The passionate hiker

The passionate hiker
Early days in the outdoors

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Three more Alberta fire lookouts!

Thurs. 8 July: Limestone Lookout

Limestone - a remote, alpine lookout, with one of the easiest approaches of any of the fire lookouts in the Alberta foothills!

By “easiest” I mean from a hiker’s point of view. But it is also one of the longest and trickiest approaches along backcountry roads.

Leaving the city mid-morning, I took my time on busier than usual roads, up Highway 22. I still made good time to Sundre, not such a sleepy town in the middle of a working day. Having stopped for supplies at a well-stocked store at the Shell gas station, I turned west onto quiet, paved byways, to the little hamlet of Bearberry. This is one of the gateways to the Forestry Trunk Road, and a busy route for logging trucks and gasfield vehicles.

At the Forestry Trunk Road, I turned south and soon reached the James-Wilson campsite, situated in a bend of the James River. It looked to be largely uncared for, but there were some nice, if overgrown, sites to choose from. With only 17 sites, it’s only small, with basic amenities. By now the afternoon clouds had started to build up, and a few heavy drops of rain fell as I pitched my tent.

It looked to me as if the afternoon might deteriorate into a series of heavy thundershowers. Nevertheless, it was still only early afternoon, so I decided to head out into the wilderness and figure out the route leading to the Limestone Lookout trail. Weather permitting, I would then hike to the lookout.

Continuing south along the forestry road for another ten kilometers, I came to an open gate and large sign. This sign warned travelers that this was a private road owned by Shell, and travel was at your own risk. The road was dangerous and narrow, and there was danger of H2S gas. So naturally I drove straight through the gate without another thought. To reach the trailhead required one to follow complicated directions laid out precisely in my lookout guidebook. There was no certainty that one could get even close to the trailhead. Of course, there was absolutely no sign indicating a lookout trail, although there were lots of signs to various gas wells.

This might be called gasoline valley. This pretty green vale was littered with small gas plants and wellsites, connected by a network of underground lines, and reached by side roads marked with the wellsite or gas plant identification numbers. Cattle grazed along the edge of the grass, and the front ranges rose to the west.

I had brought my bike along, due to the uncertainty of the route. From the gate at the forestry road to the trailhead it was exactly 22.7 kilometres. In the end I was surprised to find that I was able to drive 21.0 of those kilometers, including several complicated junctions, a gate which was open, and a steep hairpin bend up onto a flat forested ridge – then along the ridge to a final junction. The road, rough but driveable, had steadily climbed out of the valley. But once up on the ridge, the final 1.7 kilometres looked to be far too rocky to drive a car. So I parked on the wide ridge top and set out up the road. To the west the Front Ranges lined the horizon, Above me thunder clouds seemed to be gathering, but there was plenty of blue sky too.

The road finally ended at a slight rise in the ridge, where a number of aeriels and their power units stood. From here, the dramatic Limestone ridge soared upwards to the distant lookout building sitting on the highest point. It was a pleasant walk for only 2.8 kilometres up to the lookout, first down to a saddle, then up through the grassy hillsides to the bare, rocky summit. Power poles followed the trail, all the way up.

Clouds swept over the summit, but it remained mostly sunny. At the final saddle below the lookout, a polite sign asks quad drivers and bikers to leave their vehicles at the saddle. Reaching the summit, I was greeted by a pleasant middle-aged lady observer. She went back inside her building to get the visitors book for me to sign. Perhaps surprisingly, I was not first up there today. Some people from Calgary had signed the book earlier that morning. The observer told me that she doesn’t get a lot of people up there, and the snow had only left the summit a couple of weeks ago. She had just received her next two months of supplies by helicopter, but they had forgotten the radishes. She told me she had seen two other people on the hill behind me. She seemed a little nervous about them, and asked if they were with me. I was pretty sure there were no other people on the hill, and I certainly didn’t see anyone. We chatted about various other lookouts we had visited, including Barrier Lookout and Moose Mountain – she told me she would not want to work there, with all those people dropping by. She didn’t mind an occasional visitor, but she was busy observing as there were plenty of fires to spot in this region.

Limestone Lookout sits on an isolated peak, with grand all-round views. I could see across to a distant ridge to the north, which would be my destination the following day.

We said goodbye to each other and I returned down the ridge, with the clouds starting to break up a little, and plenty of blue sky. It didn’t take me long to get back to the car, and then make my way safely off the mountain and through gasoline valley back to the forestry road. Without good instructions, one would become hopelessly lost in this vast forested foothill world.

That evening, a warm breeze started to blow, and the clouds magically disappeared to leave a clear blue sky above the waving trees of the campsite. I walked a little way down a track to the gently flowing James River. The only other campers were a couple in a dormobile, and we greeted each other as he walked back from a fishing expedition. Apart from us, there was a large family group across the site who were I think the resident custodians – not that I saw them doing any custodian-ing!

It was a warm night despite the clear skies.

Limestone Lookout
Thurs. 8 July

Total Dist. 9.0 km (hike)
Height Gain 690 ft.
Max. Elev. 7315 ft.
Time on trail 2 hrs. 19 mins.

Fri. 9 July: Old Baseline and Baseline Lookouts

I was up at 5.30 a.m. ready to get started on my next adventure. The sun was just catching the top of the trees on a perfect cool, cloudless morning. As I left the campsite the sunlight was shining across the road, making driving a bit tricky until I swung north.

