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” You wake up in the morning to the finest views of all, breathed the freshest air in the world, and have a whole mountain to call your own.”  –Ray Kresek, Fire Lookouts of the Northwest


 

Like many people I first become aware of fire lookouts through the writings of Jack Kerouac. In Dharma Bums, he recounts the summer he spent on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades. He went there to escape from society (and its temptations) and to focus on his writing.

Edward Abbey, Norman Maclean, Gary Synder and other famous authors have also found the solitude of lookouts to be conducive to the writing process. In fact, one of my favorite books from the last few years, Fire Season by Philip Connors, tells the story of his time as a lookout in New Mexico, about as far as you can get from his previous job at the Wall Street Journal.

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There were once more than 8000 fire lookouts in this country, but now less than 2000 remain. Those that are no longer used for wild fire detection are decommissioned and often get vandalized over time.

The Forest Fire Lookout Association was started in 1990 with a goal to preserve these beautiful historic structures. They created a National Historic Lookout Register and organize volunteers to renovate distressed lookouts. To help finance upkeep, some lookouts are available for rental.

The idea of spending time away from civilization, surrounded by nature on a remote peak has always been incredibly appealing to me. Yoshimi and I have been renting lookouts since 2002 and have now stayed in about a dozen different structures in the Pacific Northwest.

The rental process used to involve lotteries and wait lists, all conducted via snail mail with local ranger stations. It was so confusing and inconvenient that few people went through the hassle, which was an advantage if you were willing to put up with the clunky system.

Now all lookouts can be rented through a single website that shows all available dates. The process has become so convenient that competition for rentals has increased substantially. To get a reservation now you must book it six months beforehand during the very first minute a lookout becomes available online. We’ve figured out how to play the game and now just make our plans way in advance.

Recently we spent four days at Gold Butte lookout in the Willamette National Forest. Here are some photos from the trip:

Home sweet home

Home Sweet Home

Mt. Jefferson to the east

Mt. Jefferson and other Cascade volcanoes along the eastern horizon

Nothing cosier than a wood burning stove

Nothing cosier than a wood burning stove

Gold Butte lookout was built in 1934 and like many others is 14′ x 14′ square with 360 degree views. There’s no electricity or running water, just a wood burning stove for heat and a little Coleman propane stove for cooking. Every morning I’d hike a mile down to the car to get enough water and firewood to get us through the day. I felt like a pioneer prepping the homestead to survive another day.

Sunrise view from bed

Sunrise view from bed

Specialty of the House

Specialty of the House

Another lazy day in paradise

Another lazy day in paradise

We’ve stayed at lookouts in good weather and bad and both have their appeal. The key is to bring along lots of food, drinks, books and games. That way you’ll be prepared for any possible mood or whim.

An otherworldly sunset

An otherworldly sunset

Who doesn't love a good knot tying game

Who doesn’t love a good knot tying game

A rainy hike back down to civilization

A rainy hike back down to civilization

While staying at a lookout, life is reduced to the simple pleasures of eating, drinking, reading, walking and sleeping. We didn’t see or hear anyone in our four days there and hardly thought of the outside world at all. I can think of no better way to spend a vacation.

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