From the HP 200LX program "Vertical Reader"'s e-text. Also found online at https://web.archive.org/web/20011210225451/http://bgrahamonline.com/bear-lo3.html
- 1 Intro - Bear stories and lookout tales, Part I
- 2 Dedication
- 3 Acknowledgement
- 4 Prologue
- 5 The Yaak
- 6 The Meat House
- 7 Foot-in-mouth Disease
- 8 The Cross Cut Saw
- 9 Mountain Phone Lines
- 10 Cub up a Tree
- 11 Roderick Mountain Lookout
- 12 Firefinder
- 13 Food for the Summer
- 14 Just What is a Balanced Meal?
- 15 Lookout Routine
- 16 Clothes for a Lookout
- 17 Lemon Meringue Pie
- 18 Lightning Storm on the Lookout
- 19 July 17, 1945
- 20 Huckleberry Patch
- 21 Biscuits
- 22 Wolves on the Mountain
- 23 Eggs, Eggs, and More Eggs
- 24 Old Potatoes
- 25 Mail
- 26 The "Fall Rains" Come
- 27 1946, the Second Year
- 28 A Weekend
- 29 BRC Camp
- 30 Pete Creek Cabin
- 31 Mt. Baldy
- 32 Wind Speed
- 33 Fire Barrel
- 34 Blizzard
- 35 The "Condor"
- 36 Strike!
- 37 Smoke Chaser
- 38 Porcupine
- 39 Sheep Drive
- 40 Fire Season is Over
- 41 Post Script
Intro - Bear stories and lookout tales, Part I ∞
I am the author of these short stories and they are freely distributable as "etext". I hope you enjoy them.
Robert B. Graham
6125-A Summer St.
Honolulu, Hawaii 96821
Prodigy - WTKW87A
bgraham at uhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.edu
BEAR STORIES and LOOKOUT TALES
by Bob Graham
Copyright 1989 Rev. - 1
Printed by Graham-Cracker Press
This is written for my grand-children. It is not written for my sons -- they have heard all of these stories a thousand times, and I'm sure they are bored with them.
I would like to thank my wife Carol for her support and for her tireless effort to improve my poor grammar. And to Karen Shishido for finding bad punctuation, missing words and wrong spelling that even a "spell checker" can't find. Any remaining literary "goofs" are mine and mine alone, and are made in spite of all their help.
To stand on a mountain top and watch the sun rise, makes you feel alive and part of a larger whole. To sit on a mountain top and watch the sun set, makes you feel at peace with yourself and your God.
As a young boy, I tramped all around the foothills north of Boise and wandered through the thick stands of cottonwood south along the Boise river. I tracked beaver and found their lodges among the cottonwood and hunted jack rabbits, ground squirrels and coyotes in the foothills.
I spent as much time as I could fishing, hiking and camping. The hills, mountains and forests were where I loved to be.
My dream was to become a Forest Ranger, so the chance to work for the Forest Service in Montana was what I was waiting for.
The Yaak ∞
The Yaak River country was still quite remote and primitive in 1945 when, at the age of 16, I first saw it. The Yaak is located in the northwest corner of Montana. Troy, the closest town, was a metropolis of 200 residents. It had one hotel, one cafe, one barber shop and a jail -- a typical small western town.
US Highway 2 connected the town to the rest of the world. The highway was a paved two-lane road south to Libby, but from Troy to the Idaho border it was only a single-track dirt road, with turnouts for passing. The bridge, on US 2 crossing the Kootenai River about two miles north of Troy, was a wide, modern concrete four-lane bridge. It was totally out of context with the rest of the road. It heralded the great expansion that promised to come.
The road up the Yaak turned off of US 2 about ten miles north of Troy. Sylvanite Ranger Station lay another fourteen miles north. The Yaak River Road was much worse than US 2. It too was a narrow, single-track road -- but it had grass growing in the center. The road was impassable after a heavy rain and the Yaak was snowed in during the winter.
Being remote as it was, the surrounding country was home to a great deal of wild life. You could expect to see a deer every mile you traveled up the road, and a bear every trip. It was here that I became fascinated with bears.
The Meat House ∞
My first encounter with bears was at Sylvanite Ranger Station. The fire lookouts didn't go up until sometime in early July, after the "spring rains" stopped and the forest got dry. There is still a lot of work to do before we went up on the lookout -- trails to maintain, phone lines to put back up after the winter snows and many other chores. There were about a dozen of us working out of Sylvanite. We slept in the bunk house and ate in the mess hall there.
Two nights in a row a bear raided our meat house. Let me explain. There was no electricity north of Troy -- so, no refrigerators, no freezers. The meat was dressed out and hung in a small screened-in shed close to the mess hall. The screens were to keep flies out -- not bears. So to protect our meat supply Dave, the Fire Dispatcher, staked out the meat house the next night.
About 10:30, shortly after we had all turned in, we were awakened by a shot. We jumped into our clothes, grabbed flashlights, poured out of the bunk house and ran over to where Dave was standing looking out into the dark night. He told us that he had just wounded the bear, a good-sized black bear. Now Dave had a crippled leg and couldn't track the bear very fast, so the bunch of us took out --after a wounded bear, in the middle of the night, armed with nothing more than flashlights and the belt knives we always carried.
We were lucky. We didn't find that bear that night. Dave found him the next morning just across the river from the station -- dead.
Gene Grush, the Acting District Ranger, had Dave skin the bear out and we all ate bear meat for the next couple of weeks. We figured that Gene was trying to show how economically he could run the District.
I really can't recommend spring bear. It is tough and stringy -- much better late in the summer after Mr. Bear has fattened up from his winter sleep.
Foot-in-mouth Disease ∞
(The names have been changed to not embarrass anyone -- except me, that is)
We all had to be trained for the jobs we had been hired to do. Smoke chaser and lookout school was at Libby and lasted a week. During that week we stayed at the Libby Ranger Station and had our meals in their mess hall. We were taught how to read a map, locate a fire on a fire finder, how to fight a fire and the other things we would need to know to be able to do our jobs.
One noon we all were eating lunch in the mess hall when the man sitting next to me asked if I was the one from Boise, Idaho. I admitted I was. He said "I used to live there, lived at 505 Franklin". Thought to myself about it a bit and then said "Hey, I know where that house is, Marjorie Beeson lives there now. I've dated her and boy is she a hot number". So, I spent the next five minutes regaling everyone at the table with tales about Marjorie Beeson. When I got done I asked him if by any chance he knew them. He said "Yes, I'm Kurt Beeson. Marjorie's my daughter".
I couldn't crawl into a crack in the floor even if I tried, so I spent the rest of the meal, as well as the rest of the week, telling him all of the good things I knew about Marjorie. I've tried to be more careful about opening my BIG mouth ever since -- even when far from home.
The Cross Cut Saw ∞
Maintaining forest trails was one of the jobs that had to be done. It entailed cutting out trees that had toppled across the trail by the winter snow, digging out any land slides and putting in log drains where washouts had occurred. We had to make the trail so a pack string of mules could travel over it. The tools we carried for this job were shovels, double bitted axes, a combination grub-hoe and axe called a Pulaski and an eight-foot, two-man cross cut saw. The saw is an ungainly thing to carry. You balance it on your shoulder and it bounces like a spring as you walk. Also, the handle behind you catches in brush and tree limbs.
