Keeping Watch: A Weekend in Granite Mountain Lookout
What it's like to man one of Washington's fire lookouts for a weekend through the U.S. Forest Service's Volunteer Ranger Program.
This summer, in addition to volunteering on WTA work parties, I volunteered with the U.S. Forest Service's Volunteer Ranger Program. Once a week I donned the uniform -- usually on a Saturday -- and hiked a trail on the I-90 corridor, offering advice and information to hikers along the way. It was rewarding, but all summer I looked forward to the weekend I would spend atop Granite Mountain, working in the lookout.
Volunteering to stay in the lookout requires a little extra training, which involves a hike to the summit, learning how to get an azimuth reading on a smoke with the firefinder, as well as proper radio etiquette for reporting a smoke.
Climbing to my home for the weekend
My hike up was a hot, slow one with lots of stops to talk to other hikers. I promised the lookout would be open as soon as I got there, but I was nervous, worried I had forgotten
how to use the firefinder, and I knew visitors would want to know how it worked. And of course there was the concern that I might spot a fire. Would I remember how to to report it correctly?
When I finally reached the lookout and unlocked it, eager hikers began climbing the stairs to get to the catwalk for excellent views. They also poked their heads in to see how rangers live 5,600 feet up.
A homey little lookout and its library
The lookout is a comfortable little structure, outfitted with a mattress just big enough for two, a table with four chairs, pots, pans, silverware, and a propane stove with four burners. There's a gravity filter for water, and even a small library including, appropriately enough, Kerouac's Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, as well as some informational books about the area.
Visitors love Granite Tower, a book by Brad Allen, who frequently stays in the lookout and created the book in order to give visitors an easy to use visual reference for the 360 degree view of peaks from the tower. Perhaps the most notable item is a special stool fitted with glass insulators on each leg. In thunderstorms, lookouts stand on this stool until the storm ends. Since wood and glass are poor conductors of electricity, utilizing this stool reduces the chances of a ranger being injured in the event of a lightning strike.
A taste of lookout life
Hikers came and went all day on Saturday, popping in to sit down and talk with me, take a look at the Granite Tower book and the firefinder, or take photos. As it happened, I remembered how to use the firefinder as soon as I saw it. The tower was also equipped with a manual for the firefinder, and after reading it I was able to give a very detailed explanation of its function to hikers who asked.
Visitors were friendly, and closing time rolled around faster than I expected. I radioed in to close the tower for the evening, made sure that the last few hikers at the peak were heading down, and ate dinner while watching the sun set. Just before it got dark I read a little bit of the ranger log and wrote my own entry.
It was quite windy that night, but I still managed to sleep fairly soundly and woke up to a beautiful sunrise. I dressed quickly and headed out to replace the water I had used. The nearest water source is a mile away, and once you've got it, you're hiking uphill back to the lookout with it, so it takes a while to retrieve. I got back just after the first hikers made it to the top and opened the lookout for business.
Sunday was quiet, so I was able to clean up and prepare the lookout for the next ranger. Basically this consists of cleaning the filter, sweeping the tower, packing up garbage and making sure the propane hasn't been left on.
A warning sign next to the stove asks, "Did you turn off the propane? Don't be THAT ranger..."
One night is not enough
I locked up the lookout around 1 pm and headed down to the trailhead. There were fewer hikers on Sunday and the trip down was uneventful and relatively quick. There was very little cleanup to do at the trailhead, which was a nice surprise.
On the way I reflected on my stay: I was relieved to have not spotted a smoke while up there, but sad to be leaving. One night on top of Granite is not enough -- here's hoping that next year I can carve out enough time to spend a Friday evening there as well.