Employment for younger kids on “the Hill” usually consisted of mowing lawns, shoveling sidewalks or other endeavors requiring minimal brain power. As we aged, so did the need for greater financial resources. We had your typical necessities: money for cherry Cokes at the Confectionary in Pierce, jukebox coins (same location), chewing gum, gas money for going to Pierce or wherever and burgers and sides during late dinners at the Headquarters Cafe in Pierce. There’s more, but I’ll stick to the essentials.
Seventeen-year-old males who grew up on the Hill had a very cool opportunity when it came to employment. They could go to work for Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association. For us locals, it was called CT. Work tasks spanned from the boring to life-threatening. It provided an opportunity to transition from mowing lawns, etc., to more serious work like fighting forest fires and piling brush (logging slash). In the time period for me and some of my friends, CT had brush camps situated out in the more remote areas from Headquarters or Weippe. The whole experience was a rite of passage for those who chose it.
CT wasn’t just an “all male” operation. Our dispatcher was Alice McFadden, a local lady who ruled the office in a very firm but loving way. Sometimes wives would accompany their husbands to various outposts. Often college-aged girls would serve on the fire lookouts around the area. Our camp cooks were women with experience in the culinary arts. One particular camp cook had a favorite additive for our meals. She would put Nestle Quik in everything, including scrambled eggs. Try to imagine a serving of eggs mixed with that chocolate powder and think what it might appear to be. Meals required close observation before the eating started.
The CT experience started with a one-week fire school during which new hires received in-depth training on how to operate a variety of tools such as chain saws, axes, cross-cut saws, shovels, portable pumps for applying water to fires and the Pulaski (a combination axe and grub hoe). The latter item was used more than any other by new hires. What could possibly go wrong putting those tools in the hands of 17-year old boys?!
My first season with CT was in 1965. Following fire school, we were stationed at the Elk Mountain brush camp. This camp could be characterized as the “middle of nowhere” but that applied to much of Clearwater County. There was a camp near Brown’s Creek that covered the Weippe area. The Headquarters base of operations included a camp on Bertha Hill.
The summit of Bertha Hill, formerly Thunder Mountain, had a fire lookout which was one of the first of its kind to be operated before federal and state organizations existed to protect public lands. What started in 1900 as a ladder that led to a tree limb would evolve into a 65-foot metal tower with a cab that allowed the occupant to live in it for the fire season. After our marriage in 1972, my wife and I spent two summers on that tower. Most lookouts gave way to fire patrols by aircraft, but some still are in limited service.
Even though the job was monotonous, piling brush was not without risk. On one occasion, a young man on our crew was chopping a limb with his Pulaski. The limb broke in two, and one segment of limb with a sharp point flipped up and struck him between his lower lip and chin. The resulting hole let out fluid when he attempted to drink, and he could blow cigarette smoke out of it. The hole was later remedied with some stitches. This was a minor incident in our world. Fatalities weren’t unheard of. One young college student fell from her lookout cab at Bertha Hill and died from her injuries. As well, the task of fighting forest fires was very dangerous work.
Despite the risk involved with the job, fighting forest fires remains very near the top of my list of favorite jobs. I used to start twitching whenever I smelled wood smoke from a nearby campfire. My wife knows the signs. Now I twitch at the smell of burgers or hotdogs more than smoke. It takes me back to those evenings in Pierce when we spent some of that hard-earned money listening to the jukebox while sipping a fountain drink. But we were doing our bit to protect the beautiful natural resources around us and to ensure the safety of local animal life. We learned our lessons from Smokey the Bear, who told us “only you can prevent forest fires.” We came to realize that forest fires prevent bears, too.
Ward, 72, lived in Headquarters from 1948-70. He graduated from Pierce High School and received a bachelor’s degree in education at Lewis-Clark Normal School (now Lewis-Clark State College). He’s now retired and living in Columbia, S.C., with Beth, his wife of 47 years. His goal with this column is to share the bonds of community developed on the Hill. His stories are fairly true — the names may or may not be changed to protect the guilty — with thanks to the many friends from Headquarters, Pierce and Weippe (and all the little wide spots between these towns) who enriched his life and fueled these memories.