Thanksgiving in a Fire Lookout

It’s getting late and the storm rages on outside the lookout tower. Fifty mile per hour blasts of wind cause the building to sway on its concrete foundation. There were five of us when there should be eight. We have no food and no booze. This is shaping up to be a very unhappy Thanksgiving.

We keep ourselves busy building a fire in the wood stove, unpacking gear and melting snow to make water. Anything to distract ourselves from the fact that three friends, along with our complete turkey dinner and a substantial amount of alcohol are all missing, best case wandering through a blizzard on the side of Garnett Mountain, worst case at home enjoying the dinner we entrusted them to carry.

I reserved the lookout tower months in advance in preparation for the arrival of fellow Exit Glacier guide Blackhawk. Blackhawk’s over-enthusiastic attitude is infectious. He lives and breathes stoke. In the summers he is too busy guiding, chefing, climbing and chasing girls to ever sleep. Every year by late July his health is in serious disrepair, but with the help of an unhealthy amount of coffee, he still manages to awake at the crack of dawn with a cheesy, overzealous grin. No doubt Blackhawk would be expecting great things from his first visit to Montana; I thought the lookout would deliver.

The summer trail climbs 3,000 vertical feet over four miles to the lookout tower, which sits on the bald, flat summit. The tower was in use by the forest service for several decades as a fire lookout but has since been refurbished to accommodate recreationists. There are bunk beds to sleep four, but the tower can easily hold several more. I planned to throw Blackhawk a proper welcoming party.

While Blackhawk and my roommates took some ski-laps at Bridger Thanksgiving morning, a  recent injury landed me the job of turkey cook. After several frustrating hours, I placed a 30-pound turkey, stuffing, potatoes and pie in a box that my friend Parker had offered to carry on his newly purchased relic of a snow machine.

Blackhawk and I, along with three more friends, hit the trail with an hour of remaining daylight. Three other friends were coming even later, including Parker with the turkey dinner.

Progress was slow. Everyone was tired from skiing in the morning, except myself — I was exhausted from cooking. My friend August had it worst — he was dragging hard. His face appeared ghost white and dripped with sweat. We encouraged August with descriptions of the feast that awaited us at the top.

Warm daytime temperatures had turned the snow to muck. Snow stuck to our skins, causing immense frustrations. As the wet snow builds up, it is like lifting a bowling ball with each step while walking on six-inch stilts. Scraping off the snow is an enormous pain. Luckily I brought my wallet — we took turns using my Cat Card as a scraper.

With the help of countless Shotblocks and GU packets (concentrated caffeine and glucose) we reached the top an hour after sundown. Disheartened that Parker was not already there, we stumbled into the tower tired, hungry and thirsty. So sure that this our dinner would arrive, we had not bothered to pack any other food. As the minutes passed and the storm intensified outside, some of us began to voice our concerns.

A half hour had scarce gone by when we could bear our hunger no longer. We raided the cupboards of food scraps left by previous tenants. Freeze-dried soup, ramen and steak seasoning were dumped into a pot of boiling water. More time passed. I stared longingly at the simmering stew of noodle slop. It seemed impossible that Parker could be taking so long. There was cell service on top of the mountain but none lower. A call to Parker’s girlfriend confirmed he had left several hours earlier. We also could not get ahold of our other two buddies — they too were out in the growing blizzard.

We were about to break into our stew, when we spotted two lights in the distance. Moments later the door banged open and into the tower stepped Mr. Lehner, wild eyed from the storm. He carried a massive external frame pack, and a .30-06 hunting rifle slung over his shoulder. His grin ran ear to ear, his baby blonde hair was ruffled wildly, and his cheeks glowed red. “A little windy out there,” Mr. Lehner said casually. The whole cabin laughed at this pronouncement while our other friend Chad shuffled in the door, looking equally excited by the storm.

Mr. Lehner scanned the room with a confused look, “Why does everyone look so down?” Without waiting for a response, he dug into his pack and pulled, laboriously, forth an entire cube of PBR. The cabin exploded into cheers and laughter.

For a moment we forgot that Parker was still out in the storm. We passed cold beers around the room and began digging into our precious stew. We talked about how difficult the climb was and how awful the descent will be. Over the roar of the wind we began to hear the familiar “braaap” of a snow machine. Blackhawk and I rushed out to meet Parker as he climbed the final hill. Before he could turn off his sled, we both tackled him to the ground, laughing and howling with glee.

“I almost thought you took the food and bailed,” I said.

“No way,” replied Parker. “I just wanted to keep it interesting for yah!”

The atmosphere in the tiny lookout quickly turned festive. Delicious food was consumed. New friendships formed and old ones deepened. We stayed up telling stories and playing card games until the wee hours, then one by one crawled into bunk beds and corners to crash for the night. Except for Mr. Lehner, who slept outside in the storm, because, well, that’s what mountain men do.