Williams Lake man remembers time as a solitary lookout man

Unique summer job gets a chapter in John Andrews’ life story

Andrews said the Hope lookout was very similar to the Desous lookout along the Fraser River south of Williams Lake. Taken around 1987, this tower was torn down as was the Hope tower. (Jim Garbutt photo)

In the days before thermal imaging and computer models, the BC Forest Service sent young men to live in towers far into the wilderness to act as a first warning of forest fires.

One of those young men was 20-year-old John Andrews, posted high above the trees in Hope’s own forest lookout tower in the summer of 1962.

Now in his mid-seventies, a Williams Lake resident, former principal at Lake City Secondary-Columneetza and former coroner, Andrews is writing down his life story for his two children and three grandchildren.

One of the memories he is preserving is a summer spent in near-complete solitude, surviving on canned goods and weathering both heat stroke and wind storms, in a tower just north of Hope.

Looking for a way to finance his undergraduate studies in life sciences at U.B.C., Andrews jumped at the opportunity to earn $250 a month, less the cost of food deducted from his salary as a lookout man.

He got on a Greyhound bus to Hope, laden with a 20-kilogram backpack of what he thought he would need for the summer.

Built in 1953, Hope’s forest service lookout was a one-room wooden structure with glass windows and a wrap-around catwalk perched on top of a wooden platform. Inside was an island in the centre with a map and eyesight, to measure the exact area where smoke and fire could be seen, as well as a wood stove and bed too short for Andrews six-foot-four frame.

Located north of Haig on Highway 1, near what is now American Creek Road, the lookout provided a vista all the way to Flood Hope Road, the road heading to Manning Park and partway up the Fraser Canyon.

Around 150 such lookouts were active in the 1960s in places with a high forest fire risk or valuable timber, according to a BC Forest Service film. Many have since been torn down, including the Hope lookout.

At his young age, Andrews was no stranger to life in the great outdoors, having worked on a youth crew the summer before where he earned $3 a day building campgrounds outside of Trail.

Almost as soon as Andrews arrived, he experienced the wrath of nature. A massive storm shook the tower back and forth and blew out glass windows.

“So here I was up there — freezing cold, howling wind, sheets of water, two windows blown out, no dry wood — I look back on this and go I must have been nuts to stay up there,” Andrews said.

From windstorms to long summer days, the lookout tower quickly became unbearably hot. For up to 16 hours a day the sun would shine and Andrews would lay on the floor trying to breathe through massive migraines and heat prostration.

The lookout tower did not have any heat save for a wood stove, light was provided by a Coleman lantern and food was delivered weekly, the majority canned.

“I bought cans of everything: butter, ham, fruit, vegetables, peas, corn. If you ordered in fresh milk, as soon as the assistant ranger came you would drink it because basically, it would sour within a day,” he said.

The solitude was also something completely new for Andrews. From April to the first week of September, he had contact with only two people, the first being the assistant ranger’s weekly visit. The second was a surprise Andrews remembers to this day.

As the lookout had no running water, hygiene was quite a challenge. To keep clean, Andrews devised a makeshift showerhead out of a bucket with holes in the bottom. One day, as he stood showering at the bottom of the lookout tower, a man walked out of nowhere.

“I’m standing there stark naked with the soap running off me and then he looks at me and says “Is there any cedar up here?”. Of course we’re on a bald part of the mountain and I remember saying to him “No there’s no cedar up here”. Then he just walked away,” he laughed.

Not all days were as eventful. Andrews spent most of them scouring the hills for smoke and flames, taking temperatures, weighing “hazard sticks” to get an idea of how dry the forest was and using a sling psychrometer to measure humidity.

“It was amazing how your brain memorized the topography around you. If someone had moved a matchstick I would have noticed it,” he said.

Before he began his posting, Andrews heard stories of men whose mental health had deteriorated so much so they had to leave their lookouts for good. A lookout he met in the winter told him to begin speaking with himself, and quick, advice he readily followed.

“I would get up in the morning and I’d put my feet over the side of the bed and say “OK John, what do you have to do today?”. You would say it, so you actually heard a human voice,” Andrews said.

Apart from the words he spoke to himself and the public radio he listened to religiously, Andrews would radio a daily report to Vancouver with his lookout call number XMJ93. The experience left him very comfortable being alone and completely independent.

He never got the chance to spend time in Hope, but he remembers the town as he got to know it, from above.

“It’s an odd sensation to be in this situation with a pair of binoculars and I used to stand out on the catwalk sometimes in the evenings and put the binoculars on Hope. I could see these tiny, tiny little people and the cars going up and down, and the lights of the city,” he said. “Fascinating watching the city from that far away.”

When asked if as a young man he ever felt tempted to abandon the lookout for a weekend of revelry in Hope, Andrews said this would never have been an option. When he was 14, Andrews immigrated from England with only 40 dollars to their name, he would never have done anything to jeopardize his source of income. He also needed a reference from the forest service, which he got, and went on to fight fires the following year.

Once the first week of September rolled around, Andrews was eager to finish his solitary life on top of the bald mountain.

“I packed my bag up, I locked the door and I walked out of there with my pack down to Hope. I managed to catch the Greyhound bus to Vancouver,” he said.

One thing Andrews wishes he had done while his mother was still alive is learn about her family history, all the side stories of her life that remain untold. Instead, he is including his summer as a solitary lookout man in Hope as a chapter in his own life story.

“So when something happens to me, when I pass on, the kids are going to have a written story,” he said.

“Have you sat down with your folks and chewed through the history of your family?”

Editor’s note:

To complement his memory project, John Andrews is asking anyone who has photos of the Hope Forest Service Lookout to contact him at 250-398-5732 or jandrews1479@gmail.com.

 

John Andrews today. Submitted photo

The location of Hope’s forest service lookout was at just north of Haig on Highway 1, coordinates 49.423889, -121.4475. (Google Maps photo)

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