Searching The Wilderness Art Professor Spends His Summers Watching For The Occasional Forest Fire
“It was a great life. You woke up in the morning to the finest views of all. You breathed the freshest air in the world. You ate and did the chores when the spirit moved you. You had a whole mountain to call your own. And the government even paid you to be there!”
- Ray Kresek, author of “Lookouts of the Northwest”
John Agars squirts a dab of toothpaste on his toothbrush and strolls outside to his sink. It’s a tin basin resting on a narrow catwalk 40 feet in the air.
“You get used to it,” he said, spitting a mouthful of water over the edge of the fire lookout tower on Indian Mountain.
The tower and 5,000-foot peak have been Agars’ summer home for 11 years.
“I discovered the tranquillity was really awesome when you have nothing to do but think and look. My day is fairly uncomplicated up here,” said the 57-year-old Central Washington University art professor.
Inside the 14-by-14 foot glass bowl atop the tower, Agars can see 20 miles of mountain peaks and trees, brilliant stars at night and an occasional lightning show.
“Since I’ve been up here, the tower’s never been hit by lightning,” the volunteer fire watcher said. “I’m still waiting. I think it would be exciting.”
Agars is safe inside. The tower has copper wire running down the sides and into the ground to diffuse any lightning strikes. Even the tiny metal garbage can and wood stove inside have copper ground wires attached to them.
And just in case, his bed, step stool and wooden chair have heavy glass insulators on the legs.
“I’ve been up here summers when there were no fires to report at all, but last year was horrendous,” Agars said. He spent several late nights tracking lightning strikes and called in a fire that was directly behind the Priest Lake Ranger station.
Agars spends most of his time alone in the tower, watching for puffs of smoke. Sometimes his wife or one of his two daughters joins him. About 30 hikers a year also tour his outpost, which straddles the Idaho-Washington border.
“It’s very quiet, not like the towers you can drive up to,” he said. A lookout on South Baldy Mountain, about 17 miles to the southwest, had 80 visitors in one day last year.
That won’t do for Agars. He stands in the buff on his catwalk in the morning to scrub up with a wet washcloth. There is no shower.
The outhouse is a long, dark walk at night. Often the first stair landing is the most convenient place to get rid of too many glasses of water.
Agars packs food and water up a steep quartermile trail and four flights of stairs.
In his perch, he’s arranged a small bed, a miniature propane refrigerator and stove, and a desk. The electricity in his cubicle comes from a 12-volt car battery that’s charged from solar cells on the tower.
The only disturbances are infrequent squawks from a Forest Service radio, a wandering deer or the jingle of a cowbell tied around the neck of Chelsea, his golden retriever.
“When she was a pup, I had to carry her up the stairs. She’s pretty good at it now,” Agars said. The dog also helps him gather huckleberries from the bumper crop right below his tower.
Each morning Agars snatches a few for his pancake breakfast while Chelsea plucks her own.
When the sun rises, so does Agars. It’s hard to block out the sunbeams blazing through his glass walls. He sips a cup of instant coffee and tunes an old car radio to the news on National Public Radio. A few years ago a pilot patrolling the forest was kind enough to dive bomb Agars’ tower on a regular basis, dropping a newspaper.
Agars typically mans the tower from the Fourth of July to Labor Day. He reads, works on his art drawings, fiddles with a laptop computer and has memorized every peak in sight. He also makes minor repairs and has painted the tower several times.
Agars’ only regular chores, besides spotting fires, are to have enough wood cut for the stove for next year and to draw a detailed map of his territory.
“I’m really free to do whatever I want when I want. It truly is a great life,” Agars said. “The only drawback is it doesn’t last long enough.”
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