The world is quiet and my eyes flutter open to the sound of husky dreams. Their little paws move back and forth and twitch as they chase rabbits and squirrels in their dreams. The moon is still up but the sun is on the horizon, reminding the moon that it’s the sun’s time to shine. I have my sleeping bag tight around my head and don’t dare move from the fetal position in an effort to not wake the dogs. I can see my breath and breathe heavy against the single pane glass window. Bringing one hand out of my sleeping bag I trace a big heart on the window where the sun is rising. Birds start chirping and I look up to see the dogs yawning and stretching their legs out long. They may be awake but they are in no rush to get up. Morning cuddles are their favorite and mine too. These are perfect mornings in the mountains.
Alexandra Lev, waking up at Fivemile Butte Lookout
Exploring Fire Lookouts with Huskies
Story and Photos Contributed by Alexandra Lev
I do everything with my dogs, or at least I try to and to say I’m obsessed with them would be an understatement. Just shy of 12 years old, Kaya has been with me since she was 8 weeks old. Fionna was a foster pup that came into our lives a year and a half ago, after several different owners and a year of living on the street. Siberian Huskies aren’t the easiest breed to train but their love and personality is never-ending. I’ve taken them on some wild adventures and I believe that they trust me to take them only to places that I know they can hang.
When we moved to the PNW two and a half years ago, staying in a fire lookout was on the top of my bucket list. It wasn’t until this past December that I finally got lucky and was able to book a night last minute trip after someone had canceled a reservation at Fivemile Butte. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to spend two nights at Pickett Butte and most recently one magical night at Hager Mountain Lookout. Fivemile and Pickett Butte are both towers, roughly 30 feet in the air and can only be accessed by some very, very steep stairs.
Each dog has a Ruffwear Approach Pack that has become essential for our backcountry adventures. Now that Kaya is older, there are times that she needs some light assistant on uneven, steep terrain. The Webmaster Harness with the handle came in super handy when trying to get Kaya up and down the stairs at both Fivemile Butte and Pickett Butte.
My friend Anna booked Hager Mountain back in October and invited me along for the adventure. We left Portland at 8am on a Wednesday and drove 4.5 hours to the trailhead in Fremont-Winema National Forest. The trip was long and we blasted Spice Girls Pandora Station while the dogs slept in the back. We arrived at the trailhead at 1pm with no other cars in sight. The sun was shining, rainy Portland was behind us, and we were eager to begin our adventure.
Hager Mountain sits at 7,195 feet and the trailhead starts at just a little over 4,000 feet. With a 4-mile snowshoe and a 3,000-foot elevation gain ahead of us, we knew we needed to get moving if we wanted to catch a full sunset. While Anna unloaded her gear I strapped the packs on the dogs. Fionna carried the dog food and a hammock in her pack. Kaya carried the collapsible dog bowls and treats in hers. I usually bring a lot of treats because true to husky character, Fionna isn’t always the best listener. Luckily for me, she is very food motivated.
The hike started out in an old-growth ponderosa pine forest and slowly made its way up the hill to a clearing where we could see Hager Mountain and the little white fire lookout on the top in the distance. It seemed so far away, much further than 3 miles, but we tried not to get discouraged. We took a water and pee break and I called out for Fionna a few times. Kaya doesn’t roam off too much these days. She prefers to stay near the trail and me. After a couple minutes, Fionna came running up the hill happily with her tongue hanging out the side. I rewarded her with a treat and we continued up the trail.
The trail went down into the forest and then back up another hill and wound around the west side of the peak. The snow wasn’t too deep and most of the trail was somewhat packed down so we were making good timing. We started climbing up the steeper trail through the tree line, and up on the ridge, we had gorgeous views of the valley below. We reached a trail marker letting us know that we only had one mile left. Little did we know at the time that it was going to be the most difficult mile yet. We could see the fire lookout on the top of the ridge and hiked on with excitement.
The last mile was rough. We hiked back into the trees and then out of the trees onto a steep slope, where the trail disappeared and the wind really picked up. We were getting cold, and the dogs weren’t running through the snow anymore. They were just trailing slowly behind us and from where we were, we couldn’t see the lookout anymore. We went straight up the hill through the final push and lifted our heads to see the lookout glistening in the sun. It was a glorious moment, and even the dogs seemed relieved to be there.
The wind was whipping as we walked up the stairs to the porch and unlocked the door to the 14’ x 14’ room. We both dropped our packs on the floor and high fived each other as we looked around the room. We arrived just before one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. The wind was howling but the valley was quiet and every peak in the distance had been painted with pastel colors, like a watercolor. We were pleasantly surprised to find a leftover bag of wine that we enjoyed with our ramen while the fire crackled and the dogs chowed down on their food.
The lookout was furnished with a propane stove, table, a bed and a bunk bed. Anna took the bed and I took the bottom bunk. It was a cold night and we could hear the wind rustle against the windows all night. Anna slept with Fionna and I cuddled up with with Kaya. In the arctic, huskies would sleep with the women and children to keep them warm and the number of dogs depended on how cold the night was. It was definitely a two-dog night in the lookout.
We woke early to see the sun slowing rising and filling our little room with light. Our morning was spent cuddling with the pups and drinking hot cocoa. Our time in the fire lookout was sadly coming to a close, a magical adventure that neither of us would forget. We signed the guest log and left a bottle of bubbly that we carried up for the next visitors. It was one of the best 24 hours I’ve had in quite a while. When we arrived back at the car after hiking down the dogs laid down in the snow and grinned up at me as if they were thanking me, “thank you Mama for another adventure.”
Alexandra Lev is a Salt Lake City native that currently lives in Portland, OR, with her husband Brad and their two Siberian Huskies. She spends her time exploring all that the PNW has to offer and doing it all with her pups by her side. She also serves as an ambassador to PNW Outdoor Women, helping plan outdoor events for women in the Portland area. Her hobbies include climbing, backpacking, skiing, traveling and day-dreaming about having 10 huskies. Follow her adventures with Kaya and Fionna on Instagram.