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Photo by Steph Abegg

Mebee Pass Lookout: John Scurlock’s Labor of Love

 

Lost things can be hard to find in the wilderness of the North Cascades, so when aerial photographer John Scurlock spied the rough angles of a man-made structure among a zone of alpine krummholz, that last green gasp of stunted subalpine fir at tree line, he must have thought himself lucky.

Remembering the comment of a climbing friend who had mentioned a last-of-its-kind fire lookout, Scurlock pointed the nose of his homemade airplane toward Mazama, scanning the terrain for the 10’x10’ wooden structure. Atop Mebee Pass and sitting among the windblown snow, the dilapidated former Forest Service lookout was holding on in its 80th Cascades winter—if only barely.

Scurlock and Lookout. Photo by Dave Adams

 

Mebee Pass Lookout was, by most accounts, very much a lost thing. Located among the precipitous peaks of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the small structure had never known high recognition as a lookout, most-likely only manned in times of high-fire risk, and only saw use for roughly a decade until it was abandoned. Scurlock had photographed the lookout before in 2006 and 2007, but after his winter visit he was struck by how tiny, remote and delicate it appeared.

Scurlock’s interest was infectious, and as photos from his fly-over spread, the lookout became somewhat of a cause célèbre. Thus was born the “Friends of Mebee Pass Lookout,” a group dedicated to the restoration of the lookout. “It’s a historical relic, and our short term goal is preserving it for the sake of preserving it,” Scurlock said. “In the future, people could end up using it for recreation purposes.”

The lookout itself represents a small chunk of North Cascades history. Constructed in 1934 by the Forest Service, the diminutive lookout was the smallest style of lookout used during the time, known as an L5 Cab. At the peak of their use, fire lookout towers dotted Washington’s peaks, numbering 685 in total. Today, it is believed that Mebee Pass Lookout is quite likely the only lookout of this style left standing in the range.

Mebee Pass Lookout circa 1935

 

Work had been done previously on the lookout by USFS workers on their own dime and time, but nothing compared to the overhaul Scurlock and his volunteers had in mind. Primary concerns were to stabilize the foundation and structure itself, then installing a new roof and lightning protection system. Scurlock brought these ideas to the U.S. Forest Service and spoke with representatives including Methow District Ranger Mike Liu.

“We were very supportive of the project,” Liu explained. ” I had heard about Mebee Pass Lookout from past Forest Service employees, and I knew it had deteriorated quite a bit over the years.”

The Forest Service offered technical assistance on the project, overlooking the plans, and ensuring the materials and activities were consistent with historical preservation of the lookout. “John spearheaded it,” Liu said. “We authorized it.”

By the summer of 2013, the restoration group had raised roughly $3,500 to purchase materials and pay for the helicopter time needed to transport them to the lookout site, and with the good graces of the U.S. Forest Service, Scurlock and his grassroots crew of mountaineering friends began clearing the trail to the lookout. By September they were able to put in a three-day work weekend, accomplishing a laundry list of tasks and buttoning up the lookout to endure another Cascades winter.

Scurlock says that the next phase of the project hinges on a bridge being built over Granite Creek, the original having deteriorated to the point where it was decommissioned by dropping it into the creek. Liu says that the requests for those funds have been submitted.

Join the Friends of Mebee Pass Lookout: Email mebeepasslookout@gmail.com to learn how you can contribute to the restoration.

Nick Belcaster is an adventure journalist who cut his teeth for the big three—hiking, climbing and splitboarding—on the jagged wave of rock that is the North Cascades. Residing in Bellingham, WA, he contributes to local and national publications and tries to stay out of trouble in the mountains.

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