"Vetter Mountain, In Service"

Day One: In-Tower Training

8:00 am Twenty-two combination locks need opening to get in. Vetter Mountain is vulnerable; vulnerable because it is next to a major highway, because it is a short walk from a popular picnic area, and because it has only three steps up to the tower. It takes us a long time to get ready to open up. Today there are four of us: lookout leader, George, who is conducting the training and three trainees, including myself.

The major chore is putting up the eight heavy wooden shutters, each about six-by-four feet, with three 1x4s for reinforcement. One by one, each is lifted overhead, propped up with a 2x4, and secured with three wingnuts. They provide day-long shade around the catwalk, convenient storage for door and prop, and a place to put hooks for bird feeders.

8:45 amThe flags are raised, Old Glory and Smokey Bear, with care taken to get them right side up. I tighten down the lines and then, they move languidly in the variable breeze, swelling, bulging, flapping briefly, drooping, hanging still until the next gust.

The clouds, low in the valley below, have puffy white tops.

8:56 amWe call dispatch, "Angeles, Vetter Mountain, in service."
"Copy, Vetter Mountain, eight-fifty-six."
South Mt. Hawkins, the other Angeles National Forest lookout follows, a second later.

9:00 amWe open the gate, ready for visitors.

9:05 amIn the San Bernardino National Forest lookouts, the weather is taken before reporting in service. But here, in the Angeles, the weather stations are automated. So, just for today, we put it off until later.

George gives us an inch-by-inch tour of the contents inside of the cab. He has stories to tell about each piece of furniture, about each picture hanging on the wall, about each tiny screw in the Osborne Firefinder, about each fly in the window. What a wonderful way to receive instruction!

The broom must stay by the window to the left of the door. "Why?", someone asks.
"Because it identifies where the bear was."
"The bear in that picture", George responds, pointing. The bear in That Picture is peering through the window, paw upraised against the glass, like a visitor wanting to get in. He was a young 'un. A Smokey clone. How appropriate!

The tour continues.

10:15 amKermit, another volunteer, arrives to put up the panoramic photographs taken by yet another volunteer, Don. Don has made composite pictures of the views through each window of the lookout. The lookout is aligned north-south, so the pictures, taken from the center of the cab, show views in each of the four cardinal directions. The major landmarks are numbered and identified by a legend below.

I try to find South Mt. Hawkins. Difficult. Kermit tells me to look on the skyline. I still can't find it. Later, I use the Osborne to sight it in first. So tiny! So far away!

Closer to home and easier to identify, we find Twin Peaks, Waterman Mountain, Pacifico Mountain, Condor Peak, the series of peaks along the ridge to Mt. Wilson. The observatories on Mt. Wilson, familiar to all, form a base from which we can locate other peaks. Saddleback, in Orange County, floats above the now flat inversion layer.

10:46 amThe radio squawks, "Emergency traffic only". There is aggression reported on the road in San Gabriel Canyon. Kermit tells us that Angeles dispatch is located at Fox Field in Lancaster and that our broadcasts go out over a repeater. Fox Field is central to the expanse of the Angeles National Forest which ranges from the Ventura / Kern County line in the northwest to the San Bernardino County border in the southeast, over 100 miles.
11:00 amWe get around to checking the weather:

Air temperature is 65°. The silver line in the thermometer is hard to read.

Relative humidity is 50%. We are careful not to touch the sock on the wet bulb as the oils from our fingers would prevent the water from evaporating properly.

Visibility is "good". "Excellent", we are told, is when you can see Catalina Island and the Tehachapi Mountains and occurs only during Santa Ana conditions.

The breeze is variable, 4 to 8 miles per hour, out of the south-southeast. Flags are a valuable tool in finding wind direction!

11:02 amVibrations. Chup, chup, chup. The LA County Sheriff Department's Search and Rescue helicopter takes off from Barley Flats just across the canyon. We watch it go along Alder Creek towards Little Rock. Line of duty.
11:05 amThe lookout rests on a rocky ridge. There is sparse vegetation, mainly some stunted yerba santa, a variety of small high country buckwheats and a few now-bedraggled rabbitbrush. But this doesn't faze the butterflies. This place could be called "Butterfly Hill"! It is a "lek", a mating ground for butterflies. The behavior is called "hilltopping". The males look for females by engaging one and all in beautiful, spiralling courtship dances. Sometimes, the pale swallowtails, large cream-and-black butterflies, spin and twist thirty feet into the air. Others--California sister, variable checkerspot, callippe fritillary, spring azure and propertius duskywing--flutter and flash their wings as well, but none go as high as the titillated pales.

George and I fill the guzzlers for the butterflies and other animals. This is no minor undertaking. George climbs on top of the ten-foot-tall water tank and removes the cover. I hand up the bucket. He dips it down into the tank stretching his arm as far as he can since the water reserve is low. Gently he hands the bucket down to me. It's heavy and I splash the precious water over my jeans. More carefully I hike up the slope to fill the reservoir. We do this twice.

On our return to the lookout, we see the snub-tailed western fence lizard already at the water, and further on, at the second smaller guzzler, the big, solitary black bees, that are so abundant here, have found their new water source, too.

12:17 pmWe get our first visitors of the day, two cyclists. George welcomes them and invites them in. One considerately refuses, not wanting to pollute the air! George gives the other his message, a little history about the tower and what is inside. I listen carefully to what George has to say and what the cyclist responds for future reference. Later, the two bike riders enjoy the views while eating their lunch outside on the catwalk in the shade of the shutters.
12:30 pmInside, we share lunch and laughs. Kevin, a trainee, offers homemade beef jerky. I kid George that he has, alas, forgotten to supply something in the tower: toothpicks.
12:50 pmWe, the trainees, look at the calendar for days left for us to work. Kevin wants an overnighter, an afternoon and morning shift back-to-back. George tells us we can see the fireworks at Disneyland.

At this moment, the near horizon, at the base of the mountains, is obscured by a grayish white haze ascending up the canyons. 'Tis no matter, for our purview, the forest for which we must report smokes, is visible.

1:33 pmThe trainees sign out.

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© Jane Strong, June 2000