It was the summer of 1961, and Ron Dean was the sole human occupant of a postage-stamp-size mountaintop.
His jaw bearded, his clothes soiled, Dean learned to keep the previous night’s popcorn in his morning pockets as he went about the duties of maintaining a Forest Service fire lookout. Three times a week he’d walk down to a spring and fill a five-gallon bucket full of water, and on the way golden cress squirrels would keep him company. Squirrels, he learned, like popcorn.
“I always kept my pockets full of popcorn,” Dean remembered of his college-age summer job. “I ended up … by the end of the season I had seven or eight squirrels. I could go off and say: ‘OK, I have some popcorn,’ and they’d come up from all angles.”
He eventually came to name the little rodents. Jim. Daisy. Tom. John. To the untrained eye a squirrel is a squirrel. For a man living atop 9,988-foot Lookout Mountain at the northern edge of the White Cloud Mountains from June 28 to September 13, their subtle differences in appearance and personality became plain.
“I always felt I had company, but it was lonely,” he said. “It did lack people.” Company came in the form of late-night radio traffic with men and women at the summits of other Idaho lookouts, but the mountaintop’s wild creatures, more than anything, were Dean’s companions. Especially the squirrels.
“They got so they would wake me up every morning at six o’clock. They’d just roam around the lookout until I got a pancake or something fixed up. Then I’d let them out the door.”
Dean arrived at the summit of Lookout Mountain with two months of supplies. There was grease for cooking, popcorn for popping and rainwater for bathing. The lookout had hardwood floors and an iron wood-burning stove. A stack of western novels awaited, and not a word remained unread.
From day to day, not much happened atop Lookout Mountain in the summer of ’61. Dean learned to use the Osborne Fire Finder to precisely describe a fire’s location, but only once did he call a fire in. During hot afternoons when fires were most likely to ignite he’d walk the lookout’s catwalk every 15 minutes and scan the nearby White Cloud, Sawtooth and Salmon River mountains for a solitary plume of smoke, the earliest sign of an impending conflagration. That summer there were usually none. The real adventures came from dealing with some of Mother Nature’s more obscure and colorful inventions.
“One morning my lookout started changing colors, and you couldn’t tell that my lookout had windows or was a white color,” he said. Upon further inspection, he discovered the little structure was pulsing from the rust-red glow of a million little flying carpenter ants that were stopping over during a migration. “My lookout was a stopping point. There wasn’t a fourth of an inch on that lookout you could see.”
Another morning a few monarch butterflies drifted on light winds from the valley and across the pale-orange light of the lookout at sunrise. By evening the butterflies numbered in the hundreds, and for two days monarch butterflies drifted past the lookout’s wavy glass windowpanes.
These were experiences that charged the young man’s soul, almost as much as the night lightning struck the ground wire atop the lookout.
“The concussion of that lightning strike literally threw me across the lookout and knocked me out,” Dean said. “I knew I’d been hit, and so I walked outside to see what had happened, and the top of my flagpole—the brass on it was melted, and it was burning on top. Every corner of my lookout was just sparking.”
It wasn’t always life and death atop Lookout Mountain. There were dramatic sunrises and theatrical sunsets. There were big buckets of collected rainwater Dean heated for baths. There was a .22 caliber rifle he used to shoot grouse for dinner. There were black bears and occasional cougars. There was the autumn rutt, when bull elk began to bugle and clack horns in the woods below.
“I chose that lookout job for more than one reason,” he said. “I hadn’t spent much time in Idaho, and I was very much intrigued by the high mountain country.”
On September 13, with seven inches of freshly fallen snow icing the rocky summit of Lookout Mountain, Dean loaded his pack, sealed the lookout’s windows and trudged back into the folded valleys of central Idaho.
“Oh, I was so glad to be back in civilization, but I hadn’t been back a week, and I was thinking about getting the job again the next year,” he said.
© Greg Stahl
The fire lookout at Lookout Mountain was decommissioned a few decades ago, but only a few years ago it was still open to visitors. A week after the above photos were shot I learned the lookout had been closed to the public. That was July 4, 2006. This year, however, the lookout underwent repairs and a new paint job and may be reopened. Call the Sawtooth National Recreation Area for details. For those interested, the summit of Lookout Mountain is a relatively short and mildly arduous five-mile hike from the Rough Creek Trailhead in the Salmon River corridor.