Whatcom outdoorsmen preserve historic fire lookout

BELLINGHAM — Flying over the Cascade Mountains last winter in search of grand photographs, John Scurlock came upon a grand idea.

Using a high-resolution camera to check out a tiny fire lookout at Mebee Pass, he realized the old cabin might not survive another brutal winter.

“It was a miracle the thing was still standing,” said Scurlock, a paramedic for Whatcom Medic One who lives in Skagit County. “It was going to collapse if we didn’t do something about it.”

So Scurlock put out a call for help from fellow mountaineers and fans of fire outlooks. The result: He raised about $3,800 in donations and put together a volunteer crew — including several people from Whatcom County — to whack a trail to the cabin and fix its foundation, walls and roof in mid-September, before this winter hits.

“It was just an epic process,” Scurlock said. “We managed to pull it off.”

Construction of a national network of some 5,000 fire outlooks began in the 1920s, including nearly 700 in Washington, according to Steph Abegg, the climber and photographer who was in the plane with Scurlock.

Some outlooks were the familiar tall towers that many people think of when they envision a structure for keeping an eye out for wildfires. Other outlooks were cabins, some quite small.

The outlook at Mebee Pass, on the east side of the Cascades about 18 miles west of Mazama, was an “L-5 cab,” a 10-foot-square cabin that could be carried in pieces and assembled on-site. Such small cabins typically were staffed only during periods of high fire danger.

Scurlock and others say the cabin at Mebee is the last of its kind in the Northwest, perhaps in the country.

The cabin sits on a rocky ridge at an elevation of 6,900 feet, about a half-mile from the actual Mebee Pass. Hikers who pass through the area for the stunning views, including Mount Baker to the west, often don’t realize the cabin is close by.

The cabin’s remote location may have been its salvation, because it was never removed, burned or seriously vandalized.

Built in the early 1930s, the cabin was officially abandoned in the 1940s. By 1954 the cabin was listed as “destroyed” in U.S. Forest Service records. It wasn’t destroyed, but it was left to fend for itself.

In 2002, a handful of people, including Doug McKeever, a geology professor at Whatcom Community College, stabilized the cabin by strengthening the foundation and installing plywood covers where the shutters and glass windows had been.

To restore the cabin, Scurlock knew he would need approval from the Forest Service, so he talked to Mike Liu in Winthrop. Liu is head of the Methow Valley Ranger District, part of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Liu has been involved with other historic restorations during his three-plus decades with the agency, but he lacked the money and resources to save the Mebee outlook.

“To have an independent group knock at the door and be willing not only to do the work, but also the fundraising to purchase the equipment and organize the crews, is really just unique,” he said. “This was community-generated.”

The first step — to assess the cabin to see what repairs and materials would be needed — was no simple task. Scurlock and others in the crew used a Forest Service trail at East Creek, off the North Cascades Highway, to reach the cabin. That trail crosses Granite Creek, a sometimes raging torrent with an old bridge that was so risky it had been removed.

“For years it’s been the trailhead to nowhere because there’s no bridge,” Scurlock said.

It took the crew several trips to find a way to cross the creek. They removed one hazardous log, and then installed eyebolts and nylon slings for handles on another log to they could scooch and crawl across without falling in.

“At high water it’s downright life-threatening,” Scurlock said.

That was in June. Over the next two months they returned repeatedly to clear hundreds of trees that had fallen across the eight-mile-long neglected trail to the pass. They didn’t clear the trail to meet hiking standards; just enough so they could reach the cabin.

“It’s more accessible, but I would still describe it as a very wild trail,” Scurlock said. “It’s a trail for somebody with a serious state of mind.”

Given their budget and the condition of the cabin, they decided to replace a corner post, replace some rotten siding, replace the roof, and install a lighting rod roof cap.

To respect the cabin’s history, they followed the original blueprints, and used Alaska yellow cedar for the roof shingles, cedar planks for the siding, a copper lighting rod cap modeled on ones used on other lookouts, and even used nails akin to the originals.

On Sept. 12, Scurlock and Dave Tucker, a Bellingham geologist and mountaineer, drove to the trailhead with the construction materials. The next day, a rented helicopter from Hi Line Helicopters of Darrington arrived to haul the materials and most of the crew members to the cabin.

Tucker, a professional roofer, was in charge of replacing the cabin’s roof. Dave Adams, a carpenter from Rockport, was project foreman for the other repairs.

Also helping were Liu, McKeever, Seattle architect R.J. Van Liere and Northwest mountaineers Dave Creeden, Don Goodman, Karl Kaiyala and Ed Kenney.

They worked a long weekend, Sept. 13-15, sometimes rising before dawn to work by headlamp.

“It was fraught with tension because the weather was changing,” Scurlock said. “We did the best job we could do under the circumstances.”

They finished late Sunday morning, wrapping up a job in a few months that normally takes two to four years from idea to completion, Liu said.

“It’s an extremely quick turnaround,” he said.

When asked why the project was worth the bother, Scurlock mentioned something he saw inside the cabin. Someone had written, in pencil in large letters, “Respect History.”

`That just summed it up,” Scurlock said. “It’s really a hallowed spot in Northwest history.”

“To that person’s credit, they wrote it on the plywood and not on the original material.”

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