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Volunteer will spend year as Panhandle Forest camp host

Jay Lightner brought along a computer and television when he moved to the Snyder Guard Station in Idaho’s Moyie River Valley. He also packed candles, a cast iron skillet for cooking on a woodstove and a backup power generator.

His new home is an old Forest Service work camp eight miles south of the Canadian border. Since May, he’s been the camp host – a volunteer position that comes with stunning scenery, a one-bedroom cabin and the potential for electrical outages.

Listed on the National Historic Register, the guard station is in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ rental pool. People sign up six months in advance to stay at the ranger’s house, a rustic white frame dwelling with green shutters. Extra cabins and an RV park allow the guard station to accommodate up to 70 overnight guests.

Lightner came across an advertisement for the camp host position this spring. “That’s me,” he immediately thought.

The remote setting appealed to the retired law enforcement officer from Spokane, who backpacked part of the Pacific Crest Trail in his younger days and once rode his motorcycle to Colorado traveling mostly dirt roads.

When Lightner visited the guard station on March 30, the snow was still knee-deep. That didn’t deter him from applying for the host position. He’s a fan of “Alone in the Wilderness” – “that PBS show about the old guy in Alaska who builds the cabin on the lake,” he said.

The show’s protagonist spent 30 years in the Alaska bush. Unlike him, Lightner’s solitude is temporary.

Sometimes, he’s alone in the woods. Other times, he’s at the edge of a party. Last month, 300 day guests gathered at the Synder Guard Station for a wedding. Lightner and his girlfriend, who was visiting, were invited to the reception. They spent the evening two-stepping under the stars.

Lightner was chosen out of about a dozen applicants for the yearlong host position. Pat Hart, trails and recreation program leader for the Bonners Ferry Ranger District, hired him for his people skills. “You need someone who can interact with guests, but doesn’t intrude,” she said.

Lightner’s ability to do minor repairs and his law enforcement background were also pluses. Most guests are polite and respectful, but Lightner had to tell an inebriated group to stop shooting their shotguns into the Moyie River.

The guard station dates to 1908, the early days of the Forest Service. Rangers who marked timber sales and patrolled federal forestlands lived there. Later, the guard station became a fire dispatch center.

Last week, Janice and George Hunter, of Pasco, Wash., rented the Snyder Guard Station for a family reunion. Janice Hunter had visited her cousins there during summer vacations in the 1950s. Her uncle was the Forest Service ranger onsite.

“There were lots of Forest Service guys, and mules and horses used by the packers,” she said. “It was really busy. The guys would all be around, and then they’d all be gone” to a fire.

The cookhouse, bathhouse and building that housed the fire dispatch equipment are still standing. Someday, Hart hopes to set up a small exhibit on the site’s history.

Lightner explains what the buildings were used for to guests who are interested. He’s also a keen observer of the area’s wildlife.

Every evening at dusk, a group of deer moves through the yard near his cabin. He watches moose in a nearby marsh and gets occasional sightings of a young black bear.

The Synder Guard Station is booked every night until September. Lightner expects additional rentals from hunters this fall.

But during the winter, he’ll get his solitude. He brought his woodworking equipment and “I might get a snowmobile,” he said.

He’s also taped lots of episodes of “Gunsmoke.”

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