We had finished for the day and were hiking back to the truck we had left at the trail head. I was feeling good and was way out ahead of everyone else, glad to be done with the day's work. I rounded a sharp bend in the trail and there, about twenty feet in front of me was a bear. I slid to a stop. He stopped and reared up on his hind legs. I was so startled that I dropped the saw. It landed on a rock in the trail and rang like a loud bell -- the bear dropped on all fours, spun around and took off down that trail like a shot. I sat down in the trail and waited for my heart to stop pounding so hard. From then on I stayed a little closer to the rest of the crew.
Mountain Phone Lines ∞
All communication in the Yaak was by telephone. This was before the Forest Service started using radios.
A mountain telephone line was a single strand of heavy galvanized wire, hung from trees (why work so hard to put up poles when the trees are already there). The wire was run through a wrap-around insulator so it could slide and pull slack from the spans on both sides in case a limb fell across it. In addition, the insulators were attached about thirty feet up a tree in a special way so they could pull free if a tree fell across the line. The whole idea is to prevent the line from breaking -- it might be on the ground, under fallen trees, but as long as it didn't break you could still yell above the static.
The phone line was strictly a party line. Everyone that was on the line could hear everyone else. To call someone, you first picked up the phone, listening to see if anyone else was on the line, and then "cranked" the ring code for the person you wanted -- like two short rings and a long ring. This meant turn the crank, located on the right side of the phone box, quickly around once for a "short" and three times around for a "long". Everyone on the line had their own ring code. Now, the crank on the side turned a magneto that generated a good high voltage. A high voltage was need to be able to ring the bells on all of the phones on the line.
I enjoyed climbing. It was sort of special being up a tree, above everyone else, being able to see all around. So I offered to climb any time we worked phone lines. There isn't a great deal to it, just don't fall. You strap linesman's spurs onto your feet. They are "L" shaped steel braces that go under each boot and then are strapped around the boot. The long part of the brace fits on the inside of your leg and straps around your calf just below the knee. The spur itself is mounted in the brace about where your ankle is. To climb you first put your safety belt around the tree, then jam one spur into the tree, lean back and with your arms straight, take a step up and jam the other spur in. Fairly simple, just don't hug the tree and get your knees close to the trunk. If you do, the spurs will kick out and you will come zipping down the tree trunk.
The first day that I got to climb, we were working across the road from Sylvanite. Everyone was watching to see if I could do it. After awhile I got familiar with the routine and was getting a bit cocky about being up so high. I was holding onto the phone line, when suddenly one heck of an electric shock went through my arms, down my body, through my legs and out the spurs that were dug into the live tree. I let go of the wire and wrapped my arms around the tree, which made the spurs slip out. I'd have fallen except for my death grip around the tree.
Down below, all the guys were laughing. Seems one of them went over to the station, waited for the right time and then started cranking the ringer as hard and fast as he could.
Cub up a Tree ∞
One day the job for four of us was to repair the phone line up the South Fork of the Yaak to Albert Brightenstein's farm. Albert, our Alternate Ranger, was having a lot of trouble with his phone.
My job was climbing. The rest of the crew were clearing brush. From my vantage point thirty feet up, I saw a bear cub in a nearby clearing. I came down and talked to the rest of the guys. We decided it would be fun to catch the cub. Quietly we circled around to the clearing, slowly closing in -- then jumped in to try and grab the cub. He let out a squall and ran up a tree.
Now, what to do? One guy went back to the truck and got a couple of axes. Then two guys started to chop the tree down and two of us got on each side of where it was to fall. We were all primed and ready to rush in and wrestle with an angry, scared cub. Finally the tree came down. We leaped in -- no bear cub. To this day I have no idea where he could have gone. Could we have chopped down the wrong tree?
Roderick Mountain Lookout ∞
I went up on Roderick Mountain Lookout in early July. The lookout was one room, ten feet by ten feet, set on a ten-foot high log tower. In the center of the room was the Osborn firefinder -- the reason for the lookout. Fastened to the sides around it were two bunks that would fold up against the wall. There was also a wood burning stove, two three-foot high cupboards to hold two month's supply of food and a small folding table -- all packed in this one room. The walls were wood three feet up, and then windows the next four feet. Heavy wooden shutters, hinged at the top, protected the windows during the winter. When the lookout was in use, they were raised up on two-by-two braces to act as an awning, shading the windows. There was a three-foot wide catwalk completely around, with a trap door that led to a ladder for getting up and down the tower. The cabin and tower were fastened to the mountain with four half-inch steel guy wires attached to each top corner. The guy wire went down the hill at a sharp angle, where the other end was attached to a big steel eye bolt, sunk deep in the rock of the mountain. The size of these guy wires indicated the strength of the winds I could expect. This was to be my home for the next two months.
Three trails led up to Roderick. One came up Burnt Creek. This was the trail used by the pack string that brought up two month's worth of supplies in late June. It was by far the best of the three trails, but it was fourteen miles from Sylvanite by this route. The phone line to Sylvanite, my only link with the outside world, followed this trail. Another was a poor, un-maintained seven mile trail that came right up over the ridge from Sylvanite and around the south side of Skookum Mountain. The third trail was short, just four miles. It went right down the south side of Roderick Mountain, going down at a forty-five degree angle, no switch backs, just loose dirt and rocks, to the road along Seventeenmile Creek. This was a "killer" trail, but a fast one.
Roderick Mountain was remote. I was all alone and would only see two people during the next two months.
In the center of the lookout was the Osborn firefinder. It was a round metal table about thirty inches across. It stood on an adjustable metal pedestal about four feet high. Glued to the round table top was a map, a half inch to the mile, with Roderick Mountain dead center. Around the edge of the table was a movable metal ring that rotated in a track around the table. This ring had a sight on one side and a set of cross hairs on the opposite. There were a couple of brass rods sticking up out of the ring, one on each side, to use for handles to help rotate it. Stretched across the ring, from the sight to the cross hairs, was a steel tape measured in inches. On the outside of the ring, the table was marked in degrees.
To locate something, you would grab a handle in each hand, look through the front sight, and move around the table, sliding the ring with you. When you had the object lined up with the cross hairs, the steel tape on the map would lie right along the object on the map and the degrees on the edge of the table would be the compass heading to it.
Streams and drainages stand out in high relief from up on top of a mountain. To pinpoint the location of an object, you count the streams or drainages between you and it. Then, look on the map, and count the same number there. Now, how far up the slope is it? This took a little practice, but soon you got the hang of it and could pinpoint anything on the map.
Food for the Summer ∞
Before the lookouts went up, a pack string of mules stocked the lookout with supplies to last two months. All food was canned, except for a bushel bag of potatoes and a half case of eggs. There was canned "Spam" in five pound cans originally packed for the Army. There was also canned corned beef, canned stew, canned peas, string beans, corn, beets and sauerkraut. The staples that were in the pack were sugar, flour, cornmeal, salt and yeast. The only fresh things were about a dozen lemons. This mix led to some interesting meals.
Just What is a Balanced Meal? ∞
My mother was a home economics teacher. She drilled into us boys that we should always eat balanced meals. I was to get a very graphic lesson on this subject the first week I was up on the lookout, and had to cook for myself (if I wanted to have anything to eat).
That first week, I was new at having to cook everything. So, for breakfast I just made pancakes -- simple and easy. For lunch I made biscuits and had them with jam, again simple and easy. Dinner, I had "Spam" or corned beef, with some left-over biscuits.
