Diffidence. That’s the nicest thing I can say about the ocean of trees, 5500 foot ridges, and 3000 foot valleys that stretches from the Flathead to the Cabinets, the Kootenai to the Clarks Fork. In half a dozen years living on the eastern shore I made a handful of excursions into and across the green sea, not many considering the number of visits to the rocky wilderness east, and the vast and largely unrecorded depth of the Salish and Yaak.
We returned recently, with distance and perspective offering an answer; logging. The talwegs of the Kootenai, Yaak, Clark Fork, Tobacco, Thompson, and Bull all hint at what used to be and in so doing highlight why the modest but not inconsequential relief of the green sea blends into it’s own background. Almost all of it, a swath over a hundred miles wide in each direction, has been clear cut. Mostly 30-50 years ago, which has produced a lodgepole monoculture, relentless in shade and aspect.
The patches of fresher cuts, most now tucked away such that they’re not visible from highways, echo in the cornea like shadows moving with clouds.
There are benefits to obscurity. By modern standards there are hardy any people there, either resident or visitor. Being far away from centers of government also kept more of the fire lookout towers intact than in most other places in the west. And with logging being the right hand of 20th century fire management, increasingly most of the those lookouts are un-manned, having graduated like so much of 20th century infrastructure to being 21st century pikuresque.
It stretches the imagination to think that a century ago Gifford Pinchot was vilified as a radical, a snowflake in contemporary slang. the messianic, mechanistic institution he begat left the womb straight into the 1910 fire, which burned most of the Montana-Idaho border and left a part of the country still working to bury the frontier more vulnerable than it was comfortable being, with it’s timber and frame towns sitting as tinder of the edge of the wild. Survivors of that fire did not take much educating to see that wise use was built on the glass foundation of human knowledge, with Elers Koch (head of the FS fire efforts out of Missoula in 1910) writing a quarter century later:
It is even possible that, by extinguishing fires in favorable seasons which would have run over a few hundred or a few thousand acres, the stage was only set for the greater conflagrations which went completely beyond fireline control.
And this is a lesson western America is still, poorly, learning.
National Parks, and those primitive areas which graduated to Wilderness in the late 60s, are thus a comfort for those of us just widely traveled enough to know better. Intact landscapes, the gorgeous and high-contrast patchwork fire writes on a forest which hasn’t been logged for generations, is a nice thing to fixate upon when we’d rather not think about just how much of the greater landscape does not look, or function, that way.
The forest service rightfully warns against young children in lookout rentals, especially the good ones like these which are 40+ feet in the air. They have steep stairs, handrails weathered to maximum splinter potential, and a long drop between well-spaced railings. Littler Bear still exists in the blessed state of infant immobility, and is thus not a concern. Little Bear will be three in a few weeks, and has been quite intentionally trained to be agile and ambitious beyond his age. He was appropriately cowed by the lookouts, especially the 40 mph gusts we had at 6500′ for lookout #2, which swayed the whole contraption gently, but without mistake. We’re not sure what they see or when they’ll remember, but we’re not taking chances.