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Sourdough Lookout

In the Era of Fire Lookouts: Fire Suppression in the North Cascades

July 25th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Adam Bates, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

Fire lookouts have captured the imagination of the American public for over seventy-five years. The notion that one could spend a summer atop a mountain in solitude and seclusion holds a certain romanticism that was perpetuated by numerous authors, poets, artists and backcountry enthusiasts. Therein lies my interest in and affinity for fire lookouts, the romance and challenge of mountaintop hermitage.

Retired National Park Service employee Gerry Cook spent three summers as a lookout, using his earnings to entirely pay his through his undergraduate degree at Washington State University. “You can revel in your time there (on lookout) for the rest of your life,” says Cook. “It’s romanticized in everyone’s imagination. So, once you’re done, you can go right into that fantasy world and live there forever.”

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Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades

July 4th, 2016 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Sixty years ago this month, Jack Kerouac left Northern California for the Skagit Valley and North Cascades to begin his summer as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. We’re having fun tracing his trajectory through his writing found in The Dharma Bums and Lonesome Traveler, as well as John Suiter’s excellent history Poets on the Peaks.

“On the 18th of June, a Monday morning, Kerouac set out for Desolation from McCorkle’s (cabin in Mill Valley), marching off down Montford Road under full pack. In Mill Valley he began hitching north, following Highway 101 through Sonoma and Mendocino and Humboldt counties to Eureka and up into the redwoods to Crescent City. There he turned east to join up with Highway 99 at Grants Pass, Oregon. Now he was in Snyder country, following Gary’s well-worn path up into Portland, across the Columbia, north to Snoqualmie Pass, and beyond — to America’s last and greatest wilderness.”

— John Suiter, Poets on the Peaks

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“At Marblemount the (Skagit) river is a swift torrent, the work of quiet mountains. — Fallen logs beside the water provide good seats to enjoy a river wonderland, leaves jiggling in the good clean northwest wind seem to rejoice, the topmost trees on nearby timbered peaks swept and dimmed by low-flying clouds seem contented. — The clouds assume the faces of hermits or of nuns, or sometimes look like sad dog acts hurrying off into the wings over the horizon. — Snags struggle and gurgle in the heaving bilk of the river. — Logs rush by at twenty miles an hour. The air smells of pine and sawdust and bark and mud and twigs — birds flash over the water looking for secret fish.

As you drive north across the bridge at Marblemount and on to Newhalem the road narrows and twists until finally the Skagit is seen pouring over rocks, frothing, and small creeks come tumbling from steep hillsides and pile right in. — The mountains rise of all sides, only their shoulders and ribs visible, their heads out of sight and now snowcapped.”

—Jack Kerouac, making his way up the Skagit in to the North Cascades, from Lonesome Traveler.

YOU can hike Desolation Peak and visit the fire lookout Kerouac stayed in this summer on our “Beats on the Peaks” class Aug 4-7 ~ info and registration at www.ncascades.org/signup/programs/beats-on-the-peaks-2016.

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Joshua Winter 2016

Graduate Winter Natural History Retreat: Class in the snow!

March 28th, 2016 | Posted by in Field Excursions

As the snow is melting and Spring is is coming in full force, winter’s grasp is quickly fleeting from our minds. It’s hard to imagine that just a month ago the 15th Graduate Cohort of the North Cascades Institute was on their Winter Natural History retreat in the Methow Valley, then a winter wilderness! The retreat was the second retreat we had taken this year, in which we delve deep into the natural landscape to get first hand experience with our local wilderness. In this particular trip we learned about astronomy, wolverines, avalanche science and even tracking. Our whole trip had us centered at the Skalitude Retreat Center located in the Methow Valley.

Skalitude Retreat Center

Skalitude

Skalitude Retreat Center located in the heart of the mountains.

After traveling for seven hours into the Methow Valley, for Washington Pass is closed in the winter, the road into Skalitude was the definition of a remote mountain road: covered with animal tracks, steep, and windy. The whole road was encased in a thick forest. As soon as we reached the retreat the trees opened up to showcase the excellent valley and the pristine snow! Living in Western Washington this winter made me forget how much I had missed feet of clean, beautiful snow.

Good meals

Good friends and good food! Photo courtesy of Aly Gourd.

» Continue reading Graduate Winter Natural History Retreat: Class in the snow!

NCI Snyder SourDough 2

Gary Snyder’s “August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer”

November 7th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“August on Sourdough,

A Visit from Dick Brewer”

Poem by Gary Snyder from The Back Country; a reading with Rob Rich

You hitched a thousand miles

north from San Francisco

Hiked up the mountainside     a mile in the air

Thy little cabin – one room –

walled in glass

Meadows and snowfields,     hundreds of peaks.

We lay in our sleeping bags

talking half the night;

Wind in the guy-cables      summer mountain rain.