After about a week of this fare, I woke up one morning feeling very, v-e-r-y s-l-u-g-g-i-s-h. Late that afternoon I got sick to my stomach. Something seemed to tell me that my diet wasn't quite right -- I don't know why I felt that. So I opened a can of string beans, heated them up and proceeded to eat the whole can. Then went to bed. The next morning I felt alive again. From then on I followed mom's advice -- I balanced my meals by always including vegetables.
Lookout Routine ∞
I got up at the crack of dawn, not that I wanted to, I didn't have any choice -- when the sun came up it came blazing right into my room. That's what happens when you live in a glass house on top of the world.
The first thing that had to be done was to check the area for "smokes". Checking was done out on the catwalk so that the window glass would not obscure a faint smoke. First, select a small section of terrain and "sweep" it with your eyes. This was done by starting close to the lookout, checking the closest drainage very carefully, moving out to the next drainage and then the next until everything had been checked, for about twenty miles out. Then "sweep" the next section in the same way, working all the way around. This took about fifteen minutes. When I had finished I was sure there were no "smokes" that could be seen from Roderick within twenty miles.
All lookouts measured and reported any rainfall daily. Any amount of rain would reduce the fire danger. My rain gauge was down the hill a ways, so I would lower the stairs, run down the hill to the rain gauge and measure any rain that had fallen during the night.
Now I could ring Sylvanite, make my morning report to let them know I was still alive, that there were no "smokes" in my area and how much rain, if any, fell during the night.
Next it was breakfast time. I first had to build a fire in the stove, so I could cook pancakes or fry eggs -- whatever I wanted to fix. Of course I had to wash my own dishes.
After breakfast it was time for the daily water haul. There was no running water on the lookout. It all had to be hauled up the hill from a spring, in a five gallon bag, on my back. This daily chore took about an hour. Sometimes I would wash clothes at the spring. I would never take a bath there -- that water was like ice.
Checking the area was done every hour and took about fifteen minutes. I got to know every little dimple in the terrain that surrounded the lookout, until I had it committed to memory.
The next break was lunch -- usually leftover pancakes or biscuits. The pancakes, I would spread with jam, roll them up and eat them. Try it sometime, it's pretty good!
Roderick mountain was shaped so I could not look down into the Seventeenmile Creek drainage. To overcome this, the Forest Service had built a cupola on a point named Pleasant Mountain, which overlooked Seventeenmile Creek. The cupola was about five feet by five feet, built like a miniature lookout. It had an Osborn firefinder inside and a phone line had been run down to it. Pleasant Mountain was about a mile southwest of the lookout and about five hundred feet lower. About two or three o'clock every afternoon I would make the trip down to check the Seventeenmile Creek area.
Cooking, and just heating the lookout, took a lot of wood. There was a pretty good supply already cut when I got there. All I had to do was split it up for the stove. The unwritten rule in the mountains is to always replace what you use. So, one chore that had to be done from time to time was cut wood. Some of the dead snags around the lookout had fallen. If only one person was going to use an eight foot crosscut saw you took the other handle off. That way it wouldn't bounce from side to side so much. First I had to pick a snag and start bucking wood. It took practice, but soon you could push the saw, as well as pull it. It was just one more chore that had to be done.
Around four in the afternoon was the time to start making supper. After supper, around six in the evening, the dispatcher would connect all of the lines onto the main-line and we would get a chance to talk to all of the other lookouts. As it got dark, we could see a Coleman lantern burning on top of every mountain that had a lookout -- Grizzly Peak, Baldy, Garver, Northwest Peak and Henry Mountain. As it got later the conversations died down, and one by one the lights on the mountain tops went out as the Colemans were extinguished.
Clothes for a Lookout ∞
What does one wear on a lookout? I don't know what everyone else wore, but everything I wore on the lookout, I had to wash by hand down at the spring. This was a chore that I could really have done without. After a week or so, I finally had my wardrobe down to a "bare" minimum.
I needed a hat to shade my eyes, so my old green broad brimmed hat worked just fine. Shoes, I needed boots when I was away from the lookout, so my "loggers" with double aught caulks (quarter inch steel spikes) worked fine. Inside I wore moccasins. Up there, I always carried a .32 caliber revolver. So I just made a breach cloth out of an old pair of worn out jeans -- tucked it up and over my gun belt in front and back. Comfortable, easy to put on, easy to wash -- and there was no one around to say anything about it. If I got chilly, I just put on a shirt or jacket.
The only problem I had with this outfit was when I went down to the spring for water. At the spring, there were a lot of mosquitoes!
Lemon Meringue Pie ∞
I love lemon meringue pie -- with the lemon filling an inch thick and the meringue an inch and a half high. Yummmm!!
Now the more I thought about it, the more my mouth watered. There was still that dozen lemons that came up with the food supply, and I didn't want them to go to waste. So, I pulled out the "Lookout Cook Book" (each lookout had one). The recipes were specially made for the high altitude on the mountain. I looked and looked, but couldn't find any lemon meringue pie.
I called Dave down at Sylvanite and asked him to connect me to Mrs. Grush, the Acting Ranger's wife. I explained to her what I was trying to do. She asked me if I had a "Lookout Cook Book". I assured her I did, but said I couldn't find lemon meringue pie anywhere in it. She asked me to wait a minute -- came back on the line and told me to turn to page 12. I did -- looked at it -- and said to her "All I can find there is lemon 'mer-ig-new' pie". She couldn't suppress her laughter, but finally explained that was how it was pronounced -- I could hear Dave, who had stayed on the line, just roaring. That was the big joke for a long time.
Well, I made my "mer-ig-new" pie. The crust burned -- the lemon filling candied -- the meringue wouldn't whip. So, I just chipped it out of the pan and ate it like candy.
Lightning Storm on the Lookout ∞
A lookout is a safe, but spooky, place to be during a lightning storm. On the very peak of the roof is mounted a two-foot lightning rod. It is made of a half-inch round copper bar, sharpened at the tip. Four lengths of quarter-inch cooper wire connect to the lightning rod, one coming down each edge of the roof and then on down each corner of the lookout. They were connected to a square of the same material running along the outside of the top of the lookout, just above the windows. Another square of copper wire ran along the outside at floor level. This framed the entire lookout in a quarter-inch copper wire box. The quarter-inch copper continued down each leg of the tower and connected to another square on the ground. This square was then connected to heavy galvanized wire in four places, the same wire as used for the phone line. These four separate lines ran down the mountain, one on each side, to the nearest spring. There, they were connected to a coil of wire buried in the spring to form a good electrical ground. Inside the lookout, all large metal objects were connected to this grounding box -- the firefinder in the center of the room, both metal bunks, and the stove.
My first storm came about a week after I had been on Roderick. It was after dark and I could see the lightning in the storm as it rolled in from the south. As it got closer I started to hear the thunder caused by each strike. One way of locating where a lightning bolt hits ground is to count the seconds from when you see the strike until you hear the thunder. Sound travels about a mile in four seconds, so just divide by four -- that is the distance in miles. If you get a bearing on the firefinder where the strike hit ground and you "count" the distance, all you have to do is measure the distance out on the map.
The storm moved in around me and got more intense. Inside the lookout I began to see an eerie glow shifting around the top of the stove. The corners of my bunk glowed -- the heads of the nails in the ceiling glowed. I was petrified. Was I imagining it? Suddenly - - a blinding flash, followed almost at the same instant by a deafening crash -- a bolt of lightning hit the other hump of the mountain, less than a quarter of a mile away. The glow was gone from the stove, the bunk, and the nail heads. Saint Elmo's Fire!
