bridges-0880
Image: Brian Barker

A bank of spring storm clouds hides Mount Hood’s summit. Below, the ghostly outline of Clear Lake punctuates the snow-dusted Cascade foothills to the north.

Insulated from the storm, I focus on building a fire. A supply of dry firewood lights easily in the cabin’s potbelly stove, and the snug room warms quickly. “Isn’t this cozy?” Elizabeth says, smiling. I take stock of our surroundings and agree.

Known as an R-6 Flat Top, a name that befits its boxy shape, the tower was erected in 1962 and is one of the last generation of Forest Service fire lookouts in the Pacific Northwest. The Civilian Conservation Corps built thousands of these wilderness outposts across the country beginning in the 1930s. They could be found in northern Maine, the piney woods of east Texas, and throughout the West. Oregon alone once had 805 lookouts, including one atop Mount Hood. By the 1960s, however, airplanes, helicopters, and even infrared sensors began to replace these earthbound defense measures. As a result, many lookouts were dismantled or abandoned.

An hour after I start the fire, the squall abates outside and the sun peeps through. Below us the frozen silhouettes of both Timothy and Clear Lakes shimmer against evergreen hillsides. Cards tacked above the cabin windows orient us by pinpointing the distance to dozens of faraway peaks: Thunder Mountain, 23 miles to the west; Olallie Butte, 23.5 miles south; Mount Adams, 60 miles to the north. Mount Hood also looms nearby, but clouds obscure our view of it.

We have our choice of side trips on close to 10 miles of cross-country trails, including a ski tour around Little Crater Lake, a deep spring-fed pool. Then again, a cloudy horizon makes sticking close to the cabin seem like a better idea. Besides, we’re quite comfortable in our lofty perch—and there’s work to do.

As Elizabeth cooks dinner, I head downstairs to the woodshed to fetch more firewood for the night. Stacked floor-to-ceiling with hundreds of enormous logs, the shed is the perfect place to let loose my inner Grizzly Adams by taking a few mighty swings with a wood-splitting maul. (Trust me, these were mighty swings.)

Back up top, I notice snow accumulating along the catwalk railings. The sky is pitch-black, and chilly gusts bat against the windows. The tower’s timber creaks and moans like the hull of an old ship. Suddenly, I recall a warning from the Forest Service: The tower may sway in strong winds. But seated next to the crackling fire, I don’t feel a thing.

Before cocooning ourselves in our sleeping bags for the night, Elizabeth asks me to read the tower’s logbook. Some guests have left helpful tips, like noting that a knife comes in handy for jiggling the woodshed door open when it’s frozen shut. One warns of “camp robbers,” which turn out to be hungry blue jays that swoop in to steal bits of food.

The last entry I read was written by a woman who makes an annual ritual of skiing to the lookout. She was especially happy on this occasion: Besides commemorating her 49th birthday, she was celebrating the fact that her 9-year-old daughter could finally ski in without needing to be towed on a sled. Both were looking forward to many return visits. Drifting off to sleep, I decide I am, too.