Time in the Tower: High Point

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High Point
Nearly seventy feet above the highest peak on Palomar Mountain sits a 13 x 13-foot structure. With six flights of stairs in a switch-back design leading to the top, reaching this small space—the cab, as it’s called—isn’t easy. The 6,140-foot elevation at which High Point Lookout Tower’s base resides is a contributing factor to the oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-breathe experience that accompanies the climb.

But once the climb is over (and you catch your breath), it’s worth it. The 360-degree view overlooking forests, valleys, faraway mountain ranges, and desert communities is one that few get to experience.20160514_090429

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I’m one of the lucky ones. I am a forest fire lookout volunteer with the Forest Fire Lookout Association, San Diego-Riverside Chapter. The breath-taking views, fresh air, and solitude of the tower are perks of the job; and that’s all they are—perks. Being a forest fire lookout is more than sitting at the top of a tower, surrounded by the beauty of the mountains and waiting for a fire to start somewhere. It’s about vigilance, dedication, professionalism, and partnering with local agencies to keep the area safe from wildfires.

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Me. That white thing in the background is Palomar Observatory

Before I started my training, I had my own ideas as to what I would be doing as a volunteer lookout. I envisioned sitting at a small table, my laptop plugged into the nearest outlet, and using the solitude to work on my sure-to-be bestselling novel. Of course I would need to look up from time to time to make sure the county wasn’t burning down, but how hard could that be? You see smoke, you call 9-1-1, right?

Wrong.

My romantic visions of being a weekend J.D. Salinger were quelled during the orientation meeting. It was then that I learned I would be responsible for weather recording and reporting, learning landmarks, and how to use the azimuth/Osborne Fire Finder.

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An Osborne Fire Finder—works by lining up the sight and cross hairs on a smoke. Once lined up, the degree can be found by looking along the outside of the circle. From there, the map in the center is used to determine distance and nearby landmarks.

Most importantly, I would be expected to report any smoke I see—along with its location, distance away, and nearest landmarks. Being a forest fire lookout is a lot of work! And that’s fine by me. I like a challenge and this one is rewarding for so many reasons! The hours I’ve spent training so far have confirmed that this is my kind of “job.”

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High Point Lookout Tower              from the ground

 

Looking Out for Forest Fires

Smokey3Palomar Mountain in San Diego County has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Camping, fishing, hiking, winter camp … these activities have been the source of most of my favorite childhood memories.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a new-to-me mountain treasure—the Boucher Hill Lookout Tower. There has been a tower located on the site since 1921, so why I had never been there nor heard of it before then, I don’t know.

One day when I brought my boys to the lookout site, there were a couple of people working in the tower who called down to us that we could come up and take a look around.

I was amazed. Really? We’re allowed to go to the top of the tower and maybe even walk along the catwalk? Heck, yeah! I pushed aside my natural reluctance to make small talk with people and dragged my boys up the three flights of stairs to the cab of the lookout tower.

I was smitten. The view, the history, the location … does it get much better than this? I knew we’d be back.

On our next visit, we waited to be invited up by the tower lookouts. This time, I was in a more talkative mood. When I found out that the lookouts were married to each other, I had to ask: Are you both rangers?

They said people often mistake them for park rangers because of their uniforms, but they are actually volunteers. Wait—volunteers? Yep. And the organization was always looking for more. I knew from that moment that I wanted—needed—to be a volunteer forest fire lookout. So the couple gave me a phone number and email address and I went went down the mountain, head filled with visions of dressing up like a forest ranger and spending time in the fire tower.

I had to wait almost a full year; the training for the season had just ended and the next session wouldn’t be held until the following April. I was disappointed, but I didn’t lose interest.

I began my training this past April and I learned pretty quickly that there is a lot more to being a volunteer fire lookout than the uniform and sitting in a tower, looking for smoke. But I’ll have to save all that for another post.

Smokey the Bear photo by Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

S is for Scary Stories

Just when I got caught up with the A-Z Challenge, I got behind again. We went camping for two days and just returned this afternoon, so I’m back to trying to catch up. Anyhow, here we go…

S is for Scary Stories

As mentioned above, we have been camping for the past two days. One of our favorite things to do is tell scary stories around the campfire at night. My two sons and their friend, Maggie, insist I tell them a spooky story every time we go. On our last camping trip I came up with a pretty good one! I know it has to be good because it was very effective in scaring the kids, but not so much they will be traumatized forever. They also request to hear it again and again, so they must really like it.

Here’s a little bit of background for you– we love camping in the mountains not too far from where we live. Palomar Mountain State Park is located in north San Diego County. It’s where my family used to camp when I was very young. It’s now where I bring MY family to camp. I love the place! Palomar Mountain is widely known for its observatory, but the camp grounds and hiking trails are also excellent.

The campground we go to is located near Doane’s Pond, a very small pond that is mostly used for fishing. The story I made up for the kids is called “Catherine, the Ghost of Doane’s Pond”. The gist of the story is that a man named Obadiah was trapped when the gold mine he was excavating on the mountain caved in. His young bride-to-be (Catherine) was so heart-broken, she drowned herself in the pond. Her ghost still wanders the pond and surrounding area today, calling out to her true love, Obadiah. On some nights, you can even hear the trapped miners trying to pick their way out of the hillside as the sound echos through the valley.

The first night I told the story, my younger son insisted we walk the short distance to the pond to see if we could see Catherine. We did, but we didn’t get very far because we heard a loud “snap” off in the trees ahead of us.  He was sure it was the ghost and I was sure it was a mountain lion, so we turned around and ran back to our campsite as quickly as we could go. After we explained why we were out of breath, my older son decided he needed to check it out. So, down we went again– my two sons and me. We didn’t even make it as far as the first time before one of our flashlights started to flicker and turned itself off. At the same time, my younger son swore he saw a white, glowing figure over the pond.

It was hilarious to see two boys (ages 8 & 11 at the time) squealing and running in fear. They were loving it, though! They were positive the flashlight acted up because of Catherine’s electromagnetic field.  It became a legend in their minds and their recounting of our experience got scarier and scarier each time they told it.

This last trip, my boys’ good friend wanted to visit the pond area at night so she could try to see Catherine. She even brought her GoPro to document it. The boys were scared, Maggie was scared, and I was hoping they would get freaked out (yep, I’m that kind of mom). About halfway to the pond area, Maggie’s flashlight started to flicker. The creepy shadows cast by our lantern seemed to grow longer and become more active. Even my phone, which I was using to “document” the kids’ reactions, started to act strange.  The screen saver page wouldn’t flip up to allow access to the camera. It actually got stuck in a strange, broken up pattern I’ve never seen before. Weird coincidence!  I couldn’t have planned it better if I had tried! Even my younger son’s camera supposedly stopped working. Then, Maggie (12) and the boys (now 9 & 12) all said they saw something over the pond. This ended in another frantic, squeal-filled run back to our campsite.  And they loved it!

That same night, as the kids were trying to settle down in the tent, a pounding sound filled the campground.  It was probably someone chopping wood or pounding in a tent stake, but in their minds, it was Obadiah and his fellow miners trying to pick their way out of the hillside.

I will never tell them I made the story up. I’m sure they will figure it out when they get older. For now, I’ll let them enjoy those moments of being just a little afraid. They are bonding experiences and make for great memories.