It was pitch black and I couldn't see where the different drainages were, except when a bolt of lightning illuminated the mountains for a split second. There, down the hill, were a whole series of fires. This was my job, to locate and report fires -- I turned on the hooded battery lamp that hung over the Osborn firefinder, and took a sight on the first fire. All of the fires appeared to be down in the Burnt Creek drainage. I wrote the azimuth down, and estimated where on the slope of the drainage it was. I went on to the next, and the next, until I had them all down on paper. I put the head set and speaker phone on, plugged it in and rang the code for Sylvanite. Dave, the Fire Dispatcher answered -- I told him that I had a bunch of fires to report and started reading them off to him, checking each with the firefinder as I did so.
Suddenly the sky was illuminated with a flash as lightning struck. I swung the firefinder around to mark the azimuth where that bolt came down -- I would check it later for a fire. I came back to the fires that I was reporting -- they weren't there. I told Dave that they must have burnt out, but I would keep an eye on them. I disconnected the phone, and waited. Soon, the fires flared up again, so I called back in. I was reporting them over again, when lightning hit the mountain one more time. All of my fires went out. I told Dave that I was sure about them, but he insisted I check them for awhile before reporting them for a third time. All night long I watched as the "fires" burned brighter and brighter, and then disappeared as lightning struck the mountain.
In the light of morning, I checked each of my "fires". Each one was where a splice had been made in the phone line down the mountain -- Saint Elmo's fire again! I rang up Dave and sheepishly told him what I had figured out.
Pretty soon I got a call from one of the other lookout asking if I had any "splices" to report. Never did I live that down.
July 17, 1945 ∞
Dave called me and said that Gene Grush wanted to talk to me. Gene told me the government was lighting a big fire southeast of us early the next morning and they had asked the lookouts to watch and report what they saw. I set my alarm for 1:00 AM and went to bed early. At 1:00 I got up, built a fire and sat there watching until the sun came up -- nothing. I called Gene and reported that I hadn't seen anything
It would be sometime later that I realized what I had been asked to watch for -- the first explosion of an atomic bomb that was set off way down in New Mexico.
Huckleberry Patch ∞
There was no running water. It all had to be hauled up from a spring about three-quarters of a mile down the hill, in a five gallon bag, on my back. This was a daily chore, done early in the morning. The top of Roderick Mountain has two humps about half a mile apart. The lookout was on the higher one. The trail to the spring led down through the barren saddle between the humps, around the side of the smaller hump and then down a steep slope on switch backs. From the top of the steep slope, it was a quarter of a mile to the spring, which was located at the base of the slope on a beautiful timbered bench.
The steep slope faced east, catching the morning sun -- and had the best huckleberry patch in the whole Yaak River drainage. Every morning on my way to the spring I watched this huckleberry patch as the berries ripened.
Down at the spring the water was clear, cold and had a good flow. The water from the spring was channelled into a horse trough fashioned from a hollowed log. Since I didn't have horses to worry about, I used the horse trough to wash my clothes in -- kept a washboard and a bar of laundry soap at the spring just for that.
One morning, I came over the top of the hump and looked down the slope at the huckleberry patch. There, right in the middle of MY huckleberry patch was a big black bear eating MY huckleberries!
What to do? I pried loose a large bolder from the edge of the trail and got it rolling down the slope toward the bear. He heard the noise, looked up and saw something coming through the bushes at him. The rock hit another rock a few feet above him and bounced out of the bushes up into the air. The bear turned around and tore off down the hill as fast as he could go, rolling end over end down the slope and then out through the timber.
I sat down on the trail and laughed and laughed. I went on down, got my water and washed my clothes, feeling that I had gotten the best of that bear.
The next morning I checked the huckleberry patch -- no bear. I thought to myself that I must have scared him clear out of the country for good. When I got to the spring -- there were all of my clean clothes, shredded, my washboard torn apart and even a bite taken out of my bar of soap. Mr. Bear had the last word!
One of the staples of lookout fare was biscuits and jam -- this was our snack. Each of us made biscuits our own way. I made rolled biscuits, rolling them out with a rolling pin, the way my grandmother taught me. The key, she told me, was to make them as moist as possible, but not quite to where they stuck to the bowl they were mixed in. And Grandma made the best biscuits in the world.
Over on Grizzly Peak Lookout, just north of Roderick Mountain, was "Slim" Condon. "Slim" was from Des Moines, Iowa. We were the only two people on the Burnt Creek phone line, so we stayed on the line a good bit of the day, just for company.
One hot, hazy afternoon there was a lightning storm going on way down south by Libby, but nothing happening in our area. "Slim" was baking biscuits. Now "Slim" made drop biscuits. He mixed them up, but instead of rolling them out, just dropped spoonfuls of wet dough on the biscuit pan. To make them this way, they had to be extra wet -- almost runny.
We were talking, when there was a sharp crackle on the phone line. "Slim" swore and said something about getting off the line, then the line went dead.
It wasn't until late that evening that I could get "Slim" to answer the phone. At last he answered. After a lot of talking I finally got him to tell what had happened.
Seems he had finished dropping his wet biscuits on the pan, had the oven door open and was just in the process of putting the pan in the oven. At that same instant lightning must have hit the line down south, miles and miles away, traveled up to Sylvanite, jumped over to our line, went through "Slim's" headset, through his arms, through the biscuit pan, to ground through his stove. That was the crackle I had heard. The muscles in "Slim's" arms involuntarily contracted from the electricity, jerking the pan of wet, sticky dough right up into his face.
"Slim" maintained he could have gotten killed! I'm afraid I wasn't very sympathetic, I just rolled and rolled on my bed laughing.
Wolves on the Mountain ∞
There were wolves in the Yaak. In the evening, before it got dark, one wolf would start howling. Pretty soon there would be a chorus all around the mountain and down into every valley and draw.
One morning I had made my water haul and had just finished climbing back up the switchbacks through the huckleberry patch. I stopped at the top and leaned over to ease the weight of the forty pounds of water on my back. Turning around, I looked out over the timbered bench below me.
For some reason I had the urge to howl. Just to see what would happen, I let out the best wolf howl I could muster out over the bench below. Suddenly there was an answering howl from down on the flat -- then another from over to the side -- and still another. Soon the whole bench seemed alive with wolves. Boy, was I spooked.
I turned and started hiking over the trail on the top between the two humps as fast as I could walk. In this saddle between the two humps were a number of dead snags, twisted and gnarled by the incessant wind. As I hurried through this stretch, a sudden gust of wind swooped down, whistling and howling through the dead branches of the snag behind me. I thought I had aroused the fury of the wolves and they were right on top of me. Dropping my precious water bag from my back, I tore off down the trail like a scared rabbit.
Fifty feet further I turned and looked back -- no wolves. I sat down in the trail and laughed at myself -- boy, had I let my mind panic me. Sheepishly I went back, picked up the spilled waterbag and trekked back down to the spring to refill it. Needless to say, I didn't howl at any more wolves from then on.
Eggs, Eggs, and More Eggs ∞
As I mentioned, the food supply that was packed in included a half case of eggs. Now, how do you use half of a case of eggs before they spoil? As an example, if you could eat two eggs for breakfast every day, you would use only sixty eggs in a month. Then, if you also make pancakes for breakfast every day, you would use another thirty. Biscuits every day -- another thirty. So, at most, you could use up a hundred and twenty eggs a month, or ten dozen. But, a half case held fifteen dozen and only stayed good about a month. After a month the eggs had a bad taste and didn't smell so good.
