Moving away from family is a tough thing to do and it is especially hard with a two year old. So, three years ago, when we made the two thousand mile drive from Chicago to Seattle my partner and I decided on something. It was that if we were going to live away from our families it needed to be fully justified. We spent that first autumn hiking to a different waterfall every weekend rain or shine. That first summer we camped seven weekends in a row. We found that camping allowed us to get deeper into the woods and farther away from home. Able to see more in a weekend and generally less time in the car. I had always loved Chicago and the Midwest, but it wasn’t long before I realized this is where I belonged. The Pacific Northwest is where I wanted to be raising our son.
Being newbies to living near these huge wild spaces our options seemed endless. There were the quarter mile strolls from pullouts on the highways to full week, permitted, back country, bear canister epics. Luckily for us, our son was still small enough that he was easily toted around in a hiking backpack. For those not familiar with kids, let me just say, they grow like a weed and it seemed that sooner than we would have liked, our limit became his. It sometimes takes a lot of creativity and a deep scouring of our library of day hike books to find these one mile, flat trails to places we can all enjoy. We were spending our weekends, moving at about half a mile and hour, hiking to the lakes most people blow past just as they get warmed up. This was hard because the more time we spent here, the more really amazing places we learned about. Namely I was becoming infatuated with fire lookouts, but by their nature, they are at the very top and thus usually pretty hard to get to. Most times impossible for a 3 year old under his own steam.
I was determined to visit some of these lookouts sooner than later and the first step was to find which ones we could drive directly to and see. On the West side of the Cascade Range those are exhausted pretty quickly, but hotly followed by the ones where the hike isn’t too strenuous or long. Coupled with the lore of Smokey the Bear these “fire houses”, as our son started calling them, became a favorite destination. The natural next step was take our backpacking game to the next level and overnight in one.
The specifics of getting time in a fire lookout is a story within itself, so I will leave it at we secured a handful of nights this summer in a few lookouts through various means. Our first stay was to be at Kelly Butte, high above and between the Greenwater and Green Rivers, deep within the Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington. The original lookout was replaced by the current one in 1936 and staffed into the 1980’s but after staffing left, fell into disrepair. Renovation completed in 2011 now makes it so it is staffed by volunteers during the summer fire season. We headed up the trail as official volunteer fire guards.
As excited as I was, it came with its own anxiety. When we backpack in to a lake there typically is a bunch of room to run around and explore, not to mention swim. The sort of thing that is important for a five year olds energy cache. Headed up to the top of a mountain, I knew the options were to be a little more limited. The end of the trail is the destination and there isn’t anything beyond it but sky. So as I compressed his giant, not exactly backpacking friendly, sleeping bag to put in my pack, I was also gathering up a small loop of wooden train track and a few cars. Toiletries went into the top pocket along with a kite and some race cars. I desperately wanted our son to have fun and not mind the effort to get there. He picked out a few bedtime stories and stuffed animal friends to make the trip in his pack and we were ready.
I have to say, most of my fears were pretty unfounded. While he might be the first person to ever play with wooden trains at a fire lookout, he seemed to be more interested in wandering around the summit looking for bear grass in precarious places and looking for fires though the binoculars the forest service provided. I’d be willing to wager he is the most vigilant fire spotter the forest service has ever deputized. There were other things that I hadn’t thought of that provided the real struggle. Like bedtime. While the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever seen, it was also one of the latest of the summer. Meaning that our little dudes normal 8PM bedtime was completely blown as he watched the sun sink below the horizon for his first time ever at 9:04 PM. He seemed to relish this, new to him, time of day taking long looks into the blaze of color in the twilight sky between stories. I couldn’t blame him, it was pretty amazing.
Sharing a twin bed frame with a five year old and an eighty pound dog made for restless sleep. The lack of sleep was completely masked by a sky blanketed in stars and the slow fad to light as the sun rose. Without a fire to report over our infrequently buzzing radio, we headed out the next day passing off our gear to the next volunteers on the way out. Memories were made and we had one more weekend in our phot album to make good on our promise to live life to the fullest. As the ultimate gauge as to whether the trip was a success, two months later, in the days preceding our second lookout overnighter, our son came home from school with a pretty detailed drawing of his trip to Kelly Butte. Complete with trail details, the campfire we could see after dark and different colored meadows atop the butte. As his legs get longer I can’t wait to get further and further off the beaten path as a family.
Words and Images by Ben Popper