The North Cascades are wave after wave of earth’s crumpled crust. The geologic meeting of the North American Plate and the San Juan de Fuca plate is a very powerful, slow grinding collision……forcing these mountains up dramatically……Jack Mountain rises 7000 feet straight above Ross Lake….and the North Cascades National Park reportedly has more glaciers in it than any other place in the lower 48 states ( even Glacier Park in Montana). It is powerful country.  In the photo above of the new firefinder map at Desolation you can see the crumpling which we call mountains.  In the middle of the map in blue is Ross Lake and the very center is on the Desolation lookout.

The Lookout itself, sometimes called a “cab”, is a unique sort of building ……traditionally 14 x 14 feet with windows completely around including the door. This is a space that instantly feels comfortable if you have lived and worked in one for any length of time……’s perfect……you have walls all around you …… but have kept that ability to instantly survey any noise or sight. The roots of this I think goes back to our prehistorical  ancestors who could be attacked by animals or other humans without warning. I particularly feel warm and safe when the wind is howling outside, the subalpine firs tossing and the cold biting. Its primordial, but that wind, especially at night, brings thoughts of bears, or cougars and perhaps bad men. I find solace in the thought that few people would might want to harm me are not likely to be into hiking up 4200 f if they even could get to the trailhead.   Besides there is nothing of much value.

Would you like to see what the cab looks like in the dead of winter ?  Well thanks to the amazing John Scurlock who build his own plane to fly these mountains —>  we have a telephoto shot:

 John pointed out to me in another area of this same picture are tracks of a snowshoe hare……..boy they must be tough characters !

Vimeo has a nice video interview of John and his book you will find at


The heart of the lookout and fire operations is the Osborne firefinder, a circular device that sits on a 45” high wooden stand in the center of the lookout.  The picture of the firefinder at the top of the page is looking straight down at it from above.

It features 24“diameter map of the surrounding terrain where the LO’s position on the map is dead center. Rotating around this is a steel ring marked in degrees from 0 to 359. O degrees is set to the true north (not magnetic north). Attached to the ring are two vertical metal sights, sort like that on a rifle. The front site where you put your eye is the taller one.  It also has markings to calculate the angle to the fire.  When a smoke is spotted…….the sights are rotated until they point exactly at the smokes location. The bearing in degrees  is read off the edge of the firefinder ( as below –the Y marks the azimuth—here almost 74 1/2 degrees ) and reported by radio to Fire Dispatch.


The accuracy of the sighting is down to one minute or 1/60th of a degree. Interestingly, the cross hairs in the smaller rear sight are of horse or mule hair—easily available in the “old” days.

The map on the firefinder at the top of this Chapter is the “new 3d ” one put there about 5 years ago.  The two pictures just above here here are the old one that goes back to Kerouac’s time. The blank area is Canada.   The importance of the older map will become evident later on….

If dispatch has another LO on a nearby mountain with the same smoke in sight……then they can get the azimuth from that position as well and draw two lines on their wall map that should intersect at the fire……known as a cross. In the case of the North Cascades Park the other LO would be Sourdough Mountain. As the crow flies it is about 18 miles to the south south west bearing @ 200 degrees. Regrettably it is rarely staffed anymore and so the Desolation LO has no one to compare notes with by radio before calling in the fire. The one other standing LO in the park is Copper Mountain to the west which is used as a patrol cabin for backcountry rangers, but I don’t think it has an Osborne Firefinder anymore.

A Desolation LO many years ago made a graph of the mountain peaks and the azimuths ( in degrees across the top of the page ) from Desolation. Here are some pictures from pages of that old handmade chart:

0   –   90  degrees

180 –  270 degrees

Another unique feature of many lookouts (  including this one ) is the classic lightning stool. This is a small wooden stool 12 x 12 inches on top and standing 9 inches high with 4 legs ……to which are attached glass insulators like were used on telephone poles. It looks odd to visitor until they understand the function…….a place to stand during a lightning storm to reduce your chances of getting a 50,000-volt jolt. The one here is my favorite with clear translucent insulators and a wood top painted NPS gray with a white cloud and red lightning bolt. Jerry Cook did a nice job of it in 1970. I have never been in a lookout hit directly by lightning and so at times I have felt like a soldier who has been in several wars but never directly shot at. Each time I hear the opening rumble of thunder though……the hair stands up on the back of my neck and I think “Ok, here we go…….”

If you see an isolated smoke pop up, you can carefully work out the azimuth and probable location. But in a lightning storm or “bust” ………I just quickly write down the azimuths as fast as I can guessing at them and then go back later and check the areas…. following them over the succeeding days for delayed fire starts. Sometimes it works better during a storm to just mark the position on the window with the grease pencil of the strike and work out the azimuth later.

Smoke locations are reported to the Fire office on an old system of land surveys……laid out as Townships ( south to north ) and Ranges ( west to east ). A range and a township together comprise a square mile which is turn in subdivided into 36 sections with each section itself having 4 quarters. So, the radio report might sound like this:

Deso: Fire Dispatch I have a smoke report, do you copy?”
Dispatch: Go ahead Desolation.