What do you do with over five dozen rotten eggs? Well, there were a lot of ground squirrels around the lookout. One of my favorite pastimes was to go out on the catwalk and search for an unsuspecting ground squirrel that was within arm's length of the rail. The idea was to hold out an egg directly over him. Then, at the right time just let it go -- SPLAT!!
If my aim was good, it ended up with a real messy ground squirrel that let out a squeal and took off like a shot for his hole. If I missed, he would cartwheel into the air and then sit down and lick himself off. What fun.
Old Potatoes ∞
A bushel of potatoes is a lot to eat. After about a month or so, the potatoes started to grow sprouts and just generally go bad.
Now, down the hill a short way, we kept a block of salt for a salt lick. In the evening the deer would come up the mountain to the lick. It was not uncommon to have half a dozen deer at the lick in the evening.
Rather than just dump the old potatoes, I'd wait until evening when the deer came to the salt lick. Then take some of the potatoes, go out on the catwalk and see if I could hit a deer with one. Usually I missed. But if the potato hit close, particularly if it lit right under the deer, that animal would leap straight up in the air. It always amazed me how high they could jump -- a real, standing high-jump.
Then the deer would look around to see what it was, sniff at it and finally eat it. Old potatoes weren't totally wasted.
The phone lines from all of the lookouts went into Sylvanite -- each line had one or more lookouts or guard stations on it. Now, all that had to be done was to have Dave, at Sylvanite, switch all of the different circuits onto the main line and all of us could talk.
In the evening, if the fire danger was low, we would all get together this way, just to shoot the breeze. Seemed there was always something interesting going on, or we would just gossip.
We were all of high school age so the most interesting thing to all of us was, what else -- girls! How do you communicate with girls if you can't see them, talk to them or even mail letters to them (let alone get letters from them). This posed some real challenges -- with some interesting solutions.
When mail came into Sylvanite for us, Dave would call up and tell us that we had a letter. We then had two choices. One was to wait and see if someone might be coming up to the lookout in a reasonable amount of time. If not, we would just have to wait until September when we came off of the mountain. The other choice was, to swear Dave to secrecy, get him to open the letter and read it over the phone. With this latter course, we also ran the risk of someone eavesdropping on the line. Even with that risk, this was the choice we almost always made.
The way we sent letters was to first write them out on paper. Then we'd call up Dave, read them to him and have him copy and sign them for us. I was able to keep up a lively correspondence with four girls that summer.
One evening we all got to talking about our favorite subject. We decided for all of us to jointly coauthor a "letter to end all letters". We worked on it for a whole week -- agreeing to this phrase or that description, changing this word or that -- polishing, polishing all the time. Finally, our "jewel" was complete. We called Dave and each of us gave him a list of girl's names and addresses to send our creation to.
Dave tried to talk us out of this -- he tried to impress upon us that it just wasn't the right thing to do. But we were all adamant. Reluctantly he agreed to do it. He did it all right, he did it in a way that really fixed all of us. He put four sets of carbon in his typewriter, and sent all of our girls carbon copies. Boy, the letters we got back!
The "Fall Rains" Come ∞
One morning I woke up and it was cold. The mountain was blanketed in a heavy layer of clouds and it was snowing. After building a roaring fire in the stove, I finally thawed out a bit. After breakfast, I climbed down from the tower and went over and checked my rain gauge -- twenty-two hundredths of an inch. What had seemed like heavy storms before had only left three or four hundredths of an inch of rain. I checked into Sylvanite and gave them my rain report. They told me to see how the storm developed.
By noon the snow had changed to a steady rain. I checked the gauge again -- another thirty hundredths. That made over a half an inch of rain so far that day. Checking in again, to give Dave my report, Albert Brightenstein, the Alternate Ranger, answered my ring, "the weather forecast from Libby is for two more days of heavy rain. Do you want to come down for a week or so?" Was he kidding? I had been on Roderick Mountain for two months now and he asked if I wanted to come down! "Sure", I told him.
"It's a long hike down Burnt Creek. You'd better pack up and get started, if you want to get here before dark." I knew Albert pretty well, so I asked, "Can you meet me with the pick-up at the bottom of the Pleasant Mountain trail on Seventeenmile Creek in an hour and a half?" Now, the Pleasant Mountain trail was the trail straight down the south side of the mountain, no switchbacks, just loose dirt and rock. But only four miles to the road along Seventeenmile Creek. He said sure, he would be there.
The "Fall rains" that came each year, about the end of August or early September, had arrived and broken the back of the fire season. My job was over.
I packed up all my worldly possessions into a back pack. Then I rolled up my sleeping bag, stored it in the attic out of the reach of packrats and stored away all of the other gear. Going outside on the catwalk, I lowered and fastened the heavy shutters over the windows to protect them from storms. After putting my fire out, I climbed up on the roof, stuffed a rag down the stove pipe to keep the wind from blowing soot back into the lookout and then wired a tin can over the end to keep rain and snow out. I took one last drink of water and emptied all of the waterbags. This seemed such a waste. It had taken so much effort packing the water up from the spring to fill them. Finally I padlocked the door and climbed down the stairs. At the bottom, I turned and raised the stairs with the rope, fastening it so bears couldn't get up. It had taken me less that an hour to close up. I looked back at what had been my home for two months. I would miss it.
I shouldered my pack. Then taking a deep breath, and with one long step, I started down the Pleasant Mountain trail at a fast lope. With each big step, I would slide down the loose dirt in the trail -- "Flew" down trail is more like it, faster than I had ever gone down any trail before. I wanted off the mountain. A Forest Service truck was coming up the Seventeenmile Creek road, but I was at the trail head before it got there -- four miles in a half an hour.
It was exciting to see someone. I babbled on, non-stop, until we got back to Sylvanite. Once there, I had to talk to everyone.
Taking a hot shower in the bunkhouse, was a real luxury -- compared to my weekly baths in a wash tub, heated on the wood stove.
There was a truck going into Troy that afternoon, so I hitched a ride on it. What a sight to see the big town of Troy.
After the last two months, I felt like a grown man. First thing I did was to go into the barbershop, sit down in the chair, and say to the barber -- "Shave and a haircut, please".
1946, the Second Year ∞
The next year, 1946, I went up to Sylvanite in early May. This time I was an experienced hand so I asked for Mt. Baldy Lookout. Baldy was supposed to be the best in the district. At least that was its reputation. I spent May and June working around the district -- going to town every weekend.
A Weekend ∞
Jim, one of the other lookouts, and I went to Troy for the weekend. We got there about noon Saturday and had a bowl of chili in the restaurant. There's not much going on in Troy so we decided to hitchhike to Bonners Ferry, Idaho. We went out on US 2 to catch a ride, but we stood there waiting and waiting and there just didn't seem to be any traffic at all. Finally we gave up and walked back into town.
The freight trains stopped at Troy. The restaurant was right across from the tracks. While the engineer and conductor were eating and nobody was looking, we snuck over and climbed into an empty ore car on the north bound train. We kept our heads down -- didn't know what to expect.
We heard men talking, then the crunch of boots on gravel as someone walked past. The engine gave a couple of toots. Next, we heard a rhythmic banging coming from the front of the train that sounded like it was coming at us very fast -- BANG, the jolt knocked us off of our feet, and tumbled us to the floor of the ore car. What it was was the slack in the couplings between each car being taken up as the engine started to pull. We were off!
