COUPLE ENJOYS BEAUTY, SOLITUDE OF BEING...ON LOOKOUT
Stories and photo by Jayson Jacoby
MOUNT IRELAND Deanna Fox and Dan Wilcock slip into sleep not to the city symphony of car and train and dog, but to the clop of a mountain goats hooves.
They like this.
Fox and Wilcock prefer solitude to teeming crowds, the lonely whisper of the mountain wind to the urban hum.
For them, then, there could be no better place to live and work than the summit of Mount Ireland.
Fox and Wilcock recently started their second summer as the fire watchers at the U.S. Forest Services steel and glass lookout that perches precariously among the granitic boulders at the mountains 8,321-foot pinnacle.
That makes the lookout the highest lodging house in either Baker or Grant counties, whose dividing line the building straddles.
During the next three months the pair will spend many hours with eyes pressed to binoculars, searching for a tendril of smoke among the millions of acres of forest that radiate from the mountains base like a massive shag carpet.
They will lug dozens of gallons of water from a spring thats a steep quarter-mile downhill.
And some days they will struggle just to stay warm, as an ice storm slashes at the peak, belying the very concept of summer at such skyward altitudes.
But Fox and Wilcock will enjoy every second of the experience, frosty fingers or not.
Almost every second, anyway.
Every time we come up that hill we end up with 40 pounds on our backs, said Fox, as she gestured toward the trail that climbs to the lookout at a lung-straining grade, with few switchbacks to moderate the agony.
The couple keep these hiking ordeals to a minimum by staying at the lookout as long as possible, coming down only every two or three weeks.
If they didnt get a hankering for fresh produce they might stay at the summit all summer.
Seclusion is one of our primary reasons for being here, Wilcock said. We like peace, quiet, the little creatures.
Golden-mantled squirrels are the most plentiful of the furry visitors, their numbers slightly higher than the pikas, which resemble miniature rabbits and live almost exclusively in alpine rockslides of the sort found on every side of the lookout.
Although last summer was the couples first as lookouts, they were confident the job, which doesnt suit everyone, would be ideal for them.
Actually, only Fox is officially a Forest Service employee; Wilcock is along for moral support. Four eyes at a two-eye price, she says with a laugh.
Wilcocks father worked for the Forest Service, so he had some acquaintance with a lookouts duties.
And the couple has friends who work at a lookout in the Blue Mountains just across the border in Washington.
Fox and Wilcock werent afraid to apply for the job because they knew they could easily adjust to the privations solitude and primitive living conditions among them that have sent many lookouts running for the trailhead and the familiar comforts of civilization.
The couple lives out of a pickup truck, staying at campgrounds and in small trailers. They do not shudder at the prospect of living miles from the nearest power pole or hot water tap.
We live primitively all the time, Fox said. We often live without power. We knew this would be the right thing for us.
Primitive does not equate to boring.
Besides being responsible for detecting forest fires across an area larger than several states, Fox and Wilcock have to endure weather that makes Baker Citys by comparison seem tropical.
Last summer a storm coated the lookout with eight-inch-long ice crystals. The couple had to pry the frozen tentacles from the radio antenna, lest the extra weight and the gale-force wind combine to topple the steel structure.
Fox, who along with Wilcock has worked on fish-processing boats off Alaska, said the lookout during a storm reminds her of one of those vessels.
She said the observation deck that surrounds the lookout resembles that on a ship; the ice crystals merely added to the illusion of a trawler plying the chilly waters of the North Pacific.
In September, their last month on the mountain, the temperature plummeted to 10 degrees one night.
Fox took a photograph of Wilcock wrapped in a sleeping bag, a mattress propped against the north-facing window as meager protection against the frigid gusts.
The one benefit to such weather, Wilcock said, is that the cold clouds cover the peak, making firewatching impossible and fire-starting imperative.
On that 10-degree day, he remembers, the corner of the lookout where the wood-burning stove sits was steamy, while a few feet away the space near the door felt polar.
Fox and Wilcock should stay toastier this year, and for that they may raise a toast to Congress.
When lawmakers approved the National Fire Plan last fall, the Forest Service and other federal agencies received tens of millions of extra dollars for all facets of firefighting including lookouts.