Next morning I went with you

as far as the cliffs,

Loaned you my poncho –      the rain across the shale –

You down the snowfield

flapping in the wind

Waving a last goodbye      half hidden in the clouds

To go on hitching

clear to New York;

Me back to my mountain      and far, far, west.

 

Snyder_print

Just behind the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, Sourdough Mountain looms. This fabled peak has enjoyed a front row seat to generations of comings and goings in the Upper Skagit: a glacial lake draining, indigenous peoples journeying to quarry ancient sea-floor stones, newcomers paving Route 20 through gorges, your car rumbling through them.

» Continue reading Gary Snyder’s “August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer”

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Tim McNulty’s “Night, Sourdough Mountain Lookout”

October 31st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“Night, Sourdough Mountain Lookout”

Poem by Tim McNulty; a reading with Rob Rich

A late-summer sun
threads the needles of McMillan Spires
and disappears in a reef of a 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 rib of the planet
like a skiff to a shoal
in a wheeling sea of stars.

Night sky at full flood.

Wildly awake.

Sourdough Lookout

During our recent lunar eclipse, I know an awestruck child who asked that most earnest strain of seven-year old sincerity: “Daddy, where’s earth?” Though I had lacked the courage to so boldly echo her question, I couldn’t help but to smile in agreement. Just how is it that our real experience on this planet be so utterly surprising and mysterious…so unearthly?

» Continue reading Tim McNulty’s “Night, Sourdough Mountain Lookout”

Desolation NCI

On the Lookout for Unalloyed Pleasure: Poets in the North Cascades circa 1950s

February 10th, 2014 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

North Cascade Institute’s graduate Cohort 13 recently hosted our annual Instructor Exchange with other students and teachers from IslandWood and the Wilderness Awareness School. As part of this, I facilitated a session about the handful of poets who served as fire lookouts in the North Cascades in the 1950s. My notes were gathered almost entirely from John Suiter’s comprehensive and lovely book, Poets on the Peaks (Counterpoint 2002). After the presentation was through, I realized my hunch was correct: People love these stories.

At this point, over half-a-century later, Jack Kerouac’s benzedrine-fueled fiction and Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary (for the times) poems can seem romantic and co-opted to the point of being trite. Sometimes. More often, though, I regard this small club of men – Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac — who looked out, in solitude, from these mountains as an immense and symbolic source of relief. All three had connections and allegiances to the San Francisco Bay Area, a peninsula inhabited by freaks and artists and which regularly appeared as a setting in their writings. I, too, have been steeped in that place. It is a lifeline to know they lived and loved, wrote and pondered, here in the North Cascades, that they were the keepers of these ridges and valleys over a decade before these mountains were bestowed national park status. I can look up toward Sourdough Mountain, if it’s not hiding behind heavy grey, and hear Snyder and Whalen reminding me what a stunning land this is, assuring me that the steep streets of North Beach, the forested flanks of Mt. Tamalpais, the cacti gardens and Craftsman homes of Berkeley are a mere hitchhike away, should one choose.

The following relates three connected snippets of the poets’ experiences in the North Cascades. All information and quotes are from John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks.

*    *    *

It is 1954, and Gary Snyder is not happy.

After spending two summers as a fire lookout in the North Cascades, once perched in the highest structure, atop Crater Mountain, and later living on the comparatively “suburban” Sourdough Mountain, Snyder’s application to work a third season is rejected by the United States Forest Service. Had the 24-year-old poet and mountaineer done something wrong? Perhaps he had not spent the requisite 20 minutes per hour scanning the horizon for smokes or failed to memorize every peak amidst his diligent practicing of Zen Buddhism, outlining a future play about lookout life, reading galore and imbibing green tea?

view north from SD, K. RemzThe view from Sourdough Mountain, looking north toward Ross Lake. Photo by Katherine Renz.

The answer is hardly definitive. On February 10, the Forest Service supervisor in Bellingham denies Snyder’s application on unclear grounds. Snyder eventually receives an explanation from the Department of Agriculture, vaguely attributing his dismissal to a “general unsuitability” as opposed to “security” issues. One thing is clear: Snyder is blacklisted from government work.

Homegrown campaigns against labor rights activists in Washington and Oregon got nasty after World War One, at times demonstrating a particularly Pacific Northwest brand of vigilante violence by flogging Wobblies with the spiky native plant, devil’s club (an ethnobotanical application of this highly medicinal species that usually goes unmentioned). Thirty-five years later, Snyder is irritated, hurt, and increasingly angry and frustrated by attempts to find other, equivalent employment. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare is raging, and though the young poet is an open pacifist and anarchist, he is not involved in any radical organizing. Calling all pikas! You mountain goats o’er there, with your un-American beards! C’mon Hozomeen, rally the chert!