Finally, got enough nerve to poke our heads above the edge of the car and look around. It was windy, we were moving at a good speed, a lot faster than the cars and trucks on the dirt road between Troy and Bonners Ferry.
The smoke from the engine would drift back from time to time and we would choke. At one point we went through a short tunnel and thought we would choke to death on the fumes.
The train stopped in the freight yard at Bonners Ferry and we hopped off.
It was getting late and we were done fooling around town, so we decided to go back to Troy the same way. We went back to the freight yard. There we talked to some men that were hanging around and asked about any trains leaving for Montana -- they told us a freight train was headed back down the line. We climbed in an empty box car this time, not wanting to ride back at night in an open ore car.
It was after midnight when the freight finally pulled into Troy. We were cold and shivering. It was too late to go out to the Troy Ranger Station to spend the night and we didn't have money for a room.
I had gotten to know the Town Marshall pretty well the last year. He was sitting in the restaurant drinking coffee. So we sat down next to him and started a conversation. Finally I asked him if we could spend the night in his jail.
He walk down with us, unlocked the door and opened a cell. We spent the night in the Troy Jail.
BRC Camp ∞
We had some new neighbors up on Burnt Creek. A Blister Rust Control camp had been built on the creek up there.
Blister Rust is a disease that affects the White Pine. The host plant, that is part of the disease cycle, is the gooseberry. The disease was controlled by removing all of the gooseberry bushes in the infected area. It took a large crew to do this for they would work a whole drainage. The immediate area to be worked was first divided into strips about fifty feet wide. This was done by having a small crew, called (appropriately enough) the "string ball crew", run strings up and down the slope to be worked about fifty feet apart. Then a much larger crew, each about four or five feet apart, armed with small picks, worked each strip, digging out all of the gooseberry bushes, or "ribeys" as they were called.
This was hot, dirty, and I thought, boring work. That's why I worked for the District, and not for the Blister Rust.
There was something special about this camp, they were all Mexican Nationals contracted to do this work. I found out that several of my friends were strawbosses at the camp. So, one Saturday I hiked up Burnt Creek to visit the camp.
I got there just before lunch time and met my friends, who showed me around the camp. Then we all went over to the mess hall to eat. The cooks were from Mexico and the food definitely Mexican. It was good.
Afterward, we were sitting at the table talking. On the table, by the salt and pepper was a bowl of dried red chili peppers, each about three inches long. I asked about them. One of the guys said they were for the workers and he said "They eat them just like crackers. I'll bet you two bits that you can't eat just one". I took the bet. I ate it all right -- then made a dash for the water pump and tried to quench the fire. That was the hardest two bits I every earned.
Pete Creek Cabin ∞
The Forest Service had a cabin, about twelve miles up Pete Creek, that served as a Guard Station during fire season. It was about thirty miles from Sylvanite, making it too far to drive back and forth each day. So, during the early part of the summer a work crew stayed there and used the cabin as home base.
It was not a large cabin -- just room enough for a crew of four. A typical log cabin -- windows on two sides, one door and a porch -- four bunks and a wood stove completed the furnishings. There were heavy wooden shutters to cover the windows when the cabin was not in use.
Gus was our crew boss. One Monday we drove a truck up to Pete Creek cabin. We maintained roads, trails and phone lines out of the cabin for a week. At the end of the week we locked up the cabin and came back to Sylvanite to spend the weekend. We were tired of our own cooking.
We went back up the following Monday and found that the cabin had been torn into. The shutter on one window had been literally torn off and something had gone right through the locked door. Inside, our food had been ransacked -- it was scattered all over the floor. Looking at it closer, we found jars of jam where the lid had been unscrewed and then the jar licked completely clean -- cans of milk had been bitten and then drunk -- loaves of sliced bread had been split open and each slice taken out of both halves without tearing the paper. Whatever it was had taken our side of bacon and then just walked through the locked door.
We searched around the cabin and finally found where it had crossed the creek. There were prints in the soft earth that were one heck of a lot bigger than my feet -- at least half again as long and twice as wide. Up the hill we found where the grass was packed down. It looked like it had bedded down at that spot and waited there for us to leave.
Now Gus lived in the Yaak -- had a small farm up on the North Fork. He call Sylvanite and told them what had happen. Then he drove up to his place for a rifle to have in case our visitor came back. We continued to work that week, and had no more encounters. That weekend we went back down to Sylvanite. When we came back, same thing had happened.
It was decided that we should come back down, but leave Gus there to stake the place out. After three days and no visitor, Gus came down early in the morning to get more supplies and bring us back. We were back to the cabin before noon and found that our "friend" had visited in the short time that we were all gone.
This went on all summer long -- no one ever saw the animal, and it only "hit" the cabin when no one was there. All along everyone thought it was a large grizzly because of the enormous size of it's footprints -- looking back, now I just don't know.
Mt. Baldy ∞
Baldy was the first lookout to go up each year. It was a fairly easy four mile hike by trail, from the Yaak River Road up to the lookout. This short trail meant a better chance to have visitors than Roderick, which was much more remote. More mail, see people, fresh food, that was the good side of Baldy.
But Baldy was one of the oldest lookouts in the forest, let alone the district. It was a log cabin -- an old log cabin. They had built a five-foot by five-foot cupola on top of the cabin to mount the Osborn firefinder in. Then a hole had been cut through floor of the cupola, through the cabin roof and then on through the ceiling. A ladder was then nailed up through this series of holes so that you could climb straight up into the cupola -- nice, you didn't have to go outside. There also was an outside stairway up the side of the cabin, across the roof, to the catwalk around the cupola, in case you wanted to go up that way.
Another thing about a log cabin is -- you just can't make it tight enough to keep mice and packrats out. Mice, they were the cute brown and white field mice. All I had to do was keep my food stored so they couldn't get into it -- they didn't really bother me. But the packrats were something else -- they would get into anything, clothes, letters, sleeping bag, and chew it up. I kept up a constant war with them. I had a .22 rifle with me and shot a lot of them, but it didn't seem to make a dent in the population that lived above my ceiling. At night, they sounded like they were having a square dance up there.
Baldy overlooked Spread Creek on the north. To the east, you could see where the Yaak Post Office was and see car lights on the road at night. South, you were looking right down to Sylvanite about nine miles away. It was pretty well centrally located.
Wind Speed ∞
There was a weather station on Baldy. It had the usual rain gauge, as on all lookouts. In addition, the daily minimum and maximum temperatures had to be recorded as well as the amount of moisture in wood. This was done by weighing a calibrated set of wooden sticks.
Baldy also had an anemometer to measure the wind. The spinning cups of the anemometer were mounted on a pole about twenty feet high, set about fifty feet from the lookout. Inside of the spinning part was a set of electrical contacts. The contacts would close momentarily when the cups had turned around a certain number of times. A pair of wires were connected to the contacts and run from the pole to the lookout. There, a flashlight was connected between the wires. When the flashlight was turned on, it would blink on and off whenever the contacts in the anemometer closed and then opened. As I recall, the number of blinks per minute indicated the number of miles per hour of the wind.
It was interesting to measure the real wind speed. On Roderick I could only guess at it. At times it had felt like the whole tower was coming down.
The anemometer worked fine for slower winds -- say, up to about forty miles an hour. Up to fifty, I could read it reasonably. But over that, the light flashed so fast that it seemed to be on all of the time. I couldn't see the blinks.
