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Fire Lookout

July 8, 2016

SCN_0516End of Carl’s Junior Year

June 15, 1940

Carl’s dad gave him a ride from Kalispell to the entrance of Glacier National Park in his old black Plymouth.  Bud had the packsack with clothes, shoes, extra warm clothes, rain gear and his rifle. Park Service fire lookouts and guards were allowed to bring a rifle in those days to discourage bears. He had what he would need for his first summer as a Park Service fire lookout.

His dad took him past Columbia Falls, past Hungry Horse, and let him off at the West Glacier Ranger Station.

SCN_0044Bud clumped in through the front screen door into the front office. He noticed that quite a few had walked onto the floor with corked boots because of the black dots–spike holes–in the deck. The place smelled like newly sawn wood.

No one was there.  He dropped his pack and leaned his rifle, then, after walking around, thumbed through the display of maps and other amenities offered to the tourists from all over the world who visited Glacier National Park.  A wall map captured his attention on the other side of a counter.  Bud walked around to study it.  He located West Glacier, then followed the North Fork of the Flathead River until he reached a horseshoe bend where he found Huckleberry Mountain.  That would be his job this summer:  to man the lookout and watch for fires.

“Hey. Anybody home? Hello.”

Still nobody came, so Bud walked through to the office back door and onto a sort of broad gravel yard flanked by warehouses and garages with huge touring cars. Everyone called them jammers, he found out later.

He heard a man’s voice from a nearby warehouse.  He poked his head around the edge of the door and saw a young uniformed man he later learned was Ralph Fulp, speaking to a group of mostly youths approximately his age.  Bud recognized about half of them:  There were the Huck brothers, Garvin and Vernal; Leslie Cornelius, Rob Jystad, Art Anderson and Don Bolton.  Also a much older man.  In those days the women were hired separately and always got office jobs.  Everyone in the group was headed to work on a fire lookout tower.  Leslie Cornelius, the only one who lived in the Park year around at the railroad town at Essex, was assigned to Swiftcurrent Mountain.  Bolton got Waterton Lake; Anderson, Hornet Peak; Jystad, Hubbart Mountain; the Huck twins: Garvin got Scalplock Mountain and Vernal got Loneman; an old-timer, Scotty Beaton, got Numa Ridge as he had for the previous 17 summers. Carl got Huckleberry Mountain.

By the end of June they would all be itching to get to their towers.  They will have slept in the bunkhouse with some of the guys who ran the Jammers and some firefighter reserves.  They wouldn’t get to know the Gear Jammers because they were gone all day driving.  They got to know a couple firefighters, a guy everyone called “Smiley,” an immense man with a slow wit, and another named Kevin.

They would not be manning their fire lookout towers until after July first, Fulp said.  First they had to train how to read maps and use a compass, how to use and maintain the wires for the battery operated telephone systems, basic first aid and safety, and how to locate and put out forest fires.  Fulp told them about the pack train of mules to supply them about every two weeks.

The warehouse at West Glacier Park Station had a lot of old excess army gear from the Great War.  Europe was again in turmoil with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, but so far, the U.S. had managed to avoid trouble.

One night, the boys in the bunkhouse were playing cribbage in the main room when Smiley came out of the kitchen and asked, “Hey!  Does anyone know where I can get a funnel?”

Kevin shouted at him, “Just use your head!”

Smiley gave out a sort of grunt or yell and ran at Kevin, knocking him down from his seat on a bunk.  Kevin rolled, howling, then ran out the bunkhouse door, the screen clacking after him.  Kevin outran Smiley.  After a while Smiley returned, said he didn’t know where Kevin went.  Later, Carl and the others found out Kevin had climbed a tree and spent the night there.

Was it the sweaty smell?  Something about Smiley offended the others.  He was just creepy.  He kept a loaded .22 pistol in his footlocker, he said, for protection against the other men.  “Uh hope I never have to use it,” Smiley said.

Smiley also kept a stick he stripped the bark from with a nail sticking out of it, another weapon.  He kept that one under his bed until one of the other men stole it and threw it out into some bushes.

