Montana Firetower Bucket Brigade

Day 3: Big Creek Baldy to McGuire Mountain

It’s windy when we wake, and I can’t tell if it’s overcast or smoky.

There’s ash on the bikes, and we are all concerned about the air quality. As we prepare breakfast, we agree to do all it takes to get more fire information, as well as locate a water supply, but Kelly’s current focus is boiling water.

“At least we have coffee. Everything else is just ‘phzsh, phzsh, phzsh,’” she says, whipping her hands back and forth alongside her ears.

We begin the ritual of reviewing our route, and Kelly proposes taking a different road than planned. The map shows a doubletrack that will save some miles and some climbing. I’m all for it. We get started pedaling and skirt below cliffs and a few rockslides as we make our way down the Big Creek drainage.

This portion of Montana is lush due to its Pacific maritime climate and has a huge variety of coniferous trees. The drooping branches and soft bristles of cedar and hemlock contrast the lodgepole pine, and Engelmann spruce. Black tree lichen (or “bear hair”) clings generously to the branches and peppers the dirt roads. The descent is my favorite part of the day.

Fire danger Montana

Today’s route also includes some miles of road on both the east and west sides of the 90-mile-long Lake Koocanusa (a combination of the words Kootenai, Canada and USA). The paved road along the lake is a popular motorcycle tour, but there’s hardly any traffic and there’s not a single boat on the water or person on the shore. It feels abandoned. The mountains appear flat and disconnected from the earth. The wind skims across the water, creating small whitecaps that look like the fins of a Loch Ness monster swimming just below the surface. The wind races along the guardrails of the 1/2-mile-long Koocanusa Bridge, composing a hollow, high-pitched, metallic drone. I imagine aliens landing at any moment.

The least favorite part of the day is the 3.6-mile hike in to McGuire Mountain Lookout. After knocking out the bulk of the climb to the top, we ride past one trailhead sign that shows an icon of two hikers and an arrow with the words “McGuire L.O. 2.5 mi.”, in search of our more “cycling-friendly” route on the opposite side of the mountain.

When we can’t locate the second trailhead, we turn around and pedal back to the first sign. It’s 7 p.m. The trail begins as a perfect hiking trail, gently winding up and over stretches of a cream-colored, shale-type rock and past an old quarry before entering a forested area with ferns and short bright grasses. It’s rideable in spots, but has some steep pitches and downed trees. The hiking is not awful, but it’s getting late and dark, and we are pushing heavy bikes. It is the longest 2.5 miles any of us have ever hiked. A map I study later states the hike is 3 miles; I track the trail on Strava the next morning, and it comes up at 3.6.

Excerpt from Employment History, Stories, and Names, Kootenai National Forest, Rexford Ranger District

Fourth of July Fires, Snowfall and Grizzlies at McGuire Mountain Lookout
By Sid Workman, written May 1981

In the summer of 1931, my oldest brother, Wayne, was hired as lookout fireman and manned the McGuire Mountain lookout. My parents’ homestead was approximately 13 miles away and was accessible only by trail. My mother decided I was old enough (I was 12 at the time) to ride the trail by myself and spend the Fourth of July with my brother. I took an axe and a raincoat and a couple of sandwiches and some water. It was a dry trail. My horse was a good walker: He could travel 3½ to 4 miles an hour on the trail.

I was almost to the lookout after 4 hours on the trail when a hot electric storm moved in. Just as I arrived, my brother had located a fire quite some distance down McGuire Creek. It was arranged over the phone that Wayne take my horse and I stay at the lookout while he went to the fire. Well, I stayed the rest of that day July 3, the Fourth and until about noon July 5 when Wayne returned.

In the meantime, the temperature changed, and 4 inches of snow fell on the mountain. I reported about three times a day by phone to Rexford District, as was required by a lookout. We visited a few days after he came back, and I had an uneventful trip home.

Later that summer, brother Wayne killed a grizzly bear with a 30-30 carbine at the cabin door. The bear had walked around the cabin for two or three days, peering in and rattling the doors and windows, and sometimes had him cut off from visiting the outside “can.”