So, for winds over fifty, I had to guess. I guessed the wind was sixty -- when my rain gauge blew over. This occurred a number of times. I guessed it was seventy -- when the cabinet that my weather station was in overturned. That happened twice. It had to be EIGHTY when -- the shutters on the cabin were pulled so hard by the wind that the two-by-two braces that held them in place shattered like a gun shot -- and the shutters were wrenched off with a terrible crash and went fluttering down the hill like leaves in a breeze. This happened only once, and I was petrified.
Fire Barrel ∞
A large snow bank, still unmelted, was on the north side of the mountain. This was convenient. I used it as a natural refrigerator. After making a screened box, which I buried in the side of the snow bank, I was able to store the fresh things I had brought up with me. Also, opened things, like canned milk, could be stored there and wouldn't spoil so fast.
There was a fifty-five gallon drum outside of the cabin. It had to be kept filled with water, in case of fire in the cabin. I just shoveled it full of snow -- this sure beat packing water on my back from the spring to fill the darn thing.
It was about the first of August, when something around the lookout started to smell bad. It got worse and worse -- a terrible stink. I couldn't find what was causing it or figure out where it was coming from.
One day, I decided to check the fire barrel to make sure there was still water in it. When I took the lid off, the smell just about knocked me over. Phew!! After looking inside, I remembered -- I had brought two heads of cabbage up with me. I had put one on top of the snow in the barrel and put the lid on -- thinking to myself, that ought to keep it fresh and from spoiling!
Weather seemed to be a lot colder this year than last. We had a number of snow storms. The worst one came in August.
When I woke up, it was overcast, with a sharp, cold wind blowing. I went out to the wood pile, brought in a big supply and got a roaring fire going in the stove. The temperature continued to drop -- the fire just couldn't keep the cabin warm. It started to snow and the wind picked up. Pretty soon, I couldn't see out of the windows -- they were covered with snow. I kept stoking the fire with wood. Finally, I just took off my boots, opened the oven door and put my feet, with two pair of wool socks on, right inside the oven. I stayed that way until late afternoon.
Finally the wind died down, the snow stopped and the sun peaked out from under the dark clouds. I pulled my feet out of the oven, put on my boots and opened the front door.
Looking toward the sun -- I was blinded. There was a snow drift, four feet deep against the cabin and a foot and a half of snow stuck to the north and the west sides of the cabin. On the south and east, there wasn't any snow -- it had blown clear over the mountain. Everything was frozen, including the wind gauge, and everything had icicles sticking out horizontally. What a blizzard - - and in August.
The "Condor" ∞
One of my hobbies was making model airplanes. Each new one was a different challenge. I decided I would have enough time up on Baldy to build a real, big one.
At a store in Libby I found a model of a Condor glider. It had an eight-foot wing span. The picture on the box showed a beautiful free-flying glider, with gull shaped wings. I could just visualize it sailing out over the forest, climbing higher and higher -- I was hooked. That was just what I was looking for. So, I bought it.
Now, you don't just load something like that, a fragile box, full of balsa wood, onto a pack mule. All that would get to the lookout would be sawdust. Even packing it up in my backpack took some doing -- the box that the kit came in was four feet long.
To build it, I had to dedicate my table in the cabin. The first step was to spread out the plans, tack them to the table and cover them with wax paper, to keep the glue from sticking. Next, I pinned each strip of balsa in place with straight pins and glued each joint with model airplane glue. As each section was finished, I would hang it on nails that I drove into log wall. This went on for almost a month.
When all sections were finished, it was then time to put the paper skin on. First, I spread glue on the edges, and stretched the skin smooth. After drying, I would trim it and spray it with water to make the paper shrink tight. Finally I assembled the wing sections together -- eight feet long. Then I completed the body and tail. After putting the wing and body together, I looked at it all assembled -- what a beauty. It was snow white, no other color. I hung it from the ceiling of the cabin for a couple of days, just to admire it.
All of this time I kept telling the other lookouts, during our evening phone time, about the progress.
One morning in mid-August, the wind was just a whisper. I took my Condor outside -- hooked a loop of string to the hook below the nose and gently let it start to climb. It went up like a kite, until I guess it was a hundred feet in the air. Then I jerked to release the string. The big Condor started to spiral up, and up, and up -- constantly moving eastward. It flew and flew, until it was just a white speck in the blue sky. Finally I couldn't see it any longer. I have no idea where it came down, but it was a real thrill to see my Condor fly almost perfectly -- out of sight.
It was a dark, overcast day, with lightning hitting all around the district. There seemed to be a general storm all over. I was in the cupola watching the lightning strikes -- recording where they came down, so I could check later for "smokes".
I was checking north, over Spread Creek, when there was a blinding flash. I was stunned by the explosive crack of the thunder right on top of me and seemed to push me down to the floor. Lightning had hit the lookout! I must have stood there like a zombie for the longest time.
Finally able to move -- I looked around for any damage, but couldn't see any. The flash had been right in front of my eyes. I looked closely at the lightning rod on the north end of the cabin - - instead of the sharp point on the top, there was now a quarter- inch round, shiny, copper ball.
Smoke Chaser ∞
The phone rang. The code was for Baldy so I answered. It was Dave at Sylvanite, "Roderick and Grizzly both see a smoke on Hellroaring Creek. Coordinates are north-west quarter of Section 35, Township 64, Range 34. Can you see anything?" "Just a moment and I'll check", I told him. I raced up the stairs, spun the Osborn around to the coordinates Dave had given me and took a quick look through the sight. That way I would know the where they were seeing the smoke. Plugging in the phone, I went out on the cat-walk to get a better view. "Dave, I don't see anything. That is on the south side of the creek and my view may be blocked," I said. "I'll check with Roderick and Grizzly again and call you back. In the meantime, better get your smoke chaser pack ready while I'm checking", Dave advised.
I ran down the stairs and took the smoke chaser pack off of its peg on the wall. It was a pack frame wrapped in a shelter-half (half of an Army pup tent). In it was shovel, a Pulaski, a flash light head lamp, a compass, a map of the Sylvanite District glued to a canvas backing. The pack also contained two days worth of Army "K" Rations. Rolling up my sleeping bag and strapping it to the pack, I then put in some extra clothes, a pair of socks and my jacket. The map and compass I put in my shirt pocket, I would need them to find the fire. After filling my canteen I called Sylvanite. Dave answered, "They both say that the smoke is getting heavier. You better get going". "OK, I'm on my way", I replied.
Studying the map, it appeared I could follow the Spread Creek trail about a mile and a half and then cut south over to the Hellroaring Creek drainage about two miles to the fire. It always looks simple on the map, but I knew better. Finding a small fire could be very difficult. As a help, I had written down the azimuth readings Roderick and Grizzly had given so I could back sight on them if I could see their lookouts.
So much for the plan, let's get going. When I estimated I had covered about a mile and a half I left the Spread Creek trail and started cross-country -- that's the hard part. Finally got to a rock outcrop. I couldn't see the fire but I could see Roderick. Taking a backsight, I figured I had to go south another mile. From a clearing further on I could see both Lookouts -- then the breeze shifted and I smelled smoke!
Another quarter of a mile and I saw it. A dead snag had been hit by lightning. It was still on fire and had dropped burning limbs, spreading the fire down the hill about fifty feet into an area between and around some big rocks.
Dropping my pack off to the side out of the way, I took the shovel and quickly trenched the uphill side of the snag. Then taking shovelfuls of dirt, I threw them at the burning limbs, knocking the flame out. That would slow it down, while I trenched the area below.
