating up over a thousand vertical feet of steep trail.
The Tahoma Glacier starts near the summit, which rises above 14,200′, and continues down the mountain to about the 5,500′ level, which is about the level I’m at while taking this photograph from Gobblers Knob Lookout
Gobblers Knob Lookout was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was among America’s best ideas; it put young men to work during the Great Depression and created much of the best rustic infrastructure of America’s national and state parks. The CCC, with camps run by the US Army, also installed discipline and a work ethic in hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men; some have argued that this training and discipline was a huge asset in winning WWII. Gobblers Knob Lookout was used to spot forest fires until after World War II, when it was largely replaced by spotter planes.
The lookout remains today, and it is considered an historic place by the National Park Service, so it is maintained. In fact, several years ago, the roof was crushed by heavy winter snows, but the lookout was rebuilt in its original form.
To get to the lookout, our group of six took a trail that skirted Lake Christine and led to Goat Lake, where we established our campsite. The day was unseasonably hot for Western Washington State, so we were glad to reach Goat Lake. We changed into swim trunks and went swimming in the subalpine lake that had sported melting ice just two weeks earlier. After swimming, we cooked an early dinner, hung our food to guard against bears, then four of us hiked up the steep trail to Gobblers Knob. Along this trail, we passed from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest into Mount Rainier National Park.
Our plan was to experience sunset at the lookout, then to descend the trail in the dark, by headlamp. We took careful note of landmarks along the trail so that we could follow the path without getting lost in the dark. All went well, but in the heat and steepness, I ran out of steam several hundred yards short of the fire lookout, and had to stop for an energy bar and some water.
The view from the lookout was astounding. It sits right in the face of the mountain, and caught the last light from the western sunset. The sky was clear, but we didn’t get the pink alpenglow we had hoped for, and had to be satisfied with the warm light reflecting beautifully off the peak. Before we knew it, dark descended. Two of our group went down the mountain ahead of Karen and I; by the time we decided to descend, we really did need the headlamps almost immediately. We had recently gotten a powerful new LED headlamp for Karen, and it gave us a sense of wonderful certainty about the trail in complete darkness. Based upon this experience, I suggest that anyone going into the back country should use as powerful a headlamp as possible.
On the way down the trail, we saw a light in the woods ahead. It turned out to be a young woman backpacking with her dog. She was resting on a log and had a sheen of sweat from the warm night; her dog was panting heavily. We asked if she had enough water for the dog, and she replied that she did, but that he was getting old and tended to overheat more on the trail. Her plan was to camp near the lookout that night, and she had about a mile to go. We made it back to camp without any problems, and quickly burrowed into our tent, where we lay atop our sleeping bags until we finallly cooled off enough to crawl inside.
The next morning, I took a cold swim in the lake, which refreshed me for the hike out. It was cold enough to encourage me to yelp with a combination of pleasure and pain. We stopped at Lake Christine, which had also recently melted out. Near the lakeshore, there was a meadow with the highest concentration of White Avalanche Lilies I have ever seen. These spectacular lilies start emerging through the melting snow, then quickly bloom with pristine white purity. There were also spectacular shooting stars and Columbia Tiger Lilies in this beautiful lunch spot.
The day grew ever hotter as we descended, but near the trailhead Karen spotted a yellow columbine. It turned out that this was a rare alternate color form of the familiar red-and-yellow columbine we normally see. At the trailhead, cold water in an ice chest was a wonderful pleasure.
Photographs from the trail:
For more information about Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout and the trail approaching it, go to:
National Park Service trail to Gobblers Knob (Note: this is NOT the route we took; the National Park Service route is longer, and much of it follows the West Side Road, which is now closed to vehicles.
Washington Trails Association Route Description (Note: this is the route we chose, and we added the side trip to Mount Beljica, which also gives a spectacular view of Mount Rainier)
Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout (information and history)
There is an excellent recent book, Fire Season, by Philip Connors, that chronicles his life as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest during eight fire seasons. I just finished reading it, and enjoyed how he wove National Forest fire policy into the narrative.
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