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Archive for March 3rd, 2020

Waterton Lookout

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Continuing with the story I wrote back in 2002 after getting my mother to describe her memories of her and my dad’s time in Glacier National Park in 1947…

More about life on the lookout…

Glacier Park is actually part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. I see Porcupine Ridge showing up on current park maps, but not the Waterton tower. Waterton Lake is a long narrow lake that runs north-south, the approximate middle of which crosses the US-Canada border. The town of Waterton is in Canada. The Waterton Lookout Tower is not on the top of a mountain. It was situated on a small outcrop on the edge of the ridge with a view of three different valleys.

Waterton Tower Lookout on Porcupine Ridge as viewed from below and from above.

My folks both grew up in well-to-do households in Minneapolis, MN. As newlyweds, they were now living without running water. Betty said the outhouse wasn’t that big a deal because she had visited a good number of them back in those days. She said bathing was all of the sponge bath type. She only recalls washing her hair up there one time. Water was heated on the propane-powered stove.

In the photos you can see the countertop level was quite low, to stay below the windows. The springs for the bed are something Ralph had scrounged that could be rolled up and packed on a horse. He also acquired an old mattress and then built the frame out of spare lumber found on the sight.

Dad would walk daily to a spot where snowmelt flowed out of a pipe encased in concrete. He hauled the water in a pack on his back. Mom said she made the trip once, but it involved traversing a very narrow ledge and she would never try it again. Back at the lookout, he would fill a barrel located in the enclosed space beneath the floor of the tower. At the beginning of their stay up there, he made a conscious effort to keep the barrel full, because as the summer progressed there would be a point when the snow that served as the source would all melt away.

Mom had never really cooked meals. She tells of being told by Ralph that she needed to learn how to bake bread from the woman she was staying with after returning from Miami. With only a few chances to practice before finding herself on the mountain, she ended up having to hone her skills on the fly. Luckily, the people who were on the tower before [Mom and Dad] had left a lot of flour. She said her less successful loaves were edible while still hot out of the oven. They would eat their fill and then make something of a game of taking turns tossing the rest over the edge and listening to see how long they could hear it tumbling down the ravine. They would then guess what animal was going to find it first.

One day when she was having trouble with making a pie, she said Ralph stepped in and put his hands right into it and whipped it up and made a pretty good pie. The payoff from his days as a cook on the trains.

She didn’t go back down during the span of their six-week duty at the lookout. They were resupplied once during that time. However, there was a point when Ralph absolutely had to have some milk (and ice cream, she whispered) and plotted to go down on a weekend while she was on the payroll. She said he literally slid down the side, shortcutting the back and forth of the switchback trail. He needed to catch a scheduled launch to get him across the lake to the town of Waterton. Later, back across the lake again, at the ranger station, they let him load up one of the horses with items for the trip back up. Once on the ridge again, the stirrups were tied up to keep them from catching on anything and the horse was allowed to wander back down on its own.

Ralph on the trail with water on his back, Betty on the trip up to the lookout.

Mom described witnessing lightning dance down the wires that ran to the ground when the tower would take a hit. She said there weren’t many instances of major cracks of thunder, but there were almost daily storms and plenty of lightning. They were required to record the location of lightning strikes. Those spots would get special attention the following mornings to see if any fires were born.

At dusk, they would locate and count campfires and match them with the number of registered campers. The bed my dad had built was level with the windows, so they could prop up on their elbows over their pillows and see from there. They would report to the ranger station at least once a day via telephone. There was a single wire strung from tree to tree. During the time they were on the tower, there was only one instance when a lightning strike started a fire. Dad was prepared to set out to the location to fight it, she said, but it ended up being taken care of by a crew from below.

Their idle time allowed a chance to feed chipmunks that became regular visitors and watch deer that would wander close. When asked about other daily tasks, Mom mentioned that the windows needed washing almost every day. She said Ralph did that mostly. She had no experience washing windows and he ended up re-doing ones she cleaned anyway. He had worked in a filling station, she pointed out, so he was well practiced at it.

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Written by johnwhays

March 3, 2020 at 7:00 am