My Latest Adventure; Eight years in the making (Part 1)

December 2014. Time to set goals and make plans for the new adventures and challenges in 2015. I recently read an article called The Great Idaho Bucket List. Two items on the list caught my eye; Riding the Hiawatha Bike trail and overnighting in one of the many fire lookout towers located around the state. It was love at first sight. Both were officially committed to The List. I started The List back in 2013. Here’s a link to The List if you’re curious.

Arid Peak Fire Lookout

 Let’s talk about fire lookouts first.  Back in 1910, a huge wildfire swept across the western United States. Over 20 million acres burned. Up until this point, wildfires were dealt with by letting them burn themselves out. After the 1910 fire, the decision was made to control and contain future wildfires. To do this, mountaintop fire lookouts were built throughout many western states. During the dry summer season, the lookouts were manned. The attendants kept watch for signs of smoke. When smoke was spotted, firefighters were summoned. With the advent of modern technology, the need for fire lookouts diminished. Nowadays, most of the fire lookouts are gone, but a few still stand. You can rent a stay in a fire lookout, but getting a reservation is difficult. On February 15th, 2015, I landed a reservation. As luck would have it, the fire lookout I was fortunate enough to reserve was adjacent to the Hiawatha Bike Trail.  Here is a link to the website where I reserved the fire lookout.

2015 Reservation

The Hiawatha Bike Trail is located about 10 miles outside of Wallace, Idaho. Wallace is in northern Idaho about 50 miles east of Coeur d’Alene. The Hiawatha began as a rail line used to move silver from mines in the area. In fact, the fire lookout I reserved, Arid Peak Lookout, was specifically placed in this area to watch for fires caused by sparks that come from trains moving over the tracks. When the silver mines closed, so too did the railway. Years later, the tracks were removed, and a hiking and biking trail was born. The Hiawatha is a little over 14 miles long. As you ride the trail, you’ll go through 10 tunnels and 7 sky-high trestles that take you above the forest. The first tunnel you pass through is over a mile long. Your bike must have a light to go on the trail. Riding the trail is easy as it’s mostly downhill.  For more info on the Hiawatha, here’s a link.

The Hiawatha Bike Trail Map

With my Arid Peak Fire Lookout reservation secured, the 2015 trip was set. The plan was to drive up on July 1st, stay in the tower on the 2nd, bike the trail on the 3rd, and then take our time heading home through Montana on the 4th and 5th. For months, I planned every detail of the trip. As the date approached, anticipation built.  I was so excited.  On June 30th, the day before the trip was set to begin, it all came crashing down. I won’t go into detail here, but circumstances came about that forced me to leave my job in Twin Falls, ID. In the blink of an eye, I was unemployed. The situation that took place crushed my spirit. There would be no July trip because I now had to find a new job. It had been a long time since I had searched for work. I figured it would take some time. Well, it only took a few days. Regardless, the trip was still canceled because I now had to get things ready for a move back to Texas.

 As a rule, once something goes onto The List, it must stay until it is complete. Since 2015, the trip to the fire lookout and riding the Hiawatha has sat on The List. Each year, I would effort to book the lookout, but to no avail. Fire lookouts are very popular. In early 2023, I decided I would do my best to make it happen.

To book the fire lookout, you go through the website. If the website ends in .gov, you can be certain the process is going to be whacked. I used to book several backcountry experiences. For example, I used the site to enter a lottery to secure my pass to hike Mount Whitney. For Arid Peak Fire Lookout, each week a new set of future dates becomes available. Week after week, I would open the app, get everything typed in and get ready to press “Enter” at exactly 7 AM to try and book a date. It took a few months of trying, but on March 2nd I hit the jackpot. One night was reserved for Thursday, August 31st. Game on!

2023 Reservation

I immediately started planning the trip. I told Jamie all about it. She got involved and totally began helping me plan the trip. My son Walter still lives in Idaho, so instantly I told him about the trip. Next, I asked my sister Kelley to go. Kelley is one of the hardest-working people I know. I figured she could use a fun trip and a little adventure too.

 The plan was for us all to fly into Spokane and then rent an SUV for the drive over to Wallace. I also rented a fantastic home on VRBO in Wallace for our stay. After tidying up a few other details, the trip was set!

