Something Worth Saving: Fire Lookout Restored by Logging Town Community

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As you climb up the tower steps, layers of jagged peaks within Washington’s Cascade Range emerge in every direction. Below, wild river valleys carve through the sea of forests around the small town of Darrington. The million-dollar view from the historic North Mountain Lookout was once used by the Forest Service to spot fires, but the structure fell into disrepair once technology and other fire detection methods took its place. Now a small group of dedicated locals are on a mission to restore the abandoned piece of American history sitting on top of North Mountain.

It’s no surprise the people of Darrington took notice. For many, the 41’ fire lookout tower is a symbol that holds the town’s timber roots in place, roots that have been tangled up with the local landscape for generations.

“There’s a little bit of local lore that if you drink water out of the Sauk River, you become very much like a steelhead and you’re always destined to return,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin laughs. Rankin grew up less than an eighth of a mile from where his father grew up.

There were once over 650 working fire lookouts in Washington State. Now North Mountain Lookout is one of about 100 structures that still remain.

“These iconic structures were part of our culture and there’s very little that remains from that era,” says Rankin. “The lookout affords an incredible opportunity to experience what these mountains and the North Cascades and this community are all about.”

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Image 1: ”These iconic structures were part of our culture and there’s very little that remains from that era,” says Mayor of Darrington, Dan Rankin. | Image 2: North Mountain Lookout is a Region 6 (R6) flat cab design, standing at 41’ providing 360-degree views of the surrounding alpine wilderness.

The Darrington high school mascot is the Loggers. The school uses a gym in the town community center that was built by caring volunteers using donated materials in the early 1950s. Near town are the rodeo, bluegrass festival, and archery grounds, which were also built by volunteers.

“We’re just chronic volunteers out here,” says Martha Rasmussen, the current President of the community organizing group Darrington Strong. “Volunteers are heroes to me.”

In 2013, an idea to repair the neglected lookout was brought to a Darrington Strong meeting. Soon after, a group called Friends of North Mountain was formed that set forth on a mission to restore the lookout and eventually make it available to the public for overnight rental.

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The town of Darrington Washington sits below towering mountain peaks, just southwest of the Sauk River Valley. Pictured here is Whitehorse Mountain, 6,841’ in elevation at the summit. The mountain was known as "So-bahli-ahli" in the Lushootseed language used by local Coast Salish tribes, meaning a "lofty lady from the east".

“I didn’t know how big the project was at the time, so that was good,” says Roselie Rasmussen, daughter of Martha Rasmussen, who served as the project’s first coordinator.

The project’s vision wasn’t just to repair the lookout but to turn back the clock and restore the historical, high-rise structure to its original state. One of the first things to be done was a historical inventory and cultural review in response to the desire of an archeologist with the Darrington District of the United States Forest Service to see if the 50-year-old lookout was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. It was. Using original blueprints from the USFS, the huge task of restoring the lookout began.

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Roselie Rasmussen, daughter of Martha Rasmussen, who served as the project’s first coordinator. Photo provided by Friends of North Mountain Lookout / Rick Knight.

“I think it’s so easy to get into the pattern of thinking that you can’t do something,” says Martha Rasmussen. “In Darrington, we do something.”

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Martha Rasmussen, President of the community organizing group Darrington Strong.

Volunteers with Friends of North Mountain replaced large structural beams and footings at the lookout’s base. They dug trenches and installed a lightning arrestor system. They added safety wire to the stairs leading up the tower. They rebuilt the catwalk and railing around the outside. The interior floors were replaced, and the top of the structure was re-roofed. The windows were replaced by windows from another Washington lookout.

A local woodworker, Phil Mcloud, built a kitchen table and a set of benches to go along with it. Using original drawings and materials specified in a plan produced by the Forest Service, Mcloud built the furniture using Douglas fir, green formica, and metal edging.

“This was a style that was popular back in the late 40s and 50s, says Phil. “I had to look around a little bit—green formica and metal edging are not very popular these days.”

In June of 2020, Friends of North Mountain received a grant from Filson, in partnership with the National Forest Foundation.

With a population of about 1,400 people, it would be easy to think that a town like Darrington wouldn’t have the human resources to pull off a project like this. But Carson Tavenner, the current coordinator of Friends of North Mountain, says that’s not the case. He found people in the area who had what he needed—an ability to communicate, physical strength, woodworking skills, and even someone with expertise inspecting high-rise buildings.

“You should expect to find the unexpected,” says Tavenner. “You can expect to be surprised by who’s around you and what they’re capable of.”

With rare exceptions, all the restoration work has been done using donated materials, time, and knowledge. In June of 2020, Friends of North Mountain received a grant from Filson, in partnership with the National Forest Foundation.

“National forests are a really important American asset, and we want to restore and enhance them so that they’re available for people to use now and into the future,” says Patrick Shannon with the National Forest Foundation. “This project really hits the mark.”

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Image 1: Carson Tavenner, current coordinator of Friends of North Mountain, a grassroots community led organization behind the lookout’s restoration project. | Image 2: Rick Knight of Friends of North Mountain, painting the outside of the lookout tower on August 27th, 2020.

The multi-year project hasn’t been easy. The necessity to use materials and designs outlined in the original construction plans didn’t make things any easier. Neither did the Pacific Northwest winters or the paperwork. But having a say in how local land is used has been worth the effort. North Mountain has been important to the nearby Suiattle tribe and to the wider Darrington-area community for a very long time. Hunting, gathering, and outdoor recreation opportunities are abundant. North Mountain is also home to one of the newest large mountain bike trail systems in the western United States.

“I think the North Mountain Lookout represents what the community is striving for,” says Greta Smith with the Darrington District of the USFS. “Our partnerships with the community and organizations are crucial to the landscape. It’s not the Forest Service’s land, it’s everybody’s land.”

No one seems to know exactly how many hours have been spent or how many people have worked on the project since it started. The work continued because of the commitment of a select few who kept up the momentum and had the heart of the community in mind. Almost everyone knows someone who’s helped out on North Mountain. It’s a legacy project in a legacy town.

“It’s about the long game, thirty or forty years from now,” says Rankin. “I’m somebody that logged old-growth timber and when you’re engaged with an environment that’s eons old and trees that are hundreds of years old, you really get a sense that the lifespan of a human being is not much.”

This fall, Friends of North Mountain will continue with the final restoration efforts as weather allows and will prepare the special use permit application. The Darrington-based brewery, River Time Brewing, is releasing North Mountain Lookout Stout in September and donating the proceeds of sales to the project’s efforts and to ongoing maintenance needs. The first overnight guests at North Mountain Lookout are expected in the summer of 2021. It’s likely the community of chronic local volunteers will then begin work on something else.

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Sunset atop the North Mountain Lookout, towards Southeast towards the Puget Sound.

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Filson employee Colin Camacho painting trim at the North Mountain Lookout.

Filson is proud to support Friends of North Mountain with funding and hands-on participation in employee work parties.