DARRINGTON — White and purple wildflowers swayed on the dewy mountainside as Carson Tavenner played his viola beneath a cabin in the sky, perched on a 41-foot timber tower.
Tavenner often uses his bow and four strings to serenade wildlife in the backcountry north of Darrington, but last week was a special occasion: the official reopening of North Mountain Fire Lookout.
It took eight years and more than 100 volunteers to restore the historic lookout that otherwise would likely have been torn down.
On Wednesday, Tavenner, his volunteer group Friends of North Mountain, politicians and community members gathered to celebrate at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Martha Rasmussen, a long-time volunteer with community nonprofit Darrington Strong, was among those who spoke at the event. Rasmussen helped organize volunteer efforts and cooked huge meals (most notably her “world-famous” lasagna) for those who spent long hours repairing the structure.
“This isn’t just a restoration story. It’s a story of heart and devotion,” Rasmussen told the crowd. “I know there were some impossible odds these guys faced, but the passion drove it through. This isn’t just an overnight stay. It’s a romance.”
Other attendees at the ceremony included Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan; Rachel Alger, representing U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina; and Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin.
“Today we are looking at a restored piece of art,” Rankin said. “A part of our heritage, a part of our culture. I just wanted to thank Martha and applaud her never giving up.”
At the ceremony, volunteers munched on burgers and hot dogs as they reminisced on their hard work. Smokey Bear showed up for the festivities and took in views up on the lookout’s deck.
The lookout sits on the summit of North Mountain, elevation 3,956 feet, nestled in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest near the headwaters of the North Fork Stillaguamish River. To get there, you must take Highway 530 to White Horse Community Park. Turn onto the rugged North Mountain Road, also called Forest Service Road #2810, then drive 11.5 miles to the lookout.
On a clear day, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak are visible from the summit. To the south, Whitehorse and Jumbo mountains tower in the distance. To the west, Mount Higgins will glow at twilight when the sun goes down. And to the east, the Sauk River carves its way into the North Cascades.
North Mountain Fire Lookout was built in 1965. It is a Region Six (R-6) style flat cab design with a treated timber tower. The R-6 flat cab was a live-in lookout structure introduced by the U.S. Forest Service, Region 6, in 1953. The lookout north of Darrington is one of three existing R-6 flat cab lookouts in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The others are the Lookout Mountain Lookout in Skagit County, and Heybrook Lookout in Snohomish County.
Thirteen lookouts remain of more than 80 that once stood in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. And of the 656 lookouts constructed in Washington state over the years, less than 100 still exist.
Workers once manned the North Mountain Lookout every fire season, keeping watch over the North Fork Stillaguamish, Sauk and Suiattle river valleys for rising smoke and glows of red.
In the ’90s, North Mountain stopped being used as a fire lookout. Years of vandalism on the structure that followed, coupled with a lack of maintenance, prompted questions in the Darrington community about the structure’s future. In 2009, discussions began about tearing it down due to liability concerns.
“The structure wasn’t safe anymore,” said Greta Smith, a ranger with the Darrington District. “It was leaning at one point. A lot of the materials up there had been ruined.”
On May 30, 2013, volunteers at a Darrington Strong meeting hatched a plan to restore the historic structure. The Friends of North Mountain group was born, and they embarked on what would be nearly a decade of hard work.
Their first step was site cleanup, volunteers recollected. Couches, mattresses and empty beer cans were piled into three heaping pickup loads, then hauled down off the mountain.
After that, construction began. Volunteers repaired the roof, floor, catwalk, stairs, piers and windows of the lookout, all with the intention of restoring the structure to its original condition. The newly installed windows on the cabin came from a lookout in Montana with the same architectural style.
It was a “labor of love,” volunteer Brie Hawkins, of Woodinville, said. Volunteers donned harnesses and hard hats to work in 90-degree heat, or pouring rain, or clouds of thick wildfire smoke.
“I learned how to rappel on this lookout for the first time,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins and others also spent many hours pouring over paperwork to get the project off the ground. Grants, a special-use permit and correspondence with the U.S. Forest Service were among the tasks they accomplished.
Rick Knight was another volunteer on the project. Knight, a retired contractor, jumped on the opportunity to help out when he heard about the project that was “right up his alley.”
“There’s nothing better than working on a project together that benefits community, restores a historical building and everything else that was part of this deal,” Knight said.
A couple weeks ago, Knight was at the lookout touching up the exterior paint. He spent his first night in the lookout since its completion.
“Nobody was around,” Knight said. “It was so quiet. I woke up, and I was in heaven.”
The restored lookout, accessible by a steep staircase, has the original 360-degree window views. It will be maintained by the Friends of North Mountain. Community members may rent it out for a night through an online platform. Inside, there is a queen-size mattress, radio and bookshelf full of titles about local history and geography.
Proceeds from rentals will go to cleaning and upkeep of the space as well as other community projects.
Ranger Greta Smith told The Daily Herald she was proud of the volunteers who saw the lookout restoration through to the end.
“These kinds of collaborations are very key for the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “They help us maintain our connection with the community. I don’t have any words to express the amount of gratitude I have to be able to have these kinds of partnerships.”
At Wednesday’s ceremony, Tavenner presented a token of gratitude to Smith as well as volunteers from Friends of North Mountain. It was a custom-made bronze coin with an engraved drawing of the lookout.
“Once looking out for fires…” reads a message engraved on one side of the coin.
Flip it over, and the other side says, “Now looking out for one another.”