08-12-2009, 04:58 PM
Join Date: Jan 2009
Location: Selah, Washington
Fire lookouts the lone line of defense
That would be cool to do if you could wheel there:
Fire lookouts the lone line of defense
August 10, 2009 by YH-R Outdoors
By RON GRAHAM
WENATCHEE, Wash. — Gary Knell doesn’t mind hoofing it up a rough five miles of trail just to reach his work site. The Wenatchee National Forest fire lookout enjoys his job so much he even has been willing to do it for free.
ABOVE: Lookout relief Gary Knell calls in a weather report from inside the Alpine Lookout near Lake Wenatchee. (Ron Graham/For the Yakima Herald-Republic)
Now in his fifth season as a lookout relief, Knell recently shared with me the joys of staffing the Alpine Lookout on Nason Ridge, high above Highway 2 on one side and Lake Wenatchee on the other.
“The sunrises and sunsets are incredible,” he said.
But the most stunning experience, he says, is undergoing a major lightning storm on his high perch at 6,237 feet elevation. Those blinding lightning flashes even appear through closed eyelids, he claims.
Yet the lightning flashes are the main reason he and other lookouts staff lonely outposts throughout the state. Their job is to spot any smoke that might be caused by the lightning and lead to a forest fire. Just prior to my mid-July visit, such a blaze had occurred along Nason Ridge as the result of a lightning storm.
Knell, a retired King County employee, is in his fifth season as a lookout relief. He originally filled in at the Alpine Lookout as a volunteer, but later was hired for part-time duty. He splits his time during the summer between Alpine Lookout and Sugarloaf Lookout, another Wenatchee National Forest location. The big difference is that Sugarloaf is reached by a forest road.
Visitors to Alpine Lookout are much less numerous than those at Sugarloaf, which suits Knell just fine. He does enjoy the company of the mountain goats, which appear almost daily, sometimes even clambering up the steps of the lookout building and peering inside.
For those wishing to get an up-close view of the lookout building, a challenging five-mile hike is required. Naturally, visiting hikers also get to soak up the panoramic view extending up and down the Cascade Mountains from the lookout site.
Elevation gain for the route described in this column is about 2,600 feet, which involves taking the Round Mountain Trail and connecting to the Nason Ridge Trail, finally branching off on a short three-tenths of a mile spur signed for Alpine Lookout.
Gary Knell sits on the steps of the Alpine Lookout, which sits on a 6,237-foot perch in the North Cascades.
The Round Mountain Trail climbs steadily, passing through silver snags left from a burn, before reaching a junction with the Nason Ridge Trail in about 1.5 miles. Turn left and continue steeply upward, stopping briefly for a trailside view down on Lake Wenatchee and north to Glacier Peak.
Hikers should be aware that the Nason Ridge Trail is open to motorcyclists. Fortunately, on my mid-week visit no noisy machines were encountered. The trail skirts the 5,700-foot summit of Round Mountain. Here a green meadow with wildflowers provides views south toward the Chiwaukum Mountains. The trail drops to a small saddle before resuming its upward trend. In about 4.5 miles the route drops rather steeply a few hundred feet to rocky Ninemile Saddle. In a short way, you reach the side trail to the right marked for Alpine Lookout.
No surprise, the trail angles upward along the rocky ridge to its crest just below the lookout. After three-tenths of a mile on this track, you’ll be more than ready to relax by the lookout and absorb the views. These include Glacier Peak northward as well as more distant views southward toward Mount Daniel and Mount Hinman as well as the top of Mount Rainier. Numerous other peaks and ranges can be viewed from Alpine Lookout and hopefully, a lookout such as Gary Knell will be on hand to point out the sights and answer questions.
As with most summer hiking, remember to carry plenty of water and use sun protection. Some bug repellent isn’t a bad idea, either.
Completing a hike to Alpine Lookout gives one a real appreciation for the dedication of lookout staffers. The trip not only offers views of the landscape, but it also reveals the human side of those who man these lonely outposts to help protect our state and national forests.
• Ron Graham, an elementary school teacher and native of the Yakima Valley, is an avid outdoorsman who has hiked throughout the Pacific Northwest.