Poems from Sourdough Mountain Lookout

November 19th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by Tim McNulty

Longtime Institute writing instructor, naturalist and poet Tim McNulty will travel from his home on the Olympic Peninsula to Village Books in Bellingham to read from his new collection of poetry Ascendence on Friday, November 22 at 7pm; free

These poems were written at Sourdough Mountain Lookout during the dry summer of 2003.  Several lightning-sparked wildfires were burning in the heart of North Cascades National Park that summer.  Natural wildfire is an vital part of the forest ecosystem.  The park service decided to reactivate the historic lookout to monitor the fires’ behavior.

Sourdough Mountain lies at the heart of the North Cascades.  A mile above the Skagit River canyon at the intersection of six major drainages, it commands one of the most spectacular views in the range.

When the park began looking for a fire guard who could commit to the summer fire season, friends let me know. I jumped at the opportunity.  A few days later I was alone amid one the most spectacular mountain wilderness landscapes in North America.

TM Hannigan camp 12

Part of my practice as a poet is to keep an active personal journal.  At the lookout I also kept a fire log in which I recorded daily temperature, wind velocity and direction, barometric pressure, fuel moisture, and fire behavior.  In my personal journal I jotted notes, observations, impressions, images…  During slack times in the afternoons and evenings, I worked at shaping my rough notes into poems.  I winnowed and revised them over the following winter.  The poems appeared in an earlier poetry chapbook and now they are part my new collection, Ascendance (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2013).  The section is titled “Through High Still Air,” an obvious nod to poet Gary Snyder who served as Sourdough Mt. lookout 50 years earlier.

What follows are a few poems that chronicled my weeks among the peaks as the Northwest summer gave way to fall.  Fires flared then succumbed to damp weather.  A river of wildlife passed through barely taking note of me.  And the stunning mountain wildness surrounded and inspired me each day.


*                          *                          *                          *                          *


I found it difficult to get to sleep my first few nights at the due to the dazzling array of stars that lit the windows all around.  To convey the immensity of the experience,  I evoked the image of the lookout as a small skiff anchored to a shoal in a sea of stars.  The mountain wilderness that surrounded me was a microcosm of the larger “wilderness” of the heavens.


Night, Sourdough Mountain Lookout


A late-summer sun

threads the needles of McMillan Spires

and disappears in a reef of coral cloud.


Winds roil the mountain trees,

batter the shutter props.


I light a candle with the coming dark.

Its reflection in the window glass

flickers over mountains and

shadowed valleys

seventeen miles north to Canada.


Not another light.


The lookout is a dim star

anchored to a rib of the planet

like a skiff to a shoal

in a wheeling sea of stars.


Night sky at full flood.


Wildly awake.


*                          *                          *                          *                          *

I pay close attention to wildlife, and my encounters with wildlife rivet my attention.  With daily visits from hawks, songbirds, chipmunks and deer, and rarer encounters with bear and weasel, the lookout was a hotspot of wildlife encounters.  As a poet, I try to capture the movement and energy of these encounters in the language and rhythms of the poems.




Mid-afternoon and hawks

spiral up the thermals

from Diablo Canyon —


red-tails, Cooper’s, rough-

legs, harriers, the small

nimble “cheetahs” of sharp-shins.


Poised, compact and gracefully alert,

(Jeffers’ “intrepid readiness”)

wingfeathers rippling in the updraft,


they shoot through the notch

west of the lookout

and merge into blue over

Pierce Creek valley.


I watch with field glasses

from my mountain perch

until they vanish

against the darker blue shadows

of the Picket Range.


*                          *                          *                          *                          *


Sourdough Mountain lies at the eastern edge of the Puget Sound-Salish Sea basin.  Beyond it, past Crater and Hozomeen mountains, lie the distinctly dryer pine forests and sagebrush steppe of the Columbia basin.  As the marine cloud layer flooded up the Skagit River Valley and slowly engulfed the lookout, the sense was being at the far end of the ocean basin.  My readings from Buddhist philosophy and classical poetics deepened the metaphor.


The End of the Ocean


High clouds at dawn

and finger tracings of moisture

in the eastern sky.


From beyond the western rim

of mountains,

ocean’s breath floods the valley.


Mist spills over high ridges.


One by one, the peaks

wink out.  Soon, the lookout

is wrapped in blowing cloud.


Wetness drips from propped shutters.

The visible world

beyond misted windows,

an isthmus of rock and heather.


“I stood as one stupefied,”

wrote Petrarch.

“I looked down and saw

the clouds lay beneath my feet.

I felt as if



Clark’s nutcracker dips from a cloud,

lights on a hemlock limb

and calls: once, twice…


“No bird who flies

knows the limits of the sky,”

says Dogen,

“no fish who swims, the end

of the ocean.”


Taste of raincloud moving past,

streams and rivers

beginning again.


At the near edge of ocean’s reach,

traces of older cycles:

weathered rock / wandering seas,


century-old hemlock scrub

in blowing mist, black wings


…flaps off & disappears.



*                          *                          *                          *                          *


Wherever we find ourselves, we are part of the living fabric of the biosphere.  Geologic process, the hydrologic cycle, energy pathways, and wildlife migrations, are the stuff of our daily experience.  For me, it’s part of the job to stay attentive to the large picture — and when the opportunity presents, to celebrate it.


Tropical Sunlight


Smoke from wildfires fills the valleys,

and a high veil of cirrus

dampens the morning sun.

Then a gift from Costa Rican forests —

Townsend’s warbler drops by.


Sunlit yellow face and breast,

dark Zorro-like mask,

quickly, neatly, shakes down

a subalpine fir crown

for bugs,

cleans his beak madly on a limb,

and takes leave south

across the Skagit,

heading back.


From the lookout steps,

three thousand miles north,

I’m warmed through.


*                          *                          *


All poems from Ascendance, Poems by Tim McNulty, copyright (c) Tim McNulty, Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, New York, 2013.

Top photo of Sourdough Lookout by Todd Burley.





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