Chapters

Montana Firetower Bucket Brigade


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Day 1: Garver Mountain Lookout

From the lookout, the rounded mountains seem to roll on forever,

blanketed by giant western red cedar, ponderosa, lodgepole pine, and a great variety of other evergreens. The Kootenai National Forest is named for the Kootenai Indians who formerly occupied the region and still retain treaty rights. The forest is Montana’s premier timber-producing forest, and spots of lighter-colored young trees among the older growth make up a patchwork of greens on the hillsides—one or two patches of brown show the zones that were most recently harvested.

A garden of tall, skinny cairns sits among a craggy spot to the south of the lookout, along with a slightly unkempt outhouse and a boarded-up cabin to the west. The 1/4-mile access trail full of roots and rocks drops to the north. The mountaintop is small and rocky, which brings on a strong feel of vertigo from the lookout deck, but the first evening is smoke-free and clear. We are north of the fires and can see the Canadian Rockies and the peaks of Glacier National Park

The lookout is equipped with a woodstove, two platforms with mattresses for sleeping, a desk, and some shelving. Previous campers have also left two folding camp chairs, a headlamp, a mirror, dried goods (such as oatmeal, which I enjoy the next morning), and water. It’s pretty comfortable, and with glass windows running the length of each wall, the views are 360 degrees. 

Each fire lookout still has the remnants of an Osborn Firefinder. The firefinder is a round metal table about 30 inches across that sits on an adjustable pedestal in the center of the room. It has a map, a sight and crosshairs, and a tape measure by which to locate an object (such as a forest fire) and calculate compass headings. 

On our first night, we can see smoke plumes to the west and east, and flames to the southwest on a faraway ridge. The Garver Mountain logbook contains an entry by Scottie, Caleb, and Keith Mack (three generations of Macks), who stayed in the lookout the night before. After their steak dinner, they reflected on their hike and the fires: “We also talked about the fire which was burning on Teepee Mountain which was next to my dad’s house. We could see the fire balls from the lookout.” 

As the wind kicks up, the Teepee Mountain flames expand and contract. It doesn’t make sleeping any easier.