Kelsey Sutton Sept. 30, 2013
Standing Where the Greats Have Stood
Imagine you're an aspiring writer in the 1950s and you're spending the summer on top of a mountain in the North Cascades working as a fire lookout. You only have to spend 20 minutes of each hour scanning the horizon for fires, so you spend the rest of your time writing. Despite the dry, harsh conditions on Desolation Peak, you have a panoramic view of glacier-capped mountains like Hozomeen and Sourdough. Their beauty inspires you as you carve out a new genre of writing: fire lookout literature. David Sumner, professor of American literature and environmental studies at Linfield College, and his research assistant, senior Austin Schilling, decided to investigate a collection of writers who took the opportunity to serve as fire lookouts. They read the literature these writers pioneered in hopes of publishing the previously unpublished in an anthology. “What's interesting about it for me is that these writers have an opportunity to go up and get paid to write, but they are often forever affected by spending a summer so close to the natural world in these beautiful places in the American west,” Sumner said. “So this kind of nature tradition that already exists in American literature is enhanced, becoming especially prominent in these writers.” Sumner described two different groups of fire lookout writers. The ragtops were the first lookouts, sleeping in tents with only a telephone line. To call in a fire, they sometimes had to hike down the peak to the nearest phone line. Then in the 1950s, a group of beat poets, including Gary Snyder, Phillip
Waylan and Jack Kerouac, took up stations on Sourdough Mountain, Crater Mountain and Desolation Peak. Sumner learned of the shared background of these writers three years ago, while backpacking in the Bob Marshall wilderness with his good friend, a tradition they have maintained for 13 years. “We ran into a kid who was hiking the other way," Sumner said. "He was on a trail crew that was camped there. He said his friend was at a writer's retreat at an old fire lookout, and I was really intrigued. I wanted to look into this.” Sumner received a grant from the school and put Schilling to work tackling the project for his senior honors thesis. “It's really clear that there is no collection like this out there, and there aren't many people talking about fire lookout literature,” he said. “It started with a backpack trip. "Now it's moving along, but we're really still in the beginning stages. Most projects have already been done, but with this project it's widening.” A camping trip in North Cascades National Park wasn't planned, because researchers in the humanities don't often get grants for field work. Then someone suggested to the professor that he take the remaining grant money and go hiking so he could take photos of the lookouts where these writers were stationed. Sumner, who served as a river guide in college, was hesitant at first. But his love for the outdoors convinced him. “I was eager to go camping, but I didn't think it would be as vital as it has become," he said. "I'm pleased to report that not only was it an interesting trip that produced great photos, but one of the lookouts was open and we ran into a ranger who knew a bunch about fire lookouts. “The information has been really vital to our research. It will add a big dimension.”
Merging their love of literature and nature, Sumner and Schilling hiked the lookouts that Snyder, Waylan and Kerouac were at in 1953 and '54. Sumner said they stood atop 7,000 to 8,000 foot peaks, clustered together. Ross Lake, where the duo camped, is in the center of the national park. It lies behind a dam built during the Depression. After setting up camp, they took a rented motorboat all the way to the other end of the lake, then hiked up Desolation Peak, where Kerouac was stationed. The next day, they went to another point on the lake and took the unmaintained Pierce Creek Trail up Sourdough, where the other writers served. “If you look up from the camping spot to the north, south, east and west, you're surrounded by these enormous granite peaks of the North Cascades, surrounded by big Douglas firs,” Sumner said. “If we had more time, it would've been nice to get a canoe and just paddle up the lake. But we didn't have half a day to spend on the water getting to the trailhead, because it took all day to hike each peak.” Desolation Peak features a western-exposed slope. The vegetation is very different from northern- and eastern- facing peaks, because it gets more sun. “It is desolation,” Sumner said. “There's nothing up there but this 1950s fire lookout.” It is dry, hot and steep, but it comes with a view. You can see the Hozomeen Mountain to the north, Crater to the south and other peaks like Sourdough, named for its resemblance to a rising loaf of bread. Pierce Mountain, where they hiked the second day, features an eastern exposure that guarantees big old growth trees, little mountain lakes and cooler temperatures. Sourdough features a 360-degree view of glacial northern-facing peaks. “When you're up on Sourdough, you can picture Gary Snyder eating his rice and meditating," Sumner said. "Standing there on Desolation Peak, you can
kind of picture Kerouac going a little crazy up there and having this Buddhist vision in the mist. In the middle of each fire lookout sits an Osborne firefinder, which is how people locate fires in a 360-degree setting. The precise location of latitude and longitude allows you to zero in. They come with cabinets where lookouts log their time. “When you open it, there is a piece of paper still there," Sumner said. "It has Gary Snyder's signature from 1953. And Phillip Waylan's signature is there. "To see their names and the piece of paper that's been there for almost 70 years is really cool. It's fun to think about how a lot has changed since 1953, but that view is still there, except the glaciers are smaller.” Sumner said the hardest part of this type of expedition is always the same. “It's the uncertainty, going to a place you've never been and not knowing if it's going to work out,” he said. “I was worried that we'd get up there and it would be hard to get to the trails, or they'd be poorly marked, or we'd have bad weather or we'd spend so much time and not be able to get good photos. And the very opposite happened.” “The trip turned into more than just an expedition for photos,” Sumner said. Everything moved along like it was meant to happen.