This was hot, dirty work and required constant checking to make sure the fire didn't jump my trench at any point. The sun set. I put on the head lamp and continued trenching the fire. What had to be done was clear all pine needles and forest duff, right down to bare dirt a couple of feet wide -- chop out any roots across the trench -- throw dirt at any flames inside the perimeter to knock it down. Work as fast as possible.
It must have been after midnight before I felt that I might have it under control enough to rest for a few minutes. I was starved. The thought of food made my mouth water. I opened a box of "K" Rations. What a let down -- stale crackers, powdered coffee and a small can of scrambled eggs and ham that tasted like something else, I'm not sure what. The only good thing was a fruit bar. And I had been told you couldn't starve on the stuff.
Back to the fire. It became a mechanical routine, turn all the dirt over inside the perimeter shovelful by shovelful, knock down any flame -- just keep going and going. In the east it started to get light again, and finally the sun came up. It had been a long night but there was still a lot of ground to work.
By about noon all of the flames were out and there were no longer any smoking areas inside the trenched perimeter. Now I had to make sure it was completely out. On hands and knees, I went over the whole area checking with my hands for any hot spots and turning them over in the dirt.
It was dark when I finished. Rolling out my sleeping bag, I sat on it and ate one of the "K" Rations. I just stretched out and was instantly sound asleep. The next morning I checked the area again with my hands. It was all cold, no heat at all. The fire was dead. Now I could leave.
Returning the way I came, I stopped at my spring for a long welcome drink of cold water. And then, without any hesitation, I pulled off all my clothes and proceeded to take a bath in ice water. Fighting fire was hard, hot, dirty work. Was ever I glad that job was done!
One night I dreamed that someone was sawing the cabin down. It was a weird dream -- they just kept sawing and finally it fell over the side of the mountain! It woke me up, and I was in a sweat, but the sawing continued, and I got really scared. I lay in my sleeping bag, thinking of everything it could be -- the Pete Creek bear? What kind of monster could be tearing the cabin down. Finally, I got up enough nerve, and got out of bed, put my boots on, slowly opened the door and peeked out. The moon was up and gave quite a bit of light -- but I couldn't see anything. After opening the door all the way, I went out and followed the sound. Around on the side of the cabin, one of the big shutters that was used to board up the window for the winter, was leaning up against the cabin. There was my ghost, a porcupine was gnawing on the shutter. It acted as a great, big, sounding board that amplified the noise. Wow!
I went charging toward him to try to scare him away. He just waddled behind the big shutter. I pitched a rock at him. He waddled around the corner -- and right through the door I had left open, right into my cabin.
It took me two hours to finally get him -- from behind the stove -- out of the wood box -- out from under my bunk, leaving quills every place and finally -- out the door. I spent the next day collecting quills so I wouldn't jam one in my foot.
Sheep Drive ∞
Fresh food was a real treat. Canned meat in particular got pretty old and there was just no way that I could eat one of those big cans of "spam" before it went bad -- or worse, the flies got to it -- yuk.
Every summer, sheepherders drove a band of sheep up through the mountains in the Yaak. The sheep driveway went up by Northwest Peak, followed the high ridges down to the upper end of Spread Creek and came down Hellroaring Creek.
I could track where the band of sheep was by the cloud of dust they kicked up. The first time I saw the dust, I thought it was smoke from a fire -- but it just didn't look quite right. At least this time I didn't report it as a fire, like my splices on Roderick -- I talked to Jim on Northwest Peak first and he told me what it was.
I kept an eye on the band, marking their new location daily on the firefinder map. They traveled a few miles every day as the sheepherder moved them to fresh grass. Finally I could hear sheep bells on the slope below me, down Hellroaring Creek. That evening I hiked down to see them.
The sheepherder was Basque -- came over directly from Spain on a contract to herd sheep. He didn't speak much English and I sure didn't speak Spanish, but we were able to talk some. He told me he had been on the trail for a month and a half and hadn't seen anyone in that time. He said he was out of tobacco. Up in the mountains, if you smoked, you rolled your own -- Prince Albert pipe tobacco and Wheat[doesn't exist] Straw papers. I finally made a deal with him. I had an extra one pound can of Prince Albert up at the lookout which I traded for a leg of lamb. The tobacco[doesn't exist] should last him the rest of the summer and I got a real treat -- fresh meat.
Fire Season is Over ∞
The "Fall Rains" came, the same way they came on Roderick. Cold, wet, steady rain that brought an end to the fire season. It had been a long summer. I was glad to get off of the mountain, see people -- and eat someone else's cooking.
Summer was over, time to get back to school.
Post Script ∞
After three years in the Army, I chose to study Electrical Engineering rather than pursue a career in Forestry. Still, while going to college, I would spend two more summers working for the Forest Service on a lookout -- most people thought I was a Forestry major, not an EE.
From my experience, working for the Forest Service, I have observed that two things have worked together to destroy much of the US National Forest as I knew it. One was the invention of the chain saw -- that is just man's continued search for a more efficient tool. The other was the change in policy of the US Forest Service to favor "clear cutting" over "selective cutting" for the harvesting of timber.
When I worked in the Yaak, the chain saw had not been invented -- at least I had never heard of one. Trees were cut by hand, two men on a cross cut saw. This required a large crew and cutting was done at a slow pace. One man could not "tear down" a stand of trees in a day by himself.
With selective logging, a US Forest Service employee first "cruised" the stand of trees selecting the trees to be harvested before any timber was cut on Federal land. Only mature trees were cut, young trees were left to grow. Each tree to be cut was scaled for the number of eight-foot saw logs it would produce and recorded in a tally book showing the type of tree, location and yield of logs. It was marked by chopping a blaze low on the trunk and then the blaze was imprinted by hammering it with the other end of a special cruising axe. This marked the blaze with the letters "US". As I recall, we wrote a number on the blaze with an indelible pencil and recorded the number in our tally book.
But not all of the mature trees were taken. Some trees were left to reseed the area.
As logging trucks came out of the forest, they swung through the Ranger Station, and there, each log was measured, recorded and stamped on the end.
After all of the logging in the stand was finished, the area was checked and each stump inspected for the blaze and checked against the tally book records. There is no question that such a procedure used a lot of Forest Service manpower.
Selective cutting required the logger to work around the small trees and those to be left standing. Clear cutting is much more efficient for the loggers -- they cut everything. They are the ones who benefit from clear cutting -- quicker, less manpower.
However, I have gone back to stands that I cruised. After ten years it was difficult to tell that the area had ever been logged. The immature trees had grown rapidly, benefiting from the additional sunlight. The "brood" trees that we left standing had scattered seedling all around them. The trees and brush that had been intentionally left had prevented heavy erosion. Harvested this way, the forest could be used for the "multiple use" that Congress had intended.
I have also returned to "clear cut" areas ten years after the cut. Here, erosion had ruined the trout streams, the rubbish that had been left in great piles and huge windrows had still not degraded. Yes, there was brush, but I have seen a burn recover faster. The tree cover needed for large wild life had not come back. There were no trout. The area was no longer attractive, even for a camping site. I was sickened. This is NOT multiple use.
From my observations I am convinced that the long range benefits of "selective cutting" far exceed the short term gains of "clear cutting". If we are to hold the National Forests in trust for future generations, we must stop the current policy and practice of the US Forest Service of "clear cutting", and return to "selective cutting".