Chapter 15

Life in the Big Woods

I worked with a man named Ken Moore, a tall and extremely powerful young man who was not much older than myself. He was going to Gonzaga College and he told me that it was the same college that Bing Crosby had attended.  One day when we had finished the trail up to a lookout, he asked me if I would like to see the inside of one.

On some mountains the trees grew right up to the top, and it was necessary to cut the nearer ones down. But still, to gain an unobstructed view, the tower had to be quite high, and such was the case with this tower. It was probably forty or fifty feet high, made of large timbers bolted together and braced, with a stairway circling up on the inside. For some reason, these towers were kept locked through the winter. A small roofed building was set on top, with a catwalk all around on the outside. It had windows all around which were covered by hinged covers that swung out and were held open by means of a brace.

On one side of the catwalk was a trap door which provided access to the stairway which was locked underneath. We climbed to the top of the stairway, then had to reach out, grab the outer edge of the catwalk, and climb up and over the railings on it. We lifted one of the covers for light, and unlatched the door and walked in. The building was surprisingly roomy. Along two walls were low bunks. Along another wall was a low section of shelves for food. The remaining wall contained a small wood stove for heat and cooking. In the center was the alidade. 

 Using An Alidade

This instrument was a breast-high iron table, possibly four feet in diameter and perfectly round. On the periphery of this table it was marked off in 36 degrees, with the zero pointing due north. In the exact center was a small pin. A forest service map was placed on the table, and the exact location of this particular tower was located on the map and pressed on the pin. The map was then rotated so it, too, was aligned with due north, shellacked to the table, and the excess trimmed off around the edge of the table. On top of the table were two upright arms, fastened underneath the table so that they rotated around the circumference. Between the two arms a thin wire crossed the map, just clearing the small pin. One arm contained a fixed sight while the opposite arm was equipped with an eyepiece which moved up and down vertically, and was marked off in degrees. 

A purist could locate a fire by elevation, but the usual method was to call off the coordinates to the ranger station, which would request another tower to attempt to spot it. If this could be accomplished, the exact area could be located by triangulation. After locating a fire in the sighting devices, one had only to follow the wire across the map, which was extremely accurate.  As altitude was given for any area, it was easily determined which township the fire was in. The alidade covered some forty miles in all directions, so several townships could be partly covered.

 Fighting Fires

Since a trip down a mountain could consume the best part of a day, a lookout man was rarely called upon to fight a fire. Instead, in most of the valleys between peaks, a one- or two-man team called smokechasers, was maintained along a forest service road. Their duty was to drive to the nearest point of a fire on the road, walk in, and attempt to put it out. If they could not handle it, or if the ranger had determined he might need help, several truckloads of men might be sent up. If it became serious, all able-bodied men for miles around might be pressed into service since a crown fire could wipe out every village in front of it.

If I have not mentioned it before, there were three types of fires. One was called a duff fire where the accumulations of years of evergreen needles, sometimes to a depth of six or seven feet, would smolder like a burning mattress. Although not particularly dangerous, they were very hard to put out, since the duff must be dug up and every ember put out.  Most likely a small ember would be missed, and the whole thing would start over again. 

The next fire would be a conventional one where underbrush would catch the next tree afire or flying sparks would do so and it is generally put out by holding the line at a natural barrier, such at a creek by setting a controllable counter fire, or by bulldozing fire lanes ahead of it. 

If a conventional fire reaches a critical temperature, the result could be a crown fire. This type of fire it completely uncontrollable and altogether terrifying. a crown fire generates its own winds, extremely high temperatures, and what is called a firestorm. The tops of trees on all sides literally explode, and it is not unusual for this type of fire to advance at sixty or seventy miles an hour, roasting everything beneath it. Since it can't be outrun, many people ahead of it have sought a river or a creek for safety, only to be boiled alive. The only survivors I have ever heard of were those who dug a hole In the ground, and pulled the hole in after them.

 Abandoned Towns and Railroads

During my stint with the forest service I covered a great deal of ground throughout the Clark District. The arid sections of the west are known for their ghost towns, but I dare say that there are many more ghost towns associated with the logging industry than with any other. I have seen many small towns deep in the forest, in fairly good condition. I have even seen plates still laid on the tables and washer taps that still worked. Apparently, as each area was logged out, the town was abandoned and a new one built in another area. I especially admire the loggers of old. They took selected trees, mostly white pine and spruce, and moved on. This left the forest fairly intact, unlike the clear-cutting tactics of today where every tree it cut down, leaving the mountains and the land denuded.

If there were ever roads to these places, they had long since vanished. There were, however, the inevitable rusted, narrow-gauge railroads. I have walked many times across wooden trestles of the narrow gauge rails scared out of my wits, but unwilling to show fear to my companion. Some were more than a hundred feet high, and quite rickety.  I was convinced that they would collapse before we got across.

