Fire Tower Lookouting with Sarah Thomsen!

Trip Start May 31, 2012
Trip End Aug 08, 2013

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Junction Mountain Fire Tower Lookout

Flag of Canada  , Alberta,
Thursday, July 12, 2012

      We hiked into a fire lookout tower yesterday southwest of Calgary to visit fire lookout tower operator Sarah Thomsen, a friend of Kara's from days gone by. It was so nice of her to invite us out to her fire lookout, a job she's been doing since she was 18 years old! It was a 13 km hike in, mostly uphill (as it's a fire lookout and it would be quite pointless to have one downhill from anything) but it was a beautiful hike with lots of breathtaking scenery. To hike into a fire lookout must be one of the most Canadian things ever (well, Albertan things now, it seems there are very few outside Alberta now) that not many people have done but all I could think of was Red Green and his buddy Ranger Gord;
Skip to 8 minutes in to see him or just watch the whole episode!

The great news is that Sarah's fire lookout tower is nothing like Ranger Gord's, and Sarah is nothing like Ranger Gord himself either. She was actually quite sick, just having caught a cold on her one weekend off all summer. She was extremely inviting though and told us all about her life as a fire tower lookout, cooked us dinner and even gave us her bed to sleep in! She was very excited to have visitors, we are the only people that have hiked in to visit her, although her husband Corey has come in to visit her on his motorbike. He's a really great guy that we met in February when we all when skiing together (well, actually, Kara had met him last year when she worked briefly where they live, but I digress...). Sarah spends her summers in the lookout tower and the little apartment below it (kitchen and bedroom) by herself from mid-May until the end of September. As I said, her husband visits her when he can, but there are certainly large stretches of time alone. She does have her dog Josee there with her so that's wonderful. Josee is a one year old border collie/blue heeler cross who's was also excited to have visitors.

      Sarah has been spending her time at the lookout tower reading and writing for two correspondence courses she's taking through Athabasca U. She said she's almost completed a whole degree through distance ed, completing the courses while working at the fire lookout! It reminded me of when I was working on my undergrad degree while working nights at a gas station, transcribing spoken interviews for my thesis. It takes a lot of dedication but knowing that you're passing your time wisely is almost its own reward (getting the degree is the other, and getting paid is yet another reward I guess.... but still). She also paints, does yoga, reads books, goes for hikes and watches So You Think You Can Dance every Wednesday night. She said she'll do one thing for an hour, then do something else for two hours, and structures her days like that. She said it helps pass the time and stay focused. She'll work long days though in the tower, spending anywhere from 9 to 12 hours in the little tower, looking for smoke and coordinating with other lookout operators. She works 7 days a week, with 4 days off for the entire summer, but she loves her time up there.

     We had a delicious dinner of salmon burgers with a salad and some nice toasted bread slices, with mixed berries (and yogurt, honey, and wafer crackers) for dessert. It was a wholly unexpected gourmet dinner (you'd have paid 25 bucks at a restaurant for that) for what we kind of figured would be a real 'roughing it' dinner. Sarah gets groceries every 3 weeks, she calls the grocery store directly and Alberta Forestry choppers it in. She said the first week is great, with lots of salads and fresh fruit and by the end she's eating oatmeal for every meal.

      We said our goodbyes and thanked her for having us over this morning and started the 13 km hike back in to our car. It was easier going out than coming in as it was mostly downhill and we started hiking at 8:30 am as opposed to 11 am (when we headed out yesterday to hike in) so the sun wasn't as hot or direct. But, seeing as we were in bear country, we had to ensure that we made ourselves heard (as we had to do on the hike in as well) to make sure we didn't turn a corner and surprise a big ol' bear. So Kara and I conversed like normal, punctuated by the odd 'HEY!' or 'YIP!', usually as we were coming up to a corner, to give any and all bears the opportunity to run away before we passed by. Because we're so scary.

    But then, we saw a bear. He was about 100 metres away on the path, and my first thought (being from Ontario) was "Oh look, there's a big black dog", to which I immediately chastised myself for being an idiot, while also immediately freezing in my tracks. Kara seemed unperturbed and kept walking, slowing slightly, saying "He's moving away from us". So I started up again, taking out my camera with one hand and the bear spray that Duncan lent us with the other. I zoomed in and took a photo, looking directly at his face. I said something incredibly manly like "Uh, Kara, he's heading straight for us." while freezing again. He was just a baby black bear, who, when he saw us, stopped walking and just stared at us. Kara instructed me to make myself look big (which I'm generally always trying to do anyway) and keep walking slowly towards him. So we puffed ourselves up and kept walking, and he kept watching us. I had the bear spray in my hand, armed and ready, thinking to myself "Did I really just zoom into take a picture of the thing that is going to kill us both?". He eventually lost interest in us though and sauntered off into the woods. It wasn't as if he was scared (at all), it just seemed like he couldn't be bothered because it was too hot. But really, we had nothing he wanted. We were more just a curiosity than either a threat or something to kill. Kara said that I was probably more scared than the bear, to which I agreed wholeheartedly.

   Anyway, we made it out of the Canadian wilderness alive and so now we're going to take our chances in Hanoi! We leave tomorrow so I'll probably update again next week sometime if you're interested in any Vietnamese culture. And if you're not, there's also a world famous puppet show there, so I'll also talk about that.
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Jackie Combden on

One question, who took the picture of all of you and the dog? Was it the bear?

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