ROSS LAKE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — He spends his summers in a glass house perched thousands of feet above some of the most scenic wilderness in the world. He has a 360-degree view of spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and a front-row seat to lightning-storm shows like no other.
A short walk from his door he can see and hear bears and other wild animals, yet he is protected from wildlife and the elements in his cozy, tiny house.
Welcome to the world of Jim Henterly, fire watchman for the iconic Desolation Peak lookout deep in the wilderness of North Cascades National Park.
“The general public, they romanticize lookouts,” said Henterly, who is in his seventh consecutive fire season atop 6,102-foot Desolation Peak, just east of Ross Lake and 6 miles south of the Canadian border.
“It’s intriguing to people, I think, to hike to this remote place and you have a little bit of a home up there on this mountaintop,” Henterly said. “I know a lot of people fantasize about that. The sights and sounds of total wilderness. Just having that experience day after day. You’re protected from the environment, but you’re immersed in it.“
As idyllic as this life may seem, Henterly isn’t just admiring the view. He’s there to — among other duties — spot smoke, locate it and send firefighters to put it out.
“You have a purpose, not just in looking casually out the window, but you’re actually looking for something that changes out there,” Henterly said. “You’re seeking. You’re looking for something that catches your eye.”
“You’re looking for movement, an object out there that just doesn’t fit a view you’re used to looking at many, many, many times a day,” the watchman said. “And studying it, and realizing, ‘That’s something I need to report. That’s smoke. That’s a fire.’”
Henterly walks on hallowed ground. The famous Desolation Peak lookout was built in 1932 with materials carried by pack horses and mules up the steep, 4.7-mile trail (an elevation gain of 4,400 feet) from Ross Lake. A classic “L-4” live-in lookout common of that day, it has a 14-by-14-foot wood frame, and windows all around that can be slanted out for air flow.
This shrine to 1930s construction, though, pales in comparison to the people who came before him. While looking for smoke, this mountaintop evangelist for the historical lookout experience is also honoring ghosts.
The ghost of American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac, who spent 63 days there in the summer of 1956. Then in his mid-30s, Kerouac’s time on Desolation provided inspiration for his books “Desolation Angels” and “Dharma Bums.”
The ghost of William Osborne, maker of the “Osborne Fire Finder,” a circular table about the size of an extra-large pizza used to locate smoke. By looking through crosshairs and using a topographical map along the azimuth, Henterly can reasonably pinpoint the fire location to direct aircraft or firefighting crews. Even though the Osborne Fire Finder was invented in 1934, it continues to be effective today.
“It’s a simple device,” Henterly said. “But you’ll find it in every lookout that is still functional.”
In manning the fire lookout, he also honors the ghost of U.S. Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski, who gallantly led the effort to fight the devastating “Big Burn” fire of 1910 in Idaho and Montana that burned 3 million acres and claimed dozens of lives.
Just outside Henterly’s lookout, charred snags from a similarly devastating fire, in 1926, remain. More than 1,000 men were sent to fight the fire that destroyed the surrounding landscape, hence the name Desolation Peak. Only the autumn rains stopped it.
“I want to maintain those stories that are important parts of this long [firefighting] history,” Henterly said.
North Cascades National Park also wants to maintain that history. The Desolation lookout’s roof was replaced in 2009. Last summer, the park’s Historic Preservation crew meticulously rebuilt the window shutters with original materials using 1930s blueprints. The shutters are critical for structural integrity during the harsh winters.
Vanishing fire lookouts
While Kerouac, Osborne and Pulaski are long gone, many fire lookouts are experiencing a similar fate.
The heyday of fire lookouts in the U.S. was between 1930 and 1950. At its peak, there were 660 fire lookouts in the state of Washington, according to Forrest Clark, Western Washington director for the Forest Fire Lookout Association.
Fire-spotting methods, however, have evolved over the years with technology. Forest Service and National Park Service personnel today increasingly rely on airplane flyovers, drones, satellite imaging and even automated camera systems to spot smoke.
