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Summers in Bob Marshall lookout post not for everyone
Sam Chapman and reporter Martin Kidston check out the view from atop the Patrol Lookout, near Benchmark in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Chapman spends her summers at the lookout, waiting and watching for wildfires breaking out in the remote wilderness. ELIZA WILEY/Helena Independent Record

BENCHMARK - Sam Chapman awoke in a white mist at 8,015 feet. It's mid-July and the morning chill is crisp, but the 13-year veteran of the patrol tower lookout finds it refreshing, if not invigorating.

Life at this elevation is one of harsh extremes. The days can pass slowly, the isolation something few can handle. The wind can blow at hurricane force. Clouds may encircle the lookout, the lightning flashing like disco party lights around the windows.

This high up, UV rays can be harmful. Small-town civilization is 40 miles away.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness is truly wild.

"Being alone up here is different than being alone at home," she said. "I don't think this is for everyone. But I enjoy it. I like it."

The equipment used on the job hasn't changed much in 13 years, at least in the Rocky Mountain Ranger District of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, where Chapman works.

The Osborne Fire Finder remains the most useful tool on the job. A relic from 1934, the tool sits in the center of Chapman's lookout, just below the rolled up maps suspended from the rafters.

Her days involve a slow waltz around the old instrument. When she's not using it to pinpoint distant smoke, she's stepping around it, doing what she can to pass the day in the one-room shelter high above the world.

Shortly after a reporter and photographer arrive to visit, a radio crackles to life. The digital instrument serves as the only link to modernity in Chapman's world. Like everything else up here, the radios are powered by a solar panel mounted on the roof.

"The old analog radios weren't as powerful as the new digital radios, but the signals traveled farther in the mountains," she said. "Sometimes it's frustrating. You can hear that someone's trying to call, but you can't tell who it is or what's going on."

Today, the signal comes in loud and clear. At times the banter is playful, though it doesn't last. Inevitably the silence returns, but Chapman is used to that.

"The second week is the biggest challenge of your first season," she said. "Once that's over, it's a lot easier. A lot of people get stir crazy. For me, I haven't had that many challenges really."

• ••

Thirteen years ago, Chapman's sister was working in the Prairie Reef tower. It sits 11 miles west on a slab of up-thrust rock in the heart of the Bob Marshal Wilderness. It's visible through high-powered binoculars as a square box situated at 9,000 feet.

In 1997, the person hired to staff the patrol tower - this tower - failed to show up. Chapman didn't have a job at the time, so her sister passed on her name. She has spent every summer since on the mountain with her dog, Rye. The lone exception to her tenure came in 2005 when she staffed the Prairie Reef tower - again with Rye.

"I'm partial to this lookout," Chapman said. "It's a little more comfortable in some ways, and there aren't as many visitors."

Occasionally, visitors find their way up the mountain. It's an arduous six-mile climb up nearly 3,000 feet of rocky terrain. Getting here requires fording Straight Creek, which runs fast and wide.

Near the summit, visitors move through Honeymoon Basin before traversing an exposed ridge. Gusts of wind have rounded off the stone as easily as sandpaper over balsa wood.

Climbers have come from Taiwan, Australia and around the U.S. Each of the past two years, a family from Great Falls has been the first to greet Chapman at the lookout in early July.

A guest book placed by the door includes the names and comments of those who make the trek. In 2006, as many as 55 people reached the lookout. In 2007, with the fires raging and the Bob Marshall closed, only 20 people knocked at her door.

This year, 27 people have already been here. The lookout has become an attraction. It's understandable why. Once, there were 18 lookouts stretching from the Dearborn River north to Glacier Park.

Today, Chapman said, only three remain.

• • •

Where there's smoke,

there's fire.

"Last year was the first time we've had big fires since I've been here," she said, studying the building clouds. "We usually have small fires, and I've turned in my share of trees that burned. But last year was definitely the biggest."

Last year, much of the Bob Marshall was closed due to fire on July 20. The Ahorn, Fool Creek and Skyland fires alone scorched 150,000 acres of wilderness within Chapman's line of sight. The smoke spilled onto the prairie to the east, sending up giant columns that rivaled the largest cumulus clouds.

Chapman steps to the windows and spreads her arms, telling how the Ahorn fire alone consumed nearly 50 degrees of her horizon. She didn't call in the Ahorn to officials, but she spent much of her summer dealing with it, telling fire crews 3,000 feet below where the fire was burning in relation to their position.

• • •

The snowdrift down the ridge melts drop by drop. It remains 4 feet deep and is one of many patches of snow lasting deep into the summer.

Distant ridges reveal even larger snowfields. Chapman is not one to bet on such unpredictable things as fire, but when she looks around, she likes what she sees.

"When I first started up here, the drifts would last until the 15th or 20th of July," she said, pointing to Sugarloaf Mountain, a dinosaur-looking peak cleaving the near horizon. "Last year, there was no snow at all up here by the Fourth of July. But this year, when I opened the lookout on July 3, it was the most snow I'd ever seen - more snow than when I'd come up here in June."

The snow was so deep that when Chapman opened the lookout in early July, she had to dig a path for the pack train to get supplies to the summit. She dug 4 feet down and 8 feet long to make room for horses and mules.

Earlier this morning the mules returned, led by Tim Love with Mills Wilderness Adventures. We had passed his pack train 2,000 feet up the trail as it headed down the mountain. The team was returning from a supply run, stocking Chapman's lookout with enough food, water and wood to last 14 days.

• • •

Chapman's big fire was the Cigarette Rock fire, a fast-burning blaze that erupted in 2006 and burned 23,000 acres. Of all her big fires, Cigarette Rock was the scariest.

"It was a little frightening because I wasn't really sure what was going on and it grew so fast, it was coming straight down the drainage toward me," she said. "But the lookout is a safety zone, so they don't figure the lookout will burn."

Most lookouts don't, but some have.

In 2003, the historic Silver King lookout north of Lincoln was torched when the Snow-Talon fire pushed over the mountain. In the worst scenario, Chapman could duck off this mountain's south side to find safety.

It may be 2,000 feet of cliffs and scree, but at least, she said, the rock won't burn. Besides, the nearest tree is well below the ridge on the tamer side of the mountain. On the back side, the "wow" side, there are no trees and it's a long way down.

"I get wildlife down on that hillside quite a bit," she said, pointing to the nearest meadow. Her finger sweeps the horizon, stopping at a distant cliff. "There's a mountain goat that hangs out on that hill. It's a solitary billy goat. I had a dozen elk over there Saturday morning."

She has counted eight bears over the years, including a grizzly. Rodents and raptors are common. The week before, a fox ventured past with a dead marmot clutched in its jaws.

Chapman, who teaches outdoor education for the Montana Discovery Foundation when she's not on the mountain, goes about her summers like a modern-day Charles Darwin.

She identifies the ground squirrels that scamper under her lookout. Peregrine and prairie falcons soar above. Golden eagles, turkey vultures and gulls sometimes come around, including a raven, which sits on a stump down the ridge, trying to keep its balance in the wind.

Her observations reveal a unique picture of life at 8,015 feet above the wilderness. The night before, she received a quarter-inch of rain. The strongest wind she has ever stepped outside to record was 54 miles per hour.

"One night, I was completely socked in by clouds," she said, recalling a mystical storm. "It was like being in a box surrounded by strobe lights. It was just flashing everywhere all around me, but it was absolutely quiet."