Despite their prime locations, Glacier National Park’s fire lookouts rarely show up on the list of great postcard images.
Hungry Horse News publisher Mel Ruder took photos of Mount Brown’s lookout many times over his 32-year career. After one trip up the trail, author David Butler wondered how Ruder survived to do it repeatedly.
“You almost have to get on your hands and knees in spots on those first five switchbacks,” said Butler, whose “Fire Lookouts of Glacier National Park” was published in June. “He had all these pictures of the lookout with his wife on the catwalk, or the fire watcher posed behind the Osborne firefinder. But I found out after looking through the archives, Mel never actually did the hike. He rode a mule up every time.”
The year Glacier Park became a national landmark was also the year the Pacific Northwest caught fire: 1910. The Swiftcurrent Valley was scorched along with millions of other acres in what’s now known as the Great Burn. For new park superintendent William Logan, that meant a top priority was managing fire. He did so first by placing lookouts in tents at strategic points throughout the park.
“Frank Liebig is recognized as the first fire lookout/watcher in the area that became Glacier National Park,” Butler wrote. “Liebig routinely climbed Stanton Mountain, which was adjacent to his cabin on the shores of Lake McDonald, to search for smoke that indicated a forest fire. (He) was assigned to guard the entirety of the northern two-thirds of what is now Glacier National Park … from Belton (now West Glacier) to Canada and across the Rockies to the prairies between Waterton Lake and the foot of Saint Mary Lake.”
Old maps of the park showed some of the fire trails cut in those early decades. They run in virtually straight lines, regardless of slope or contour, through the heavily forested foothills on Glacier’s western side. They were the emergency response routes in the days before smokejumpers and retardant bombers.
“They’re terrible trails,” Butler said. “They’re not pleasant to hike, especially if you’re hauling a lot of gear like your Pulaski, food and water with the expectation you’d have to spend days in the field I can’t imagine how you’d make it up there. But then those guys were in incredible shape. It was what they did.”
Butler became interested in Glacier as a “gear-jammer” driving the red tourist buses over Logan Pass in the 1970s while studying geography in college. For his master’s thesis on avalanche chute topography, he needed high vistas for observation. The park’s lookouts proved an ideal resource.
He returned to the topic several years later when working with U.S. Geological Survey researcher Dan Fagre on alpine treeline changes. Fagre had dusted off a collection of panoramic photos shot by U.S. Forest Service forester Lester Moe around 1935.
“He went to every lookout in the park, plus all the ones that existed on Blackfeet Indian Reservation on east side, and the ones in the Flathead National Forest that looked into Glacier from the west,” Butler said. “We realized that would give us a 60-plus-year record of photographic change. And that’s when I got re-interested in fire lookouts.”
Butler and Fagre climbed to many of the lookouts or their former locations. For others, they flew with longtime Glacier helicopter pilot Jim Kruger. Slowly the idea of a book started to grow.
“I started noticing architectural differences,” Butler said. “Brown Lookout has a steep roof that doesn’t overhand the catwalk. Huckleberry and Scalplock have overhangs that cover much better. Divide has an unusual octagonal shape. So I started doing work in the park headquarters archives.”
Only nine lookouts remain standing in Glacier Park today. Just four or five of those are occupied each season. The National Park Service doesn’t publish which sites are active, in consideration of the fire watcher’s privacy and safety.
Swiftcurrent and Apgar lookouts get a fair amount of visitation, thanks to their relatively accessible and visible locations. Loneman and Scalplock lurk in the park’s remote southern quarter, while Huckleberry and Numa Ridge cover the northwest. Brown’s trailhead starts just across the road from Lake McDonald Lodge, but its brutally steep climb makes it a traditional hazing joke experienced hotel employees play on rookies looking for an easy first-day hike.
One of the park’s most prominent lookouts technically isn’t actually accessible. The Heaven’s Peak Lookout pokes up like a pimple on the mountain’s long north ridge, easily visible from the Going-to-the-Sun Road’s Loop turnout. A team of Mennonite conscientious objectors to World War II built the stone structure by hand in 1945. It was abandoned in 1953, along with many other lookouts, when the National Park Service shifted to more aircraft-based fire detection. While it’s been rehabilitated as a research base in the past two years, the park has no plans to re-establish a trail to it.
Other sites like Reynolds Ridge suffered the ignoble fate of being burned down by park rangers after being decommissioned. The unusual, octagonal-shaped Divide Lookout still stands, but East Glacier winds still try to literally blow it away.
Glacier spokeswoman Denise Germann said the lookouts have been a low-profile but essential resource for the park.
“They have that old, traditional flair, which draws interest,” Germann said. “But while most of their early intention was related to fire, what we’ve found over the years was much broader than fire. They’re used for studying avalanches, disease and insect impacts and recreation history.”
Authors Norman Maclean, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and Doug Peacock all spent formative time in fire lookouts. The combination of scenery, isolation and a small but steady paycheck made lookout duty a popular summer job for a certain type of character.
“I think a lot of people romanticize a feeling about being a fire lookout,” Germann said. “Wouldn’t that be fun, having a job that comes with all that?”