WHITEFISH – Examining the cloistered life of a fire lookout through the camera lens of a documentary filmmaker creates a curious juxtaposition.
On one hand, there is The Lookout, sequestered on his mountain perch and enjoying a Thoreauvian life without electricity, running water or the general distractions of a bustling society. Always vigilant for a wisp of smoke, he is content with a stunning panoramic view, a few books and the occasional murmur of a two-way radio for company.
And on the other, there is The Filmmaker, capturing his subject’s every move in what must be the very definition of “invasive.”
In the short documentary film “The Lookout,” which has gained attention and accolades at film festivals across the country, filmmaker Brian Bolster helps us forget about the camera and focus on what’s important, which is fire lookout Leif Haugen and the environment in which he thrives – a remote corner of the Flathead National Forest in northwestern Montana.
Each summer, Haugen lives and works alone at Thoma Fire Lookout on top of a mountain three miles from the Canadian border, in the North Fork of the Flathead River.
The film, which recently earned the Big Sky Award at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, provides a rare day-in-the-life glimpse of what Haugen calls “the quietest aspect of fire management.” It’s also an aspect of fire management that the uninitiated probably believe is moving toward obsolescence, and the film informs us that that’s not the case.
The film portrays Haugen as an ambassador both for the necessary utility of a fire lookout as well as for the pristine wilderness he presides over.
“I really believe in what we do,” said Haugen, who lives the rest of the year in West Glacier with his wife. “I think we are a critical component to fire management. We’re the eyes in the sky, and I wanted to share that story. But it is an odd juxtaposition, where I’m describing how I do this because I enjoy the solitude and then he’s got a camera in my face.”
Bolster, who conceived the idea for “The Lookout” while on a backpacking trip through Glacier National Park several years ago, said he spent six days and five nights sharing quarters with Haugen, and shot more than a dozen hours of film for the 16-minute documentary.
He said he was struck by Haugen’s relationship and connection to his work environment, as well as the lookout tower itself.
“I wanted to explore what it was like to have this open window to the world and be in complete isolation,” Bolster said. “In many ways, it was selfish because I wanted to inhabit the life of a lookout and as a filmmaker you do that vicariously through the subject you’re profiling. But I also wanted to shine a light on the importance of the lookout’s service.”
Haugen has spent every summer as a fire lookout since 1994, working at various outposts in the Flathead, Lolo and Kootenai national forests, as well as in Glacier National Park, where he spent 12 years at the Numa Ridge Fire Lookout.
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Haugen only transferred to Thoma Lookout in 2010, the first summer the lookout had been staffed since 1973. It was also the summer that Bolster arrived to shoot the film, and it’s where Haugen intends to stay.
Built in 1930, Thoma Lookout is one of only four remaining of a particular style and it is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. When the U.S. Forest Service decided in 2009 that it wanted to begin staffing the lookout, it had only received periodic maintenance and had essentially passed into desuetude.
“It was basically just a shell,” said Haugen, who works as a carpenter in the fall, winter and spring. “I jumped at the chance to help refurbish it.”
Because of the lookout’s historic nature, Haugen was tasked with meeting various historic standards when building the cabinetry, a bed and the fire finder’s tower, which sits at the center of every lookout tower and allows the lookout to plot, map and identify the coordinates of a fire.
Helping refurbish the tower only strengthened Haugen’s connection to it. The addition of Thoma Lookout to the Flathead National Forest’s fleet of four summer-staffed fire lookouts, which complement Glacier National Park’s five staffed towers, is encouraging to Haugen, who believes the service is irreplaceable. He said the film helps reinforce that notion.
“I hope this film helps to show that the lookout program is strong and well-used in the fire management program, especially in the Flathead area,” Haugen said. “I’m very proud that my lookout friends, despite all having very different experiences based on the variety of settings they work in, have seen it and feel that the film does a good job of capturing the day in the life of a lookout experience.”
Satellites, GPS, computer applications and other technology provide new tools for fire lookouts, but technology cannot replace the people, he said.
Bolster says the special connection that people have with their environment is a persistent theme in his work, and he is currently editing footage that he shot at the Polebridge Mercantile, which features merc owners Flannery Coats and Stuart Reiswig. He hopes to have it finished this summer.
Haugen said he’ll pay Thoma Lookout a visit soon, and intends to ski in and drop off a load of books in the coming weeks.
“I’m going to do this forever. This is my life,” he said. “I guess some people would call it a career. Whatever it is, I’m going to do it for as long as I can still get up the mountain.”
“The Lookout” is currently screening at various film festivals around the country. For more information and updates on the film, you can check out the film’s movie page on Facebook at Facebook.com/TheLookoutMovie.com or email Brian Bolster at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flathead Valley Bureau reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at email@example.com.