To reach my next hike, I had to drive just a little less than 70 kilometres north and west up the Forestry Trunk Road. This first part of the road, to the Bearberry turnoff, was the busiest. Logging trucks were at work, and several gasfield trucks came whizzing by, creating a huge plume of dust along the road. North of this junction, the road was mostly deserted. After crossing the Clearwater River on a large steel bridge, the road headed up over a forested ridge. There were signs warning people not to travel along here in winter, and it was tricky enough on a dry summer’s day. The road twisted and turned, first up the ridge, then down the other side into a wide valley. To the left was the high bare Limestone Ridge, with the lookout building visible high up on the summit.

Finally turning right, I came to what I thought was the trailhead for Baseline Lookout, in a deep valley. At the very moment that I parked my car, another vehicle pulled into a clearing across the road and a man got out, put on a backpack and strode up the path through the gate. Quite a coincidence, I thought. This turned out to be a very lucky break. Soon I caught up with the traveler, a man of perhaps my age, with long hair tied behind his head, and wearing jeans and a checked shirt. We greeted each other. He explained that he was headed up the valley to look for a remote cabin, then up to the old lookout. He told me he had decided to get out of the rat race and was living happily in Rocky Mountain House.

He also told me that we were not where I thought we were! We were heading up a blind valley, and I should either have been on the lookout access road some two kilometres up the road, or onto the high ridge to our left. I saw where I had misread the map. He suggested I take a quad track leading off to the left, and so we parted company with a friendly farewell.

I knew the climb to the top of the ridge would be hard work, but in the end, I managed it comfortably enough. It was a steep hike up through forested hillsides, the ground littered with deadfall. Gradually I zig-zagged up the mountain, finally coming out onto a very steep bare slope and then up onto the top of the ridge. Here a perfectly good road (the right trail!) marched along the top of the flat, open ridge top. Ahead, at the top of a cliff-band, stood the old Baseline Lookout. It was a magical walk up the ridge to the lookout. This is apparently a historical monument, at least until it finally disintegrates. It runs the Hummingbird Plume lookout a close second in dilapidated old lookouts! But its position was simply spectacular. Across the forested saddle sat the new lookout tower, sitting up above the trees. It was a little hazy today, on this cloudless, breezy day. Below to the east sat the ugly Ram River gas plant, but with that exception, the scenery was breath-taking.

One early lookout observer, who was here during the period 1929 to 1938, had carved his name in the rock. He had also carved some handy steps as it would be slippery up here in wet weather.
As I dropped off the ridge and across the saddle towards the new lookout tower, I noticed my traveling friend far down below on the hillside. The journey to the top of the new lookout hill required a bit of work negotiating a very rough trail in the forest, used by motorbikes it appeared, and with lots of roots and ruts. But once on the ridge, I simply turned left onto a wide road and there was the Baseline Lookout tower ahead.

As I walked up towards the lookout tower, on its tall steel legs, maybe 50 or 60 foot above the ridge, I was greeted from the tower. It was probably quite hot up there, because an upper torso, with no shirt, leaned out to greet me. “Are you the ship’s captain?” I asked. To which he replied – with an antipodean accent – yes indeed he was. I told him I had met his wife up on Blackrock Mountain – where she is lookout this year. He apologized for not offering me a cup of coffee as he had just climbed the tower five minutes ago. There was no need for an apology as the climb up the tall tower would be quite an effort, even for a fit observer. He knew who I was, “the guy doing all the lookouts this year”! He invited me to step over the fence and use the benches on the east side of the ridge. This was an ideal place for a picnic lunch. I could see the bare peak of Limestone Mountain to the west. Clouds were passing by, looking a lot like floating camels.

From here my journey was straightforward as I marched down the access road into the valley far below. This road was obviously in constant use and was in perfect condition. After just over four kilometers I reached the gate. Once back down on the forestry road, it was a long, hot walk back along the road to the car. I stopped to cool my feet off in a stream. Luckily only about two vehicles passed by, as they each kicked up a cloud of dust.

As I drove onward towards Rocky Mountain House, I was chased along the dusty road by a truck pulling a camper, followed by a huge logging truck. Thank heavens I finally reached the paved highway. Just past the Strachan exit, where J and I headed west to Ram Lookout the other week, I turned south and found a handy paved highway cutting off a large portion of Highway 22 south of Rocky Mountain House. From here it was a steady trip south to Calgary, with a leisurely stop in Caroline for a break. There was plenty of traffic on the road, but I kept up a good pace. To avoid the bottlenecks in Calgary I drove around by Bragg Creek and into town from the south. It was a hot, sunny day in town, and the opening day of the 2010 Calgary Stampede.

Old Baseline/Baseline L/Os
Fri. 9 July

Total Dist. 12.7 km (hike)
Height Gain 1720 ft.
Max. Elev. 6265 ft.
Time on trail 3 hrs. 41 mins.

Statistics (Total)
Limestone/Baselines Lookouts
Thurs./Fri. 8/9 July

Total Dist. 21.7 km (hike)
Height Gain 2410 ft.
Max. Elev. 7315 ft.
Time on trail 6 hrs. 00 mins.


Unknown said...

Hi, I saw your picture of the old Baseline lookout and just wanted to add to your story about the nice guy who carved his name into the rock and carved some stairs. His name was Martin William (Vilhelm) Justinen and he was my Great-Grandfather. He worked as a Forest Ranger and carved that into the stone when he worked up there. I as a kid, was taken up there several times and it's a really nice hike. Glad you enjoyed it as well!

Shane Justinen

The Editor said...

How terrible - I just noticed your comment, two years later. But THANK YOU for your note and what a fascinating person your Great-Grandfather must have been, and amazingly self-sufficient. With very best wishes and apologies for ridiculously late reply.