We came across many placer operations, also abandoned. There were different types, but the ones I saw consisted of two frames, one on top of the other. The top frame had a screen on the bottom, while the bottom frame had a sheet iron bottom. The bottom frame was tilted slightly, with a cleat nailed across its lower end, forming a small dam. The top frame had a vertical handle fastened to the lower, and by this it was rocked lengthwise. Since this terrain was conducive to it, a small sluice was built upstream which carried washer to the top of the frame.

The mining was done in this manner: while one man shoveled gravel on the top frame, his partner rocked it. All larger stones were stopped by the screen, while the mud and sand fell to the bottom, where the washer carried it over the cleat. Gold, being heavier, would collect behind the sill. The top frame could be picked off the lower and dumped aside, when necessary. There were many of these designed for one-man operation, but they were not at efficient at the two-man operation.

I also saw several log flumes, also abandoned. A large creek would be diverted into a trough high in the hills, and logs would be dumped into it where they could be carried down to the St. Joe River. These flumes were made of heavy planks and could run for several miles. Lumbering must have been quite profitable to justify what must have been such costly construction.  At any rate, they were still working faithfully after having been abandoned for probably half a century.

 Cabins for Dwarfs?

One of the things that amazed me were the many cabins in the forest that were only a foot or so high. I assumed at first that they were a specialized type of construction for a purpose that I could not imagine.  However, when I asked the Ranger, he said that at one time they were conventional cabins which became infested with termites. As the bottom logs were eaten or rotted away, they settled gently in place, until they disappeared entirely. It would seem that the lack of debris on the forest floor, except for newly fallen trees, was the fact that the  moment a tree was dead, the ants and termites made short work of it.

Another oddity was the fact that the wood on the outside of a tree seemed far more durable than the heartwood. For instance, trees that had died while in place would rot in the center, rather than falling. This would make them hollow. When I was at Emida felling undesirable trees, we would often chop a hole at the base and set a fire in the heartwood. The tree would act like a chimney and quickly be consumed. All dead trees which were still upright were called snags. Using this method of burning them saved the trouble of cutting them down, and they would have been burned at any rate.

Emerald Mines

A local forester and I worked for several days in an area called Emerald Creek. He warned me never to bend down or remove anything from the ground while walking anywhere near the creek, since I might well be shot. It seemed that the whole area had been staked out by emerald miners. Although I saw neither miners nor evidence that the area was being worked, I obeyed his instructions implicitly. I saw nothing resembling an emerald and I doubt that I would have recognized one if I had. The whole area was shot with garnet embedded in the rocks, some pieces quite large. I picked up several samples, which were subsequently lost. Garnet, as you probably know, is used for making sandpaper and cheap jewelry.

Practically all of Idaho that I saw contained large amounts of Mica. It was embedded in boulders in very large lumps and took the form of hundreds of thin sheets, bonded together. These sheets weRe separated for use in wood or coal stoves, under the name of isinglass. It was used in kerosene stoves so one could see the fire, or its condition, without opening the door. It was used primarily in parlor stoves, and as far as I know, it is still being used in some oil heaters.

We sometimes came upon lumbering operations.  Most of the forest was controlled by the Blackwell Lumber Company and the Weyerheuser Company.  Although they still used two-man saws, the logs were taken out by log trucks over logging roads. Incidentally, I never saw a paved road in Idaho. All roads were dirt, bulldozed and rolled. Many of them were washed out in the spring floods and had to be rebuilt, especially those clinging to the sides of mountains.

 A Narrow Guage Locomotive

Another peculiarity of logging was the narrow-gauge locomotives. The one and only time I saw one, my partner and I were walking up the track when I heard a train approaching at high speed. Being very familiar with locomotives, I bounded off the track, but the train seemed to take quite a while to approach. Finally, around the bend, a locomotive appeared. Instead of the sixty miles or so an hour approach I had judged, it was going little faster than a fast walk. The boiler was off at one side. On the right side the pistons were arranged vertically, which engaged each driving wheel without the use of rods. Such an arrangement would generate a great deal of power which was needed for the steep grades, but the speed of these engines left a lot to be desired.

One of the few lookout towers which had a road to it was called "The Incline Railway." A couple of hundred feet away from the lookout was a rusted steam donkey engine, which stood at the top of the mountain. At one side there was a track which ran down a fifty or fifty-five degree incline for a little more than a mile. Flatcars, loaded with logs, were brought to the bottom of the incline. A cable was brought down from the donkey engine, attached to two cars at a time, and the engine would haul them up the mountainside. Local legend had it that at one time the cable broke and the two cars sped down the incline, burying themselves and their loads out of sight. One look down the incline dispelled any interest I had in verifying this story. I imagine that when this railway was built, quite a few men had a long tumble. Although the rails from the donkey engine had been removed to be used elsewhere, the rails on the incline were still intact.

I saw many of the lookout towers in the district while repairing telephone lines and clearing trails. As it was approaching the dry season, and our work was done, it was time to man the lookouts. Many more foresters were coming in, and I served with several of them the rest of the summer, and many times alone.