Mount Irelands material gains include a new woodstove thats supposed to be closer to air-tight than the current one, meaning fewer trips to the wood pile.
The new stove even has a glass front, so evening blazes will provide Fox and Wilcock with a flickering form of entertainment as well as warmth.
When you dont have TV thats important, Wilcock said.
Actually, the couples favored recreation is reading.
Theyre eagerly awaiting the arrival of a helicopter that will deliver the stove and other supplies including two boxes of used books.
We made a pilgrimage this year to a used bookstore in Seattle, Wilcock said. We tried to find the thickest, densest books with the smallest print.
Although neither Fox nor Wilcock is an avid television viewer, they arent anti-electronic.
Wilcock, for example, hates to miss radio broadcasts of Seattle Mariners baseball games.
The problem, he said, is that the lookouts steel frame, network of radio antennas and grounding system to protect the building from the frequent lightning strikes scramble AM radio signals.
But the couple wouldnt leave even if they were cut off from every sound of civilization.
Theres so much they would miss the silhouettes of Mounts Hood and Adams and Rainier at dusk, 150 miles and more distant; the shadow of their own mountain, growing against the nearby western wall of the Elkhorns as the sun descends; the soaring, diving kestrels whose aerobatics seem staged solely to please the lookouts eyes; mountain goats play-fighting over a salt lick. (They bought a new one this year, so the goats ought to be happy.)
Its not that Fox and Wilcock have ever made up a balance sheet or anything; but they dont need numbers to prove to themselves that the unique gifts of this life on a mountaintop greatly surpass the extra toil such a life demands of their muscles.
If health allows us to do it well keep coming back, Fox said.
HOW TO GET THERE...
Drive to Sumpter, then over Blue Springs Summit toward Granite. Just before Boundary Guard Station, turn right on Forest Road 7370. Follow signs about 4 miles to trailhead.
MT. IRELAND LOOKOUT DATES BACK TO 1915
Long before the U.S. Forest Service put its people in airplanes and helicopters to find wildfires, the agency sent them to the summits of mountains.
Mount Ireland was one of the earliest.
There has been a fire lookout building of some sort atop the 8,321-foot peak since 1915. The granitic massif has been used for that purpose, then, almost since the founding of the Forest Service itself, in 1905.
Ireland the mountain was named not for the country, but for Henry Ireland. He was the first supervisor of the Whitman National Forest, which was combined in 1954 with the Wallowa National Forest to the north.
The mountains original lookout, a rickety wooden structure, was built in 1916. It was replaced in 1936 by a somewhat sturdier 12-foot by 12-foot structure, also of wood construction and topped with a six-foot by six-foot cupola that housed the essential Osborne firefinder.
The computer age has yet to improve on this instrument basically, its a circular map attached to crosshairs that the lookout sights on a column of smoke. Deanna Fox and Dan Wilcock, who are working on Mount Ireland this summer, rely on an Osborne to pinpoint the location of every fire they see, just as their predecessors did as far back as the First World War.
The trail to the lookout hasnt changed, either; the last mile through the granite boulders and wildflowers is just as steep, its demands on visitors legs and lungs undiminished by the passing of so many decades.
But a few things are different.
In 1957 the Forest Service replaced the wooden cabin with a fancy by lookout standards, anyway metal building.
The beast of burden in that instance was a helicopter, not a string of pack mules, and the lookout arrived whole. No assembly was required.
Mount Ireland never has been a popular destination for hikers, perhaps because of the long, steep hike, or because other lookouts with similarly expansive views are at the ends of roads.
Bill Rounsville, the lookout atop Ireland from 1992-1999, never saw more than 50 visitors in any of his eight summers there.
One year just eight people puffed up all the summit switchbacks and signed his guest register.
Last summer, Fox and Wilcocks first on the mountain, they welcomed 21 people; the majority were elk hunters on pre-season scouting trips.
The job of fire lookout is no route to riches now, nor has it ever been.
Its still a GS-4 job on the government pay scale, same as it was in 1945 when Fred Palmer of Baker City, then 16, spent his first of five summers atop Mount Ireland.
But today a GS-4 earns $10.88 an hour, or about $1,700 per month.
Palmers pay? As best as he can remember, it was around $200 a month.