Unforgettable Memory #3 A Summer as a Fire Lookout
Nancy Radke #mgtab
After four years of college, my husband and I needed a break from working our way through college, so he took a job as a fire lookout with the Forest Service. They put our supplies on pack-mules and took both of us to the top of Granite Mountain in the Snoqualmie National Forest. We had to call the station and let them know any time the lookout was unmanned.
We were located at the center of all the lookouts, so most of our time was spent relaying messages from one spot to another, usually from firefighters to the Ranger Station. Our station was about twelve by twelve. It had windows completely around it, a fire-finder in the very center, and a catwalk outside. The bed was a narrow cot just wide enough for the two of us. It was only as high as the windows, which we left open at night, until we discovered that mice liked to come inside and run across us to check the place out for crumbs. We could feel them scurrying across the blankets.
We had a stool with insulators as legs, which we were to stand on if manning the radio during a lightning storm. Long cables ran from our large antenna mounted on the roof, down the corners of the lookout and down the mountainside. A burned path under the cables showed their effectiveness. I was already teaching school in the fall when we had our first lightning storm, so my husband had to weather it himself. He said it was really noisy!
Most of the time it was just us and the volcanic peaks around the area, Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams. This was before St. Helens blew off her top, so they all had beautiful, rounded glacier-covered tops. The clouds would roll in from the Pacific, filling the valleys, then rolling over a ridge and filling the next valley in line. After a few hours they would cover the land, leaving just us and the volcanoes, as if we were in an airplane. Then they would rise up enough to reach our catwalk, then go over us. Then we were in thick fog!
My kitchen was a two-burner camp stove, set on a wooden box that could be moved if it got in the way of the fire-finder. A square metal box with a door served as an oven. I had to use high-altitude recipes as we were around a mile above sea level. The “refrigerator” was a large cream can like the ones I used on the farm. We put it in a nearby snow bank. I could make Jello in a jar, just screw on a lid and put it in the can. When the snow bank left, we kept the can full of water, and that kept things cold.
We had visitors all summer. Our favorites were former lookouts, as they would bring us newspapers and other little items that you don’t miss until you are without. Sometimes we would get a Boy Scout troop, all full of questions, wanting to see how the fire-finder worked.
Our loo was a box with a lid on it, placed where you could sit and look out across the entire mountainside. Took me a while to feel comfortable using that! The man who packed in our supplies would sit out there with his binoculars, looking for bear, so he could find them when hunting season came. Our shower was a mile down the trail at an ice-covered lake, which made a small waterfall as it melted. Jump under and get wet, jump out and soap up, jump under again and then out and dry. No one took long showers.
I made lots of huckleberry pies, as the altitude didn’t affect them, and picked enough huckleberries to freeze for the winter. Once while picking I looked up the slope in front of me and saw a stag resting in the bushes. Startled both of us. He jumped over me and took off. The former lookouts had tamed a marmot, which would come and take crackers from my husband’s hand. I was never brave enough to keep holding the cracker when the marmot rushed me to get the treat.
I needed three more credits to get a teacher’s certificate. I signed up for a summer correspondence course and at the same time got a job teaching sixth grade in Kirkland. I had just turned twenty-one, but for some reason they hired me. I finished my correspondence course up there. Plenty of time to read, study, write, and just relax. It was a great way to spend the summer, and I was rested and ready to brave teaching for the first time that fall. I think they do their fire patrols with airplanes now, but the lookout experience was one I’m really happy to have had.
My book, “Courage Dares,” is set in that location, and I notice most of my stories have mountains in them. I live in the city now, but the mountains remain my favorite memories. Buy here at Amazon
Nancy Radke grew up on a wheat and cattle ranch in SE Washinton State. She attended a one-room country school through the eighth grade. She learned to ride bareback at age 3 (Really! It was a common practice.) and when she got off or fell off, she would pull her horse’s nose to the ground, get on behind its ears, and the horse would lift its head so she could scoot down onto its back. She spent most of her childhood exploring the Blue Mountain trails that bordered the ranchlands. She and a friend once took a trail that turned out to be a two day trip. They always rode with matches and pocket knives, so made camp and returned the next day. These long rides worried her parents, but provided plenty of time to make up stories. Her first novel was set in the Blues, and is entitled APPALOOSA BLUES. TURNAGAIN LOVE was the first one published. It rated a four star review from Affaire de Coeur. Scribes World said “Turnagain Love has some fascinating twists and turns, unexpected complications, and charming scenes.” It is light and humorous.