Deso: Ok Dispatch — the azimuth is XXX degrees and the legal is ( say ) Township 34, Range 14 in Section 22 southeast corner.

To make matters a bit puzzling at Deso, the surveyors coming from the east met the surveyors coming from the west in the 1800s right in the north unit of the Park….so that you jump from Range 14 to 16. There is no Range 15.  You can see this in the map below — look for the two yellow highlighted numbers at the top just below the red A and B letters.  Those are Range 14 East ( R 14 E ) and Range 16 East ( R 16 E ).  Also highlighted in the Township number  ( T 40 N ) and the Desolation Peak summit.

It is tough to call in the map location of a fire when your view is horizontal—-ridge after ridge like waves……. not from above like your competition a.k.a. satellites, patrol planes & helicopters and not at all like the map you have in front of you which is in effect the aerial view. Every day, but especially that first night, I walk the circuit around the cab with the maps and work on identifying each of the peaks and ridgelines. It is a continuous circular panorama of rock and ice and trees and valleys and the Lake as far as you can see and beyond.

Three dominant features command the view…….. Jack Mountain, Hozomeen Mountain and Ross Lake. Jack Mountain is named after an early prospector Jack Rowley but I know nothing of him. I think of it as named after Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac’s desk when I arrived was against the north wall facing Hozomeen, facing the “void”. A few days later I moved it around to the south facing Jack Mountain. This allowed me to monitor more of the Park, to watch the trail and to gaze up at the Nohokomeen glacier on Jack Mountain. But I actually spent little time at the desk, preferring to walk around keeping a steady eye out. You get possessive of your mountain and the distant radius it presides over. In particular, you would hate for a fire to be reported by someone else. Luckily cell phones don’t work for most the Park that I can see…so given you spotting it at the same time as say a fisherman on the lake…. with your park radio ……you are going to get the call to Fire Dispatch before “the public” and preserve your sense of mission.

These days lookouts will use cellphones (where there is reception) to talk with other lookouts in the vicinity who might have a line on the smoke….to confirm the location before radioing it in. But on Sourdough and Desolation when I served, there was no cell reception at either place and as mentioned, Sourdough is rarely staffed anyway.

For me that is a sad note having served on Sourdough twice. It staffed by 2 Beat Poets in the 1950s — Gary Synder and Philip Whalen. The views are even more spectacular and the hikers making it up there I know would love to find the LO open.

The standard park radio though is a Bendix King. This type is widely used in wildland firefighting including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. It is a large and  heavy  handheld portable that has a selection knob for the various working channels. The battery pack holds 9 AA’s or a rechargeable integral battery and is referred to as a ” clamshell ” because of the way it twists on and off the bottom. It is the orange part of the Deso radio.

The radio has a range more or less limited to straight line of sight. So most often you have the channel selector on the nearest repeater……a mountaintop amplifier with a more powerful signal that will reach for many miles. On Sourdough and Desolation, the Ruby repeater is the best choice as it sits on top of Ruby Mountain at the south end of the Ross Lake. It is in sight of both lookouts and is 8,200 feet high.



A few years ago, before marijuana was legal in Washington State……a helicopter pilot working with a team servicing the Ruby repeater — spotted an illicit growing operation in the Park on the south side of Little Jack Mountain. By the time the NPS law enforcement people got there……the growers had fled.

The radio is left on all day and into the night, sometimes all night. Unfortunately, North Cascades Park’s radio operators in Marblemount (at the backcountry office) don’t work from 11PM to 7 AM. So, if you have an emergency at night, you are on your own.  These days the Dispatch is way down in Puget Sound….no longer I’m Marblemount.

Since everyone working the North unit of the Park uses the Ruby channel, it can be confusing. Beginners frequently don’t listen before they talk and so they “talk right on top” of an existing transmission. That is called “stomping or walking ” on the conversation. When an active fire is being fought, the fire crews will migrate to their own set of channels to get off the main ones.

In Kerouac’s day an actual wire ran from each of the lookouts down to a ranger station. The diameter was substantial —–in lineman lingo a No. 9 wire. I know a fellow who maintained these lines many years ago and he told me that once he was “running” a line to find the break when he came upon a meadow where lightning had struck the line and melted it into a 20-foot line of little copper drops.

Two unique features of lookouts are the windows which pivot open from the center as I mentioned

and the rope frame bed……which keeps metal away from you when you are sleeping……in case there is a surprise lightning break. You will even see some lookout beds with insulators on the legs or ones that are propped up with a flat rock under each leg to act as an insulator.

Like many boys of my generation — I wanted to be an astronaut.  Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were on TV and I dreamed of looking down on the earth from a capsule.   For various reasons I ended up in medicine and gave up on space.  But as I have manned lookouts — I have become an astronaut of sorts….that is…. you are laying in your sleeping bag on the mattress and if awaken at night — you can look straight out the window into the stars.

This feeling of floating above everything else is strongest when the clouds move in just below your altitude and only the very  top of the peaks are out.  It feels like you are the only one left in the world…. which is now the sky and small patches of rocks sticking above the white flat uniform blanket of clouds from horizon to horizon, the valleys all filled in.  At Deso, the Lake disappears and with it — any sign of human habitation out there……..