Spending a summer as a forest lookout can open up opportunities to witness things that last a lifetime. Aside from the responsibility of spotting and reporting fire activity and the regular duties of maintaining the tower, there is time to observe and witness other things not normally a part of everyday life.
In 1964, I had been employed at Jay Point Lookout on the Powell District on the Clearwater/Nezperce National Forest west of Lolo Pass. The tower provided a view across the Lochsa River to the route taken by the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery in 1803 on the final stage of their trip to the Pacific coast. The trail, itself, could not be seen due to the forested ridges on the western slope of the Bitterroot Divide. The Continental Divide was the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase negotiated by President Jefferson that year. Beyond that was pretty much terra incognita, which the expedition would open up to the nation.
When fire activity was low, we had time for some rest and relaxation. On this particular afternoon, I had been lying on my bunk resting, when, opening my eyes, I saw two great horned owls staring in at me, perched upside down on the wooden shutter. A mother and a young one, wondering if I might be fair game. We held each other’s eye for several minutes. If I had moved for my camera, they might have flown off.
Idaho once had more lookouts than any other state. Some are still operational. Attitudes toward natural fire have changed since that time. They are usually left to burn, under supervision, as long as there is no threat to human life or personal or historical property. Much has been learned in this respect.
Another bit of lookout history is worth mentioning. Bertha Butte, north of Pierce, Idaho, is named for a former logging camp cook who, after finishing her chores, would climb up onto a dead snag and watch for fire. There is a sign there pointing out that it was the first lookout in the United States. It is reached by dirt road a few miles south of the North Fork of the Clearwater River, where it is joined by the Little North Fork. The sign can be a little difficult to find.
Another time, toward sunset, as I was looking downriver toward the west, I saw what at first looked like a hot fire racing along a ridge a couple of miles west of the tower. Yet it was dead calm. I got on the hook. Then hesitated when I saw it suddenly disappear. It was an effect of the setting sun, its rays being refracted horizontally toward my eyes and along the plain of the earth as the disc passed through the lower layers of the troposphere. Western North America was rolling into the night.