Plan B. Snyder sends a stack of applications all over the Pacific Northwest and California looking for summer work doing trail-building, fire crew, or fire-watch. He is successful, and buys six weeks worth of groceries on the way to his new lookout job in the Gifford Pinchot forest. He is fired the next morning. He finds a position as a choke setter on Oregon’s Warm Springs Indian Reservation instead. From Zen lookout-poet to manning one of the most dangerous jobs in the logging industry, Snyder’s season was a challenge.

Poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg Backpacking
Though never a lookout himself, poet Allen Ginsberg [on right] was a friend and contemporary of Snyder, Whalen, and Kerouac. He writes: “Between June and September 1965, North Cascades National Park, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, USA — Summer 1965, 8 day backpack climbing in wilderness area of northern Cascades, Glacier Park, Washington state, [with] Gary Snyder [on left] back from a near-decade in Kyoto studying & practicing Zazen. My first mountain walk.” — Image © Allen Ginsberg/CORBIS

As Snyder writes in a letter to his friend, fellow poet and lookout Philip Whalen: “I am physically sick for wanting to be in the mountains so bad. I am forced to admit that no one thing in life gives me such unalloyed pleasure as simply being in the mountains.” And later, he elaborates: “Everything feels all wrong: I just can’t adapt to not packing up and traveling this time of year and my rucksack and boots hang accusingly on the wall.”

Philip Whalen’s boots, however, are indeed on his feet, though they are likely propped up on a chair, his lap supporting a book, more often than his mountaineering friend Snyder’s ever were. Set above 6000 feet at Sourdough Lookout, it’s mid-August and Whalen is in his second season, occupying the one room home in which Snyder had experienced his own creative surge the year before in 1953.

Previously, Whalen had spent his premier lookout season on Sauk Mountain, with a choice view of the Picket Range, Mount Shuskan, and Mount Baker. The two men, both writers, became friends while students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Highly intellectual, Whalen is turned on to lookout-ing by the younger Snyder, thrilled not so much by the physical challenges of the outdoors but by the rare opportunity to embark on an intensive summer reading campaign while living embedded in beauty and solitude to inspire his writing. And getting paid by the Eisenhower administration to do it! Snyder also introduces Whalen to Zen teachings and practice.

During his short stint in 1954 atop Sourdough (fire danger is low that year, and the season starts late), Whalen’s neighbors include a herd of a dozen stags and a resident black bear. Upon returning to the valley, motivated and enthused, he writes in a letter to Snyder: “My imagination is in great shape. Goodness knows what will happen next.”

diablo from SD Katherin RenzA classic image of Diablo Lake, as seen from the flanks of Sourdough Mountain. In his poem “Sourdough Mountain Lookout”, Whalen describes it as “two lights green soap and indigo”. Photo by Katherine Renz.

It is a little over a year later, October 1955. A handful of poets, on fire, give a reading at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. Allen Ginsberg unleashes his incendiary “Howl”. Jack Kerouac, a writer and train-hopping Buddhist who’d recently arrived from a literary bender with William Burroughs in Mexico City, is in attendance, too. It proves a legendary night, the kickoff of the literary resurgence fueled by the so-called Beat Generation (not all participating poets, Snyder included, would enjoy this lasting label).

Whalen shares his tales of lookout work in the wild North Cascades to Kerouac. Snyder elaborates. Though Kerouac has never traveled in the backcountry before, he has long fantasized about holing up in a hermitage – writing rapid-fire, beset with visions, privy to a direct line to the divine. His experienced friends encourage him to apply.

Kerouac is accepted to man Desolation Lookout, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, for the summer of 1956. His anticipation is overwhelming, and he tells his friend, Carolyn Cassidy, “O boy, O boy, O here I go, I got the offer for the job watching fires…and I told the Forest Ranger I hoped he’d take me back next year, and the next, and all my life. It will be my life work…”.

kerouac copyright Walter LehrmanMay 1956, Kerouac at Gary Snyder’s going-away party (Snyder would be back and forth between Japan and California for the next 12 years) in Northern California. This is six weeks before Kerouac left for his season in the North Cascades. Image © Walter Lehrman.

Being a fire lookout does not become Kerouac’s life work. He writes a ton while on Desolation (his arguably most famous novel, On the Road, would be published a year later). But he is also lonely, scared of the looming Hozomeen, especially in the dark, having more delusions than visions and yearning more for debauchery and drugs upon returning to the city than for the dharma of the present. In his 63 days on the aptly-named mountain, he receives no visitors, his sole social contact being when he scrambles down to the Ross Guard Station, ten days into his season, to scrounge a one pound tin of Prince Albert rolling tobacco from the generous guards.

*     *     *

Three men, 360 degree views, a slew of haikus, tales and legends. It is 2014. I look to the peaks and they rumble poems.

desolation sign NCIAbove and top images © North Cascades Institute

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is looking forward to an obligatory pilgrimage to Desolation Peak this coming summer vacation, followed by a drink in North Beach.

 

 

Sourdough-burley

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.

 

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

» Continue reading Poems from Sourdough Mountain Lookout