Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Patrol Mountain: I did it Sam's way

Patrol Mountain lookout

Samsara Chapman, the lookout ranger, shows me the route

Hoadley Reef and Twin Peaks are within view
Eleven years ago I did a story for the Tribune about two sisters who were fire lookout rangers at two different wilderness postings within view of one another, Samsara Chapman at Patrol Mountain in the Scapegoat and Kelsey Chapman at Prairie Reef in the Bob Marshall.
On Tuesday I returned to Patrol Mountain (elevation: 8,015 feet) for the first time since doing my story on Sam. It's about a 2,800 feet climb from the trailhead, rising 2,500 feet from the icy Straight Creek crossing.
I hadn't expected to see her because it was her day off and was pleasantly surprised when she emerged from this  outpost perched on a rocky pinnacle with her dog Rye.
I had ventured to this spot because of all the electrical storms in Great Falls the past couple of days and wanted to see what kind of fire she was spotting.
On Monday I stopped by Porphyry Lookout in the Little Belt Mountains near Kings Hill on my way to soak at White Sulphur Springs.  I visited with Shelly Milburn, the lookout, who had spotted three small fires from Sunday's big storm.
Sam said that the strikes had been east of the Front and hadn't really affected her part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, although she could see some smoke from the fire in the Swans far to the northwest.
Tuesday was a clear and moderate day with temperatures on the cool side on top.
After catching up on the past 11 years, Sam invited me for a walk along the Patrol Mountain ridge to the north and she recommended a bushwhack back to the trailhead, rather than returning by way of  the Patrol Mountain-Straight Creek trail.
How could I resist?
While hiking along the steep limestone ridgeline I was treated to some of Sam's adventures and to tales of the Patrol Mountain area topography. She's taken to climbing peaks she can see from her lookout perch and walking out the ridgelines that extend from the lookout on her days off.
I was the beneficiary of her journeys back to the Benchmark trailhead via the backcountry routes she has devised down various timbered ridgelines.
I don't think I followed Sam's clear directions as precisely as I should and did a bit more climbing over deadfall than I should have.
However, it was a fun route down through the timber that yielded occasional views of the fantastic high country around me.
I was particularly impressed with vews of Hoadley Reef and the Twin Peaks behind it to the west.
Sam has been doing lookout duty during the summer for 15 years now and from her enthusiasm for the work and and high country it looks as though she'll be at for a long time to come.


Shelly Milburn said...

Fun blog! Most lookouts look forward to getting visitors as adventuresome as Tom. I certainly enjoyed his brief visit at Porphyry.

Point of clarification: Fire lookouts and rangers are two different things. In the "old days" when the Forest Service was just starting out, the Ranger did it all--lookout, trail maintenance, fire fighter, law enforcement. But as more and more people started recreating and working in the woods, the workload became to great for a single person to handle, and the rangers began hiring trail crews, firefighters, lookouts, etc. to help shoulder the burden. In the modern Forest Service, the district Ranger is an administrator who supervises all of those people you meet out in the woods.
I think the confusion arises from people associating the Forest Service (Department of Agriculture) with the Park Service (Department of Interior), which uses the job title "ranger" in a rather different way. Remember: If you had to pay to get in, you're probably in a national park and will meet a lot of rangers wandering around. If it was free, it is probably national forest instead, and the Ranger will usually be found trapped behind a desk in the local Ranger Station.
So Sam and I are not, in fact, "fire lookout rangers" as the article states, but simply "lookouts."
(FYI: explaining the definition of "ranger" is one of my top 10 most-often delivered speeches at Porphyry, right up there with the "mountain pine beetle" speech, the "how to work the fire-finder" speech, and the "yes, I really live here and I love it" speech.)
Thanks, Tom!

--Shelly Milburn

Out there with Tom said...

Well taken, Shelly. Hope to see you next year, or this winter at Showdown. We skied in the Flesher Pass area today. It was some of the best snow I've ever seen pre-T-Day.