Clark says the number of fire lookouts in the state today has dwindled to 93. Many have been dismantled, fallen down on their own or, ironically, have burned to the ground in forest fires. Clark estimates only about one-third of the 93 lookouts are currently staffed, either by U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service employees, or by volunteers.
Manning the lookout is no small task. Henterly takes a Parks boat on Ross Lake to Lightning Creek Campground, near the Desolation Peak trailhead, leaving a 9.4-mile round-trip hike to the lookout. The alternate is a roughly 50-mile round-trip hike from the East Bank Ross Lake trailhead off Highway 20.
Henterly receives a helicopter supply drop at the start of the fire season, including food, propane and other supplies. Every time he goes up, roughly every 14 days, he’s bringing more supplies in his backpack.
The few fire lookouts that remain staffed are vital to firefighting efforts. Sometimes there’s no substitute for reliable “eyes in the sky.” Reconnaissance flights can be expensive and usually are only justified once every 24 hours.
Henterly recalled one incident several years ago while he was staffing a fire lookout near Wenatchee when his round-the-clock eyes were essential.
“[Recon flights would] go up after lightning busts, and I just remember calling a fire in after they’d gone over and they’d say, ‘We just flew that,’” he said. “I’d say, ‘But you’re not up 24/7,’ and I’d be calling in at 9 at night. It’s pretty amazing to have an actual person looking 24 hours day.”
Real people in lookouts who know what they’re doing can be hard to find. That’s what makes Henterly so valuable.
Henterly was heading up the trail to Desolation Peak one day in 2018 when he spotted smoke on a nearby ridge. He immediately called in the fire on his radio before he reached the lookout.
The fire on Arctic Ridge would be named by fire management “Arctic Jim.” Before it was extinguished by natural forces, it burned 880 acres. But thanks to Henterly’s alert eyes, firefighters kept it away from the national recreation area that surrounds Ross Lake.
“That was a good example of an excellent purpose for a lookout,” Henterly said. “They didn’t need to fly over it every day because they had eyeballs on it. I was watching its every move.”
“Arctic Jim” was eventually allowed to burn because it was “being managed.” The fire, Henterly said, “dropped stuff to the bottom and moved in a such way that it’s going to leave a natural scar that’s good habitat. With fires in the wilderness, the policy is we let them do their thing if it’s natural-caused. If it’s man-caused, that’s a whole different story.”
Last stop: Desolation Peak
Between the U.S. Forest and National Parks services, Henterly has 30 fire seasons of experience staffing fire lookouts. He started as a wildland firefighter, and beginning in 1979, spent nine fire seasons with wife Ann Marie as a “lookout couple” on a 90-foot-high tower overlooking the Snake River in the Wallowas in northeastern Oregon. The 68-year-old Henterly figures Desolation Peak is his last stop.
Outside of his seasonal job as a fire watchman, Henterly is a freelance illustrator, and volunteer firefighter and EMT. In between his routine “360 checks every 15 minutes” — a panoramic look with his binoculars, to look for changes in the landscape, signs of smoke, etc. — he’s able to spend time on his drawings. He also serves as a critical radio communication link for the whole park, often relaying information to people who cannot otherwise communicate with the park’s dispatch system.
Long gone are the days of spending months or even an entire summer in a fire lookout. Henterly alternates working 10 consecutive days then four days off. He usually spends a little more than 70 days in a lookout per fire season, which typically starts in late June and ends in late September.
He’s seen it all over the years from his mountaintop perch, including lightning strikes that literally go for 10 horizontal miles.
“I’ve seen how deadly it can be,” he said. “I’ve seen trees explode.”
He gets about 400 visitors to the lookout per season. And while many of them fantasize about what it would be like to do his job, Henterly goes to great lengths to extol the virtues of the lookout.
“As a firefighter, a lookout really rises to the level of an icon,” he said. “Fire lookouts hold a special place in their hearts. It was such a cool idea. Here was a place where someone spotted a fire, and actually maybe even in the earliest days, someone would go out from that spot and begin the initial attack on that fire.”
Henterly, of course, speaks from experience. He’s been that guy.