“Hey Smiley,” the boys could hear Kevin’s voice in the dark after they had all laid down in their bunks.  “Hey Smiley!” he repeated.

No answer from Smiley.

“Smiley, I hear you got a girlfriend,” Kevin said.

“Noooooooo,” moaned Smiley.  The others could almost feel the heat from Smiley’s embarrassment.

“Yeah, I hear you got a girlfriend, and your peter has a festering sore on it,” continued Kevin.

“No I don’t,” protested Smiley.

“See?  You need to go into Columbia Falls and see a doctor,” said Kevin.  “He’ll put a bag on your dick, kind of like a Bull Durham tobacco bag, but filled with medicine.  Then he’ll tie it on with the strings.”

No answer from Smiley.  Things got quiet and stayed that way, except for the snoring.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe day started at 3 a.m. when they went to open up Huckleberry Mountain Lookout.  The rain had turned to a light snowfall and Carl wondered how a fire could ever burn when the woods had snow like this.

His dispatcher’s name was Jackson Miller, an amiable old guy with a hawk nose.  And half of one foot missing.  You could tell by the way his logging boot looked when he walked.  The toe region of his left foot was obviously empty because the boot crease went down to the sole.  Jackson was also the outfitter and leader of Bud’s first trip to Huckleberry.

The wranglers, Nathan and Craig, had already brought four mules and six horses to the warehouse area where they were tied to a long line across.  Four saddle horses had bridles; the rest of the stock had halters.  The pack animals had sawbucks for packing.  The mules, in addition, had straps that reached around their butts and withers to prevent their loads from shifting front or back.

Bud didn’t know about pack animals, so he studied how they were rigged.  He was a bit more, but minimally, acquainted with saddle horses.

He watched as the wranglers and Jackson prepared the mules and pack horses.  Bud’s gear was divided up and piled in the center of each square of canvas, called a “maynee.”  Jackson asked Bud to gather up the corners and heft the loads to get them approximately the same weight so they wouldn’t shift to either side once loaded on an animal.  Each animal could carry about 200 lbs of gear:  food, clothing, bedding, water in milk cans, a rifle and ammunition, and other supplies for the summer.  Especially six volt telephone batteries. The big kind.  The size and shape of a can of beer.  Dozens and dozens of them in wooden boxes.

Once the loads were about equal, the wranglers folded the maynees like envelopes: left, right, bottom, top, and tied them shut with a diamond hitch using a 15-ft length of rope.  After all of the 12 maynees were fixed up, the wranglers hoisted each load up high on the sawbuck, drew a rope beneath it and back up onto the saddle, and secured it with several wraps around the load and then tied it off.

Bud was impressed how quickly the mules and pack horses were loaded.   Then the wranglers saddled up their horses and Bud’s.  Jackson saddled his own horse and led the way.  The wranglers rode on either end of the pack string.  A good thing because a couple of times the animals bolted and dodged off the trail.

They made the first five miles of the trip by lunch time because the trail was flat.  Bud tried to peer through the fog to see which mountain would be his home as the wet brush swept his legs, soaking his pants and filling his boots with water.  The air smelled of wet wood.

Every so often he’d hear one of the wranglers curse at the Park Service pack animals.  Each animal had a “GP” brand on its butt.  Stood for “Got Piss.”  Bud had heard that one before and didn’t think it was funny.  Anyway, they rode through intermittent fog all morning and Bud thought if was spooky.  He was afraid of grizzlies.

The cook at the bunkhouse had prepared lunches that they each put in a canvas roll behind their saddles.  That and an old military surplus canteen in a canvas canteen carrier.  Great War canteens looked the same as the ones from the Civil War:  circular in shape with a cork stopper.

After lunch they started up the trail to the lookout.  An hour of flat trail followed a creek before they headed gradually up the side of a long canyon.  After what seemed like an interminably long time, six hours, they climbed above the clouds, reached the head of the canyon, crossed a saddle, and stayed on the left side of a steep hill for another three miles before they got to the ridge with Huckleberry Lookout.  Bud felt exhilarated.

And there it was!  A log cabin with a cupola atop it.  Bud’s home for the duration of the summer.


Glacier National Park Fire Lookout Cabin


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