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Ultimate Social Distancing: The lookout

When pray tell, shall lookouts die?


This Lookout Tower, the L-4, was built in 1932 on 20 foot poles and no longer stands.

Before the Big Blowup of 1910 that destroyed forests in Montana, Idaho, and Washington, and killed 85 men, the Forest Service was facing extinction. By mid-century over 5000 towers had been erected and thousands of personnel were hired as fire spotters. Today the towers are mostly a nostalgic relic from the past.

Norman Maclean of A River Runs Through It fame, spent a teenage summer on a lookout. In his short story, “The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” he writes, “it doesn’t take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout. It’s mostly soul.”

Still, the idea of three months of solitude atop a mountain has romantic appeal.

The L-4 seen above was the most popular live-in lookout, but there were several other shapes and sizes of towers. The L-4 was a 14’ by 14’ cab with windows all around. It might sit on the ground or atop poles or towers up to 100’ high!

The L-6 is smaller, 8’ by 8’, and usually built on very high towers. The living quarters are on the ground.

The d-6 cupola design (and my personal favorite) is a 12’ by 12’ cab with a cupola ¼ the size of the lower floor. This is the model used in The Lookout Woman.

The L-5 is 10’ by 10’, the smaller version of the L-4.

The R-6 is 15’ by 15’ and first built in 1953. Its roof extends over the cab to provide shade.

To answer the question in Gary Snyder’s poem above, of the 5000 towers built, only a few hundred exist today. Visit the National Register of Historic Places online to learn more. Here are a few that are near the setting of The Lookout Woman on the fictitious McGregor Peak near Glacier National Park where Florence spotted fire.

Apgar Fire Lookout, West Glacier, MT Heaven’s Peak Fire Lookout, West Glacier, MT Hornet Lookout, Flathead National Forest, MT Huckleberry Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park Loneman Fire Lookout, West Glacier, MT Mount Brown Fire Lookout, West Glacier, MT Numa Ridge Fire Lookout, West Glacier, MT Scalplock Mountain Fire Lookout, West Glacier MT Switfcurrent Fire Lookout, West Glacier, MT

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