Finding Distance on Shadow Mountain: A Visit to a Historic Fire Tower
Social distance vs. getting away from it all
the disCOurse is a place for people to share their lived experiences and their perspectives on the past with an eye toward informing our present. Here, as devastating wildfires burn throughout Colorado and across the West, Brian Cooke looks at fire from the vantage of historic fire lookout towers.
In a normal summer, I spend a few days and nights at a fire tower in far northern Colorado—the Deadman Lookout fire tower near Red Feather Lakes. Listed in the National Historic Lookout Register, it’s one of the last fire towers in the Front Range. A typical day there involves answering visitor questions about Roosevelt National Forest and the duties of a fire watcher before 1970, when regular seasonal staffing at the tower ended. A typical night at the tower is cold, clear, and quiet, with not another human to be seen from the mountaintop.
This year, like so many other things, Deadman tower was closed for the summer, depriving me of a favorite volunteer opportunity. And despite our best efforts, my family’s big vacation was also affected by the pandemic: A week-long trip to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone Park was cut short, partly due to crowds on trails and sidewalks.
Hiking in the time of coronavirus
My summer 2020 vacation do-over was a few days of cabin-camping with my daughter near Grand Lake. I was determined to stay away from touristy places as much as possible, whether paddling on a quiet lake or taking a secluded hike.
From various vantage points around the lake, my eye was drawn to a squarish protrusion near the top of nearby Shadow Mountain. A visit to the Grand Lake Area Historical Society confirmed that the shape was the Shadow Mountain Lookout fire tower and that access was possible, although complicated by Rocky Mountain National Park access restrictions between 6 am and 5 pm.
Undeterred, I arrived early at the historic trail and set off alone in the twilight to the tower, a 4.8-mile hike through a forest recovering from beetle infestation, fire, and wind. For the next four hours, I saw no other people and narrowly avoided a moose. I marveled at the matchstick-strewn trees, breathed smoke-tinged air from a fire burning near Grand Junction, and pondered the life of a seasonal fire lookout watcher.
The sentinel in the trees
At nearly 10,000 feet of elevation, when I finally saw the tower up close, I mentally reviewed what I knew about the place. Completed in 1933 during the Great Depression, the lookout is the last of its kind in Rocky Mountain National Park. During World War II it may have been used to watch for enemy fighter planes. It remained in seasonal use until 1968, although it was called back into smoke-watching duty in the 1990s and in 2012. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties. On a clear day, the panorama from the tower includes views of the Indian Peaks, Gore and Vasquez mountain ranges.
As fire towers go, this one has a solid look to it, with two stories of mule-carried rubblestone masonry topped by a wooden deck and “cab,” which is fire tower lingo for the room at the top. The tower is considered to be an excellent example of rustic architecture style, also known as “parkitcheture.”
I successfully resisted the urge to climb over the gate and up the dry-rotted and off-limit steps, leaving the view from the catwalk to a hummingbird and an extended family of what I think were Clark’s Nutcrackers.
Fire’s complicated role
Generally speaking, forest fires in the height of the fire tower era were things to be put out as quickly as possible. This approach began in earnest after a 1910 fire called the Big Blowup, when about three million acres of forest—the largest US forest fire on record—burned across Idaho, Montana, and Washington. New fire prevention and suppression policies were put in place, mainly to protect the country’s vast timber resources. By 1911, there was a race to build permanent mountaintop fire lookouts to help with this effort. From a square room usually ten to fourteen feet square, fire watchers would look for smoke and use a tool called an Osborne Firefinder to pinpoint possible fire locations. In 1935, the Forest Service established the so-called “10 am policy,” which ordered that every fire should be suppressed by 10 am the day following its initial fire report.
But fire is a part of nature. Many of our western forests are now overly dense, with too much combustible material on the forest floor and too many trees competing for sunlight and water. Although fires now are sometimes suppressed and sometimes “managed,” wildfires are often hotter and harder to extinguish than they used to be. The scorched earth that they leave behind can prevent ecosystem recovery for decades. Combined with gradually warming temperatures, it’s a problem with no easy solutions.
Viewed this way, it can be tempting to dismiss fire towers as relics of a misguided effort. But the fire lookout early-warning system has helped protect towns, cabins, people, and livestock that were located near wildfires.
The United States still has several hundred actively used fire towers, but this is down from several thousand 60 years ago. Most have been dismantled and, as a result, a bit of physical history has been lost. Satellites, cellphones, and sensors have replaced human eyes, although some experts claim that there’s no substitute for an alert fire watcher.
Smoke from a distant fire
A few days later, I thought about all this as I drove home via Rocky Mountain National Park. At different points along Trail Ridge Road, I could see three forest fire smoke plumes, including one next to a favorite campground.
As I drove and watched the smoke, I began to wonder if anyone had come up with a motto for the people who staffed them. You know, something like the US Postal Service’s “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
I didn’t find a motto like that one. But I did find a quote from a book called Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, by Philip Connors:
“Time spent being a lookout isn’t spent at all. Every day in a lookout is a day not subtracted from the sum of one’s life.”
I’ll keep this in mind if I’m ever allowed to return to Deadman Lookout. And while it’s tempting me to treat that fire tower as my grown-up treehouse for a few days every summer, I’ll be looking for smoke plumes all the same.