On the lookout
GRAND LAKE – High above the patches of aspen among the graying remains of lodgepole pine, Travis Withrow, 22, was on watch duty last weekend.
In the three-story Shadow Mountain Lookout tower, Withrow paced the catwalk that wraps around the building, a treasured relic built in 1932.
From his vantage point on a clear day, the lone Rocky Mountain National Park trails-crew worker would see with his naked eye all the way from Winter Park to the Never Summer Range, the Great Lakes of Grand County, and with concentration, hear the hush of Adams Falls in the distance.
In a chair he’d placed on the catwalk, Withrow would read the last two Harry Potter books during his three days there, frequently looking up to see if there were any signs of smoke in the vast vale of wilderness below.
With this duty bestowed upon him, Withrow joined the ranks of individuals such as Jack Kerouac or Gary Snyder, those who appreciated the solitude of other lookouts for passing the time reading, writing, contemplating, and most of all, observing.
But at this particular lookout – the sole one remaining in Rocky Mountain National Park – the list of lookout individuals was cut short long ago.
The building has been unoccupied for the purpose of lookout since 1968.
This summer, with federal funds granted to bolster fire preparedness in regions of extreme fire danger, the tower is being staffed for the first time once again.
Four individuals, including Withrow, will be staying at the watch tower for rotations of three days for as long as fire danger is extreme. The first of the lookout crew took to his post June 22.
“It was really cool to be able to see the park from a different point of view,” Withrow said, after having descended the five-mile trail on Monday, upon a scheduled shift change.
“I definitely didn’t see any smoke,” he said. “Anything I saw was just dust or evaporation coming off the ground after the rain.”
‘Class act’ tower
Rocky Mountain National Park’s Colorado River District Ranger Mark McCutcheon has spent his share of time in lookout towers, having spotted a fire as a young ranger while serving as a lookout at Mount Rainier in 1977. He also staffed a fire tower as a district ranger in Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.
Every so often since relocating to Rocky Mountain National Park, McCutcheon has visited the Shadow Lookout Tower to tidy it up and spend a summer’s night. Being up there in a glorified treehouse perched on a mountaintop – “It’s sort of natural high,” he said.
Three years ago, Park crews took down trees in the perimeter of the tower to reduce fire hazards to the building and make it more functional as a watch tower.
“In my mind, I always thought it still could be a functional fire tower,” McCutcheon said, “and here we are under these fire conditions, and we’re using it as it was intentioned back in the 1930s when they conceived it.”
The Shadow Mountain Lookout stands at an elevation of 9,923 feet. Up until 1968, mostly married couples staffed the building full-time.
The building originally was one of four in existence in Rocky Mountain National Park, but remains the only one still standing. The other three towers were located on the eastern side of the park at Longs Peak, Twin Sisters and at the north fork of the Big Thompson River.
“They were strategically located in areas that have a very good viewshed of large tracks of forest,” McCutcheon said, adding how walls of fire towers were designed to be oriented to the north, south, east and west.
But as technology improved and populations moved into forested areas, which meant more people were watching for fires, watch towers slowly became obsolete, he said.
With its rubble stone pillar and authentic design indicative of the period when many lookout towers were built across the Western U.S., the Shadow Mountain Lookout was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
“It is a class act as far as fire towers go,” McCutcheon said.
Besides taking weather data, fire lookout workers use maps, binoculars and spotting scopes to confirm smoke in the distance. “Our tendency is to think that technology answers all questions quickly, but there’s nothing like a set of eyes,” McCutcheon said.
If he or she sees suspected smoke, a lookout can speed up the process of alerting the Fort Collins Interagency Dispatch Center about the potential of forest fire. The dispatch immediately disseminates the information to local fire agencies.
“As we found out on the Estes Park Fire last week, a timely response matters,” said Park Fire Management Officer Mike Lewelling last Friday. “It can mean the difference between catching it small or having a bigger incident.
“Our area really does have a lot of watchful folks,” he said, “but having a dedicated resource specifically looking for smoke, it lends peace of mind.”
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603
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