 On Wednesday the 30th, our flights to Spokane went great. Walter arrived about an hour before Jamie, Kelley, and I. As we left Spokane, we hit the REI to pick up some bear spray and bear bells for our pack. The fire lookout is in bear country. I thought this was overkill, but Jamie insisted. The trip to Wallace was smooth. We had light rain and a temperature in the mid-50’s. It was like heaven compared to the 100+ degree temp back in Texas.

Me and my son Walter

 We arrived at our rental house at about 4 PM. It was perfect! We had tickets to attend a melodrama at a small local theatre at 7 PM. We went to the theater a little before 7. The performance was great and told a story about a steamboat called the Georgie Oakes that cruised on Lake Coeur d’Alene around 1890. Yeah, the play was kind of hokey, but it was still fun. Our intent was to eat dinner after the play, but the restaurants were all closed by the time the play ended. That was fine because we were all beat from traveling.

Kelley, Me, Jamie

Thursday came and we walked into Wallace to check out the town. We had lunch and went to the grocery store. Walter and I needed some supplies for our overnight camping trip at the fire lookout. Around 2 PM, Walter and I said goodbye to the girls and headed into the backcountry for our first adventure.

 The directions to the fire lookout were not that good. I found information online on how to get to the trailhead that would take us to the lookout, but it was conflicting. Google Maps showed a route supposedly to the trailhead, so we followed it. The roads were dirt and rough. Luckily, I had rented a Toyota Forerunner. After driving for about an hour, we arrived at the destination on the Google map. Hmmmm, no trailhead. For the next hour or so we drove around the forest trails. I tried my best to piece together the various directions I had in my possession, but we were not making any progress. Where we were, there was no cell service. I was worried it would get dark before we found the trailhead, but eventually, we found it. We parked the truck and got out. Immediately, I saw bear signs; Both pawprints and scat. Whoa! This just got real. I knew it was bear country, but this was a little over the top. Right about then, I was glad Jamie made us get bear spray. Undeterred by the bears, Walter and I grabbed our backpacks AND BEAR SPRAY, and then headed out down Forest Service Trail 175. Before we left the truck, I was careful to ensure there was no food left in the truck. I didn’t want to come back to a truck that was ripped apart by bears.

On the trail

We made our way up the trail 175 until it intersected with trail 173. As we walked along, I made sure that the bell on my pack was ringing to inform the bears of our presence. Walter walked behind me and kept the bear spray handy. One topic discussed was the strategy we would employ if we saw a bear. I was a little nervous. There was so much bear sign on the trail I was sure we would have an encounter. The hike was steep and took about an hour and a half. Walter and I talked the entire time.

Mission Accomplished

Eventually, we crested a hill, and the lookout tower came into sight. At last, I was about to fulfill an intention that was eight years in the making. We climbed the stairs of the tower, opened the combination lock, and entered our home for the night. It gets dark early in the mountains and the sun was getting low on the horizon. The lookout had a small wood stove for heating. It would get down into the 40’s overnight, so I built a fire.

The lookout also had a small camp stove. Walter boiled some water and made us some tea. It tasted great.

The tower has a 360-degree windowed view. We sipped tea and watched the sunset in the west and the moon rise in the east. The moon was almost full and glowed bright orange. The moon was so bright it cast shadows across the forest.

Yes, that’s the moon

For dinner, Walter had a couple of PBJ sandwiches. I brought some ramen noodles for myself. For the next few hours, Walter tended the fire in the stove, and we talked. Eventually, I fell asleep. Today was a day well-lived.

I’m beat!

I woke up first around 530 AM. Walter woke up a bit later around 630 AM. The sun was rising. Walter made some more tea that we drank while eating breakfast.

Good morning. Rise and shine.

We had brought along some cinnamon Pop-Tarts. When done with breakfast, we cleaned up the fire lookout, being sure to leave it exactly as we found it. We stuffed our packs and then began the hike back to the car. Again, we saw plenty of bear signs, but no bears. To be honest, I was not looking too hard for bears. Ignorance is bliss. When we got back to the truck, it was clear bears had visited our vehicle. The picture below shows evidence left by the bear who was sniffing the door seals for food.

Sniffing for food

By sleeping overnight at the fire lookout, I was able to clear two things off of The List; Stay in a fire lookout AND sleep overnight on the summit of a mountain. The summit of Arid Peak is 5,306 feet. This was the first time since starting The List in 2013 when I cleared two items off in one day. Winning! The drive out of the forest and back home was smooth. As we neared the house, I told Walter that I was still hungry and hoped breakfast would be waiting. Sure enough, it was. Jamie knows me well.