HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The trail along Straight Creek climbs gradually for nearly 3 miles, plodding above small waterfalls, riffles and pools before making a beeline to a shallow ford.
The ease of the hike to that point is quickly replaced by a 2-mile juggernaut of switchbacks and pitches, through forests and avalanche chutes, until breaking into a stunning mountain amphitheater called Honeymoon Basin. Marmots and ground squirrels whistle and chirp from rockslides and butterflies swarm from vibrant meadows as the trail wanders through timber’s edge.
Cresting the basin offers a clear view of the lookout on the top of Patrol Mountain, providing the inspiration needed to make a final trudge on weary legs. There, a black-and-white border collie mix named Mae tells the world of the impending visitors’ arrival. The only one there to hear is Samsara Duffey.
The Helena native and current West Yellowstone resident stood outside Patrol Mountain Lookout in mid-August, her 25th year atop this mountain on the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Rains had finally cleared “a lookout’s nightmare” of persistent smoky skies, revealing the expanses of forests and parks, craggy mountains and serrated reefs of the Bob and Scapegoat.
At her feet, Mae surveys the overlook to the west before finding a comfortable place to doze.
“She’ll either go all day or nap all day,” Duffey quips.
Only an occasional radio crackle or screech from a circling red-tailed hawk breaks the windless afternoon. The last hikers Duffey saw in person were nearly three weeks earlier; visitor traffic has waned with the smoke.
“I like to share this with people,” she told the Montana State News Bureau. “I like to share the solitude, the experiences, the landscape, the people that love the areas, so I see that as a very important part of my job.”
In 1997 Duffey was a college student looking for a summer job. Her outdoorsy upbringing ran deep with her older sister already working as the lookout at Prairie Reef to the north. Duffey’s sister told her the lookout at Patrol Mountain needed a volunteer. Duffey made the call.
She came back the next year, and then the next.
“Every year at least in the early years there were slightly different things that got me coming back and now it’s just what I do,” she said. “When I started it was easy, then we had a few big fire years and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m actually making a difference in early detection of fires and I’m actually able to help the fire crew.’ In addition it’s just an absolutely wonderful place and it’s just become very, very comfortable to come back here every year.”
The “Big Burn” of 1910 triggered a major push by the Forest Service to locate and put out fires quickly. At one time lookouts, some of them nothing more than tent camps, were positioned every 11 to 13 miles – 28 total across the Rocky Mountain Front. Only a handful remain today.
Duffey loves the history of lookouts and actively works to preserve that history with the Forest Fire Lookout Association. She sees their unmistakable romanticism, a symbol of protection in a landscape defined by the whims of nature.
This is the second lookout to sit at 8,000 feet atop Patrol Mountain. The first went up in the early 1920s and the Forest Service built the current structure in 1962. The cozy confines of the inside with a bed, bookshelf, desk, table and wood stove are offset by window-lined walls looking in all directions to the vastness of the wilderness. Outside, the structure bears evidence of decades in high altitude elements where the lifespan of a coat of paint is only about a year.
“I do think about the history of lookouts and the tradition of lookouts and how the job has changed over time, and how it hasn’t,” she said, noting that many visitors remark on the “time capsule” feeling of stepping inside. “In some ways it’s that same continuity with the landscape, with the mountain, that we’re still doing what we started out doing.”
Duffey details the ebb and flow of their popularity among land managers. The question of whether changes in technology can replace staffed lookouts has always been part of the conversation around them.
She believes no technology can fully replicate the efficiency of a lookout that can spot smoke from a single tree. The cost of even a short patrol flight or purchasing and maintaining a remote camera is roughly equal to her seasonal salary.
“Like the rest of society, we need to figure out how to incorporate that type of technology to help us do a better job and not see that technology, and I really hope fire managers don’t start seeing that technology as replacing, but as being complementary and then incorporating it into the work,” she said.
Duffey can easily survey the landscape for miles looking for the faintest sign of smoke. She is vigilant after thunderstorms but has also come to know where campers tend to make fires that can unexpectedly come back to life. Once a fire is observed, she uses an Osborne Fire Finder – a piece of equipment designed more than a hundred years ago – to estimate the fire’s position for dispatch.
The role of a lookout also goes far beyond simply spotting and reporting fires, she said, including meeting with the public, relaying radio messages and keeping detailed radio logs. Duffey often steps away to check in with trail crews, packers or other lookouts as a matter of safety and coordination. For many visitors, she may be their only interaction with a Forest Service employee and wants that experience to be positive.
The lookout lifestyle is not for everyone. Visitors typically rave about the idea of the job, but once Duffey explains that groceries only arrive by packstring every three weeks and hikers may number 10 or less in a given month, their enthusiasm tempers.
“Usually by the time people leave they’re like, ‘This is really cool, but I don’t think I could be alone for that long, I don’t think I could have that kind of isolation for that long,’” she said.
While not all lookouts are as remote as Patrol Mountain, new staff often struggle with the isolation as well in what she calls a “reverse cabin fever.” The first week is marked by excitement followed by the realization of isolation before accepting the experience for what it is. Duffey went through the same progression early on.
“The way we are in society, we are not as Americans encouraged to be independent, alone, comfortable with solitude, comfortable with isolation,” she said. “We’re not really given most of those tools as we grow up so it does take some adjustment.”
When not at the lookout Duffey works as a guide in West Yellowstone. Her husband works as a smokejumper, which allows their seasonal work to mesh. They talk as often as the spotty cell service of their locations allows.
“It really is easy for us,” she says.
Duffey jokes that by February she has already started planning what to bring to Patrol Mountain that summer. By March she begins counting down the days.
“In a lot of ways after my first couple of years up here it’s easier to come up here than it is to come back to town,” she said. “When I go home, there’s noise, there’s perfumes, there’s hustle and bustle, there’s a whole lot of inputs really fast and those inputs are exhausting.”
While others have certainly worked for 25 years or more as a lookout, such longevity at a single location is rare, Duffey says. Pointing to the northwest, she talks about her love of hiking and the fact that she has set foot on nearly every trail or ridge she is responsible for monitoring.
Reflecting on 25 years, Duffey ponders the question of change. Certainly the fire scars alter the appearance of a mountainside, trees have died from disease or insects, but the years have largely melded together. On a given day she might notice a boulder has rolled down the mountainside or a whitebark pine produced plentiful cones this summer, or wonder if an unexpected snowdrift indicates a shift in prevailing winter winds.
Rodents make up most of her daily wildlife, although she rattles off an impressive list of much rarer sightings including wolverines, lynx, bobcat, mountain lion, black and grizzly bears, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. She loves watching the weather, speculating that she might have been a meteorologist had she chosen a different career. She points miles away to the Danaher Basin, describing how storms can build in the backcountry and move across the landscape.
“It’s kind of nice because it is a huge chunk of time but there’s not a lot of drama,” she said. “It’s the little things like that that really stick out as the different years. There really is something comforting about the lack of change, the consistency.”
Duffey is not looking to abandon her post any time soon.
When asked how long she wants to remain Patrol Mountain’s only resident, she said “As long as I can.”
“I have no plans not to come back,” she said.