By Ann McCreary
Huddled in the snow atop a windblown knoll, the tiny Mebee Pass fire lookout grabbed photographer John Scurlock’s interest and affection last winter – and wouldn’t let go. As a result, the historic lookout just got a new lease on life.
Scurlock was flying over the North Cascades in February to take photos of old fire lookouts in winter. The Mebee lookout, clinging to a rocky ridge about 18 miles due west of Mazama, struck him as “tiny and frail.”
Scurlock, whose arial photos of the North Cascades in winter were published in a 2011 coffee table book, Snow and Spire, had previously photographed Mebee lookout from the air in 2006 and 2008. He was curious to see how the lookout was doing in the midst of its 80th brutal Cascades winter. The cabin, built in 1934, seemed too fragile to survive much longer without help, he said.
“It’s so remote and isolated … and sat up there untended for 80 years. It inspired me to send an email out to a list of friends,” mostly mountaineering buddies, proposing that an effort by made to save the little lookout, Scurlock said.
“That email generated a lot of interest. People came out of the woodwork with suggestions about what to do about it,” said Scurlock, a paramedic from Concrete as well as an avid mountaineer and photographer.
An organization called “Friends of Mebee Pass Fire Lookout” was formed and attracted volunteers and donations.
Part of the intrigue of the Mebee lookout is its historical value. It is believed to be the only remaining example of the smallest type of lookout – called an “L5 Cab” – erected by the U.S. Forest Service during the 1930s. These small lookouts, measuring only 10 feet by 10 feet, were prefabricated and hauled in by horse or mule, and were designed to be temporarily staffed, generally during times of high fire danger.
As the effort to save the lookout gained steam, it became clear that the group would need to work with the Forest Service. Scurlock and others met in the spring to discuss the idea with agency officials including Mike Liu, Methow District ranger.
“They were supportive. They knew about Meebe, they had an interest in it. The question came up from time to time about what to do about it,” Scurlock said. “We told them we were committed to historic accuracy and adhering to standards of historic reconstruction.”
Surveying the site
The lookout had received some basic life support several years earlier, when two members of the Forest Fire Lookout Association hiked up in 2002 and found the structure barely standing, with one corner completely gone. Using a helicopter to bring in materials, the lookout enthusiasts were able to complete some basic stabilization that kept the lookout standing.
With the Forest Service’s approval and the arrival of summer, Scurlock and volunteers began trying to hike up to Mebee lookout in June. Accessed at East Creek off the North Cascades Highway, the trail to the lookout has not been maintained for years, and a bridge crossing Granite Creek near the trailhead had deteriorated and fallen into the fast-moving water.
With considerable effort, they rigged a somewhat treacherous log crossing and began working their way up the eight-mile trail to Mebee Pass. The trail was choked with hundreds of fallen trees, which volunteers cleared with chainsaws.
“In the first mile alone there were probably 100 trees,” Scurlock said. Some trees were 30 inches across.
“Through dogged determination we cut the trail. In some places we could barely locate the trail. It took most of July and August,” he said.
Finally able to reach Mebee Pass, Scurlock and friends hiked the additional half-mile to the rocky terrace where the lookout was perched and assessed its condition. With about $3,000 in donations in the bank, they developed a plan to restore the structure.
Their budget would allow them to repair a rotted foundation, replace the roof, repair lower walls “that had been sandblasted by snow,” and install a lightning rod, Scurlock said.
The group set last weekend – Sept. 13, 14, and 15 – as the date of its work party. They arranged with Hi Line Helicopters of Darrington to fly in supplies and some members of the 10-person work party to the lookout from the East Creek trailhead on Friday (Sept. 13).
The rest of the volunteers – most of them experienced mountaineers in their 50s and 60s – hiked up to Mebee lookout. “We were joking it was an old guy show,” Scurlock said.
The crew included Methow Ranger Liu. “We’re grateful and highly impressed with his energy and willingness to get involved – I’m talking about pounding nails,” Scurlock said.
The helicopter delivered 1,100 pounds of equipment, including lumber, siding, posts, tools, water for the workers, and Alaskan yellow cedar shingles. The shingles were specially ordered to make the restoration as historically accurate as possible, Scurlock said. Likewise, a lightning rod was specifically fabricated based on lightning rods at other lookouts.
“We’re trying to preserve as much as we can. That’s an overriding consideration with a historic structure like that,” Scurlock said.
Back from the brink
The volunteers camped at the site Friday and Saturday nights, some of them rising before dawn Sunday morning and working by headlamp to be sure the roof repair was completed before predicted storms moved in.
“We’ve definitely pulled it back from the brink. It’s a solid structure that will last for years to come,” Scurlock said Monday (Sept. 16). “I’ve become extremely fond of that trail and the lookout,” he added.
“It’s amazing to me how many people are not only interested, but passionate about preserving these historic lookouts,” Liu said Monday after the weekend of working on Mebee lookout.
“I’ve always been a history buff,” Liu said. For him, fire lookouts hold a fascination because they “hearken back to an era when the Forest Service enjoyed more popularity, and focus on its mission,” Liu said.
“Lookouts have always been in amazingly spectacular places,” Liu added. Mebee’s remote perch provides a panoramic view of the upper end of the West Fork of the Methow River.
Liu said the Mebee restoration project is remarkable for its “painstaking effort to keep true to the historic integrity of the building,” and for its efficiency.
“Projects in similar places have taken years. Starting early this spring with a conversation, to completing restoration is pretty incredible,” Liu said.