I got my first good look of my summer home on Mount Higgins from the bottom of a steep slope covered with ground-hugging brush sprinkled with fir trees.
On the other side of the 14-foot-by-14-foot, two-story wooden building at the slope’s top was a thousand foot-plus sheer drop to a tree-covered grade down to the north Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Memories of that summer in 1959 in Washington State’s North Cascades came back to me last spring when 43 people died in the Oso landslide 17 miles west of Darrington. Oso and Darrington were part of my “beat” for the three summers I was a lookout, a term used interchangeably for both the building and the person in it.
I spent five summers working for the Forest Service in that area, about 75 road miles northeast of Seattle, and mostly knew Oso as a wide spot in the road on the many trips between Darrington and my home in Everett. The first summer was on Mount Higgins, west of Darrington and the next two were on Mount Pugh, south of it.
It was a different life for me. I went into it with modest Boy Scout skills including basic cooking. My “cuisine” featured a lot of workarounds since I only had the food I carried in. Pack animals did most of the hauling. I did the final stretches.
I learned that summer if something was going to get done, I had to do it. Need water? Hike down a half-mile and get it. Running out of clean clothes? Boil water and throw in some soap. Dirty floor? Scrub it. Not the easiest lessons for a 17-year-old to learn. I had fudged my age by a year to get the job.
I was alone those summers except for occasional visitors.
At night I could see the lights of Darrington, Everett and other towns, and occasionally wondered what my high school buds in Everett were doing. In the early mornings, the lookout cast a shadow across Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula 70 miles or so west.
■ Lightning. Lots and lots of it in 1961. I’d go weeks at a time with lightning on the horizon. At times it came rolling in over Pugh with furious wind driving snow and hail, and simultaneous thunder and lightning rattling the building. During those storms I stood on a lookout’s best friend — a small, wooden stool with stubby legs tucked into glass insulator cups to keep me from getting fried.
Heavy copper wires from the lightning rod on top ran down the building’s corners for thousands of feet and drew electrical discharges away.
Lookouts were told to count the seconds between the flash and the crash. When lightning got within a mile (five seconds), lookouts were told to lower the radio’s 30-foot whip antenna, which was attached to the building by a hinge. I often did it in fierce wind and snow. It was worse getting the antenna back up because by then thick ice covered the cables and metal parts.
■ The view from Mount Pugh. Sometimes it was blue sky and sunshine above a foundation of clouds, unlike Higgins where I was often fogged in. Poking up through the clouds were Pugh’s neighbors — Whitechuck, Sloan, Bedal, Whitehorse, Three Fingers and the neighborhood’s big fella, Glacier Peak at 10,541 feet.
■ My first helicopter ride. It came in 1961 because the trail was still snowed in. The helicopter didn’t have doors, just my seat belt and white knuckles to keep me inside.
■ Being startled by voices one morning. I looked out a window and saw my high school friends who decided during a pool game in Everett the night before to come up and see me on Higgins. They drove up to the trailhead and forded the Stillaguamish at first light for the seven-mile hike.
■ Seeing the guy wires turn phosphorescent green. The wires helped the building stay in place and sometimes took on an erie green glow in the darkness after a heavy snowfall. When I left that year (1960) in mid-August, I left 16 inches of fresh snow behind
I’m downright embarrassed to admit I didn’t take a camera. It didn’t occur to me I was getting a once-in-a lifetime chance.
But I did collect some good stories those summers. And they get even better with age. I wish I did.