Lookout-to-Lookout: Mountain biking in Montana
Text and photography by Aaron Teasdale
Or, as Norman MacLean wrote in his short story "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," "It doesn't take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout. It's mostly soul."
Which apparently Ron is short on. "I could never do this job," he says over breakfast. "Just sitting here all day looking out the windows."
So we wrest ourselves from our perch and head out for an afternoon ride on the trails that thread the surrounding high country. I dispense tips on navigating the tricky terrain as we swoop and twist through the columns of mossy lodgepole forest. The forest opens to a sun-drenched field where the smell of snowbrush fills the air and moose bones litter the trail side. A high point offers a view back to our tower, jutting above the wooded summit like a lighthouse rising from a sea of trees—surely the coolest lodging in the world.
I could have spent weeks at Garver, but we have new towers to explore to the east. After grinning through the long descent to our car at the foot of the mountain, we pick the bugs out of our teeth and drive an hour and a half to the little logging town of Eureka in the Tobacco Valley, only 10 miles from the Canadian border. There, in the Historical Village parking lot, we meet my friend Casey Greene, who is something of a pioneer himself. A cartographer for the Adventure Cycling Association in Missoula, Casey was the first to see the potential of touring lookout towers by bike, something he'd tried out each of the past two summers. With Casey joining us, our plan is to head to a pair of remote towers in the mountains vaulting from the edge of town.
Pavement turns to dirt as we drive into the lower reaches of the Whitefish Range. After a few unsigned turns on old logging tracks, we reach a barely detectable trailhead marked by a weathered gray sign. From here, paths wind up to the ridges of the Ten Lakes National Scenic Area, a rugged and little-traveled tangle of peaks and alpine lakes hard against the British Columbia border. Riding here is like time-traveling back to when forests weren't crossed with roads and getting to lookouts required long hikes on rough trails.
While Dad and Ron don hiking boots and backpacks for a steeper, more direct route, Casey and I jump on our bikes for a circuitous route to the top. Our sleeping bags, clothes, and food are stowed in the lightweight bikepacking bags that are strapped to our frames, seats, and handlebars and are more secure than traditional panniers. Fueled by intermittent stops to gorge on huckleberries, we muscle higher and higher up the trail, the ragged faces of surrounding peaks plunging below us to forested bowls and valleys.
As at Garver, we see no other humans. Judging by the scat piles, though, there are plenty of wolves and bears. A cool wind sweeps up the cliffs that drop away at our side. Darkness settles over the mountains with no lookout in sight, and I worry that we might have lingered too long with the huckleberries.
Just as we consider how to pick our way across the mountainside by braille, we see the light of the Wam Lookout. Dad and Ron are already there, boiling water for dinner on an ancient woodstove. As we approach, Ron comes out to warn us about the cliff a few steps away. He's less thrilled with the small, battered Wam cabin—whose worn wooden frame is set directly atop the peak—than he'd been with the beautifully restored tower at Garver.
A strong easterly wind rattles in at 4 a.m., cutting through Wam's walls and waking me as it blows across my face. But it also clears out the milky haze from Idaho wildfires that has been building in the sky for the past few days, which means that when morning dawns clear and cold, we're blessed with 100-mile views into Glacier National Park and British Columbia. Jumping from sleeping bags into down jackets, we spark the woodstove and are soon eating oatmeal by the fire to the insistent eeps! of pikas on the scree outside. They suddenly go quiet, and we look out to see a pair of sparring hawks.
"We got up on some peaks in the Beartooths that had views like this," Ron recalls, cupping a steaming mug of tea. "But we didn't have a cabin there."
Our next destination is Stahl, seven miles west. The sun cuts through a cool breeze as Casey and I set out, stomping our pedals up climbs and feathering our brakes down a twisting filament of trail clinging to the mountainsides. The forest is alive with chickadees and woodpeckers. We dawdle, feasting on huckleberries, until Dad and Ron catch up on foot. The hidden pool where we find water is ringed with moose and bear tracks. All agree that it's the finest September day in the history of fine September days.
After rounding a bend, we stop cold at our first view of Stahl and the ridges to the west. Seeing lookouts from a distance will do that—they seem like testaments to our audacity and hubris. At Stahl, a spear-tip mountain shoots into the sky, balanced atop which, tiny and precarious, is our destination.
A curving ridgeline brings us closer and closer, until we emerge from a forest of stunted trees where the world falls away just beyond a 12-foot-square white clapboard shelter. Everyone is giddy over the views, which are even better than those from Wam, thanks to our higher (7,435-foot) elevation. I point out peaks we climbed on past trips, the bizarre 40-foot-wide U.S.-Canada border swath shooting right up mountainsides, and five other lookouts. I take pictures—too near the cliff for Ron's liking: "You've got the whole damn mountain and you've got to stand right on the edge?"
Stahl's wood floors and stove are new, and it has plenty of firewood and a drop-down ladder to access its fortlike cupola. Thick copper cable runs around the floor, to the stove, and up, down, and around the tower's exterior to deflect the inevitable lightning strikes. Active for 43 years, Stahl was abandoned in 1969 and left to molder for decades before its recent renovation by the Forest Service. It hasn't been formally placed in the rental program (meaning it can't be reserved), but it's available to whoever hikes, bikes, or skis the 2,500 feet up to it. We're glad to have it to ourselves.
After scanning the cliffs and meadows below for critters, we chop wood for the stove. A wolf howls from somewhere below and, while we eat dinner, an owl flies silently past. As on every evening of the trip, we watch the Milky Way spread across the sky as if some cosmic deity were sprinkling more stars on the dome of heaven. I drift off to sleep to the sound of wood crackling in the stove and wind whistling in the chimney.
As for that wind, Stahl is our most secure lodging yet—which is comforting considering the cliff dropping away outside the window next to my shoulder. You are acutely aware of the wind in lookouts, and each one meets it differently: Garver sways subtly, Wam is like a rickety skeleton in a drafty museum, seemingly ready to crumble in the strong gusts, but Stahl is obstinate and stout, defying the weather with brio. Between the wind, the lightning, and the snow-blasted winters, though, it's no surprise that most abandoned lookouts quickly fall to ruin.
I wake on our last morning to waves of pink and lavender washing over the mountaintops. Wolves howl again as I quietly step outside. Soon Dad comes out to join me. As the sky brightens, the sunlight paints the cliff faces and shafts into shadowed valleys.
When you're in a tower, you spend a lot of time watching the sky—it seems there could be no better thing to do. Lief Haugan, a veteran of 20 seasons who is now stationed at the Thoma Lookout (visible 15 air miles to the east), once said, "It's almost like you become the weather." As Philip Connor, another working lookout and author of Fire Season, puts it, "Every day in a lookout is a day not subtracted from the sum of one's life."
Even so, it's time for us to go. After Dad and Ron head down the trail that leads to our car 2,400 feet below, Casey and I, who will be much faster descending on our bikes, shoot pictures from the summit. It's hard to leave our glorious mountaintop, but the departure is eased by the five-mile singletrack descent that awaits us and gravity pulling us down, down, down—with a few stops for huckleberries—to the buzzing world below.
Aaron Teasdale's last story for Sierra was "Sound Off" (May/June 2012).