Sheltered under a 62-year-old lookout tower from Arid Peak’s summer heat, Paul Wilson reminisced about the days the tower had a bigger purpose than shade.
Perched atop wooden scaffolding, the tower’s summer occupants from the 1930s to 1970s would keep an eye on the Old Milwaukee Railroad tracks below, waiting for a spark from the train to start a forest fire.
“They kept us busy,” Wilson chuckled.
“In those days, there was no road,” said the retired Forest Service Fire Control officer. “We came in here with a pack string to bring in supplies.”
Wilson and five other volunteers and Forest Service employees hiked in from a nearby logging road every day last week to the Arid Peak Lookout, which was abandoned in the ‘70s.
They’re restoring the weathered one-room lookout and the privy to give it new life as a summer rental for outdoor enthusiasts. Arid Peak is one of two lookouts in the Panhandle that are being restored for recreation. They are among a handful that remain from an era when hundreds of such posts dotted the region’s forests.
Renters must be willing to hike in two miles and, possibly, carry their own water. The old spring the previous occupants used was down a steep slope and may have dried up by now.
“That’s the problem with some of these lookouts; water is difficult to come by,” Wilson said. “The routine was wash dishes, bathe, windows. They used water right down the line because it was so scarce.”
The task of spotting fires is now accomplished by airborne scouts, and a mere handful of volunteer lookout stations. Eventually, satellite technology will make the lookouts altogether obsolete.
Another change since the lookout’s heyday has been the demise of the railroad. Instead of watching the lights of the Hiawatha passenger train swing down the valley, overnight visitors now might spy headlights of an occasional car.
A canvas tent on the ridge below the 20-foot tower contains much of the equipment, such as generators, saws, wrenches, rigging and nails, needed to restore the aging sentinel.
Instead of pack mules, the materials were flown in by helicopter and set carefully down among the bear grass and Indian paintbrush that grace the rocky ridge.
In contrast, Forest Service archeologist Cort Sims recalled a story of a delivery of nails to Arid Peak years ago when some repairs were required.
“They dropped him a box from an airplane and it was like shrapnel - nails everywhere,” Sims said. “They don’t deliver things like that today.”
Eventually, Sims hopes, the lookout will overlook another new recreational amenity; the Route of the Hiawatha bike and hiking trail.
The proposed trail will stretch from St. Regis, Mont., to 13 miles into Idaho following the abandoned rail line, over nine trestles and through 10 tunnels, including the nearly two-mile long Taft Tunnel over the Bitterroot Divide.
Another lookout once straddled the divide, but it was burned or destroyed, along with hundreds of other lookouts in Idaho when they were no longer needed. Wilson has photos of some lookouts when they went up in smoke, including the outhouse for the Shefoot Mountain Lookout.
“The hottest outhouse in the St. Joe,” Wilson titled the photo.
Now, the state has no more than about 100 lookouts, about 25 of which are north of the St. Joe River. Only eight of those are still actively used for fire detection.
Arid Peak Lookout is one of 15 lookouts on the National Historic Lookout Register in the Panhandle. It’s the oldest lookout standing in the St. Joe Ranger District. In all, 174 lookouts are registered nationwide, said Gary Weber, an assistant fire management officer with the Forest Service
At one time, the St. Joe and Clearwater region had more lookouts than any other region in the world, according to Ray Kresek, author of Fire Lookouts of the Northwest.
The region had 383 lookouts, including the nation’s first fire lookout, Bertha Hill in Clearwater County.
A flurry of lookout construction followed the fire of 1910, which burned three million acres of forest between Spokane and Missoula, killed 85 people and enveloped New York and Montreal in smoke.
“It served as the catalyst that marked the beginning of an organized early fire warning system in the mountains…the lookouts,” Kresek wrote.
Other historic lookouts in the St. Joe Ranger District include the Mallard Peak Lookout, Middle Sister Lookout and the 55-foot high Conrad Peak Lookout.
Mallard Peak Lookout is open on a first-come, first-served basis and is maintained by the Inland Empire Llama Association. Conrad Peak is scheduled to be restored next year and placed on a rental program.
Rod Bacon has spent eight years manning and maintaining the Middle Sister Lookout, one of three active lookouts in the district.
“You can just barely see it from here,” Bacon said of his usual summer home as he balanced on a top rung of a ladder propped up against the Arid Peak Lookout.
He and Sims were working just under the cabin’s dilapidated catwalk, replacing one of the “caps” or support beams for the cabin. They wore hard hats and harnesses, and worked slowly, deliberately.
Bacon was one of the catalysts for restoring Arid Peak’s lookout. As the technical director and stage manager of Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum in Pullman, Bacon’s an expert at using rigging for stage lights and other suspended structures.
“We couldn’t have done it without this equipment,” Sims said, pointing to the rigging.
Later this month, the catwalk decking and railing will be replaced, and the volunteers will build stairs.
More volunteer labor is needed. For more information, call the St. Joe Ranger Station in Avery at (208) 245-4517.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color) Map of area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LOOKOUTS FOR RENT Here are fire lookouts and cabins now available for rent from the U.S. Forest Service in North Idaho. Some are not accessible by car and not suitable for children: Deer Ridge, 26 miles northeast of Bonners Ferry. Cost is $25 per night, Bonners Ferry Ranger District. Shorty Peak, 45 miles northwest of Bonners Ferry. Cost is $20 per night, Bonners Ferry Ranger District. Snyder Guard Station, 22 miles northeast of Bonners Ferry. Cost is $35 per night, Bonners Ferry Ranger District. Walde Mountain; 25 miles northeast of Syringa. Cost is $30 for two nights, Lochsa Ranger District. Castle Butte, 80 miles east of Kooskia. Cost is $60 for two days, Lochsa Ranger District. Austin Ridge, 24 miles east of Pierce. Cost is $50 for two days, Pierce Ranger District. Weitas Butte, 38 miles east of Pierce. Cost is $50 for two days, Pierce Ranger District. Wallow Mountain, 54 miles northeast of Pierce. Cost is $30 per night, Pierce Ranger District. Source: The 1996 Northern Region Recreational Cabin and Lookout Directory, U.S. Forest Service.