Return to Carey Dome
After Decades Away
Story and Photos by F.A. Loomis
When I was last a lookout on the Payette National Forest, Bruce Jenner won the decathlon at the Olympics. That was 1976. Now she’s Caitlyn Jenner. Times have changed. I had my name on a list of wannabe lookout returnees for several years before I got the call from the Payette National Forest personnel, who asked me to man Carey Dome Lookout for the 2022 fire season. My wife Kristin and I agreed to go up together for the summer. I think my feelings of isolation on the lookout decades ago helped seal the deal for her. Even so, a friend warned us about staying together in a one-room cabin all summer. She said, “If that were Phil and I, we’d kill each other by the end of the summer.”
The warning was unnecessary, as my wife and I do just fine together in small quarters. By the time I left Carey Dome in the 1970s to head back to graduate school, I had become so lonely that I vowed never to return alone to such an isolated place. I was looking forward to the stay with a companion and the likelihood of more frequent visitors forty-five years later. It was likely to be a lot more enjoyable than being a hermit on the fringe of civilization. I’m contemplative by nature and now that Kristin would be with me, I could have my cake and eat it, too.
Carey Dome Lookout faces north over the main Salmon River just east of the French Creek drainage on the Payette National Forest. In 1934 and 1935, an eighty-five-foot-tall galvanized steel lookout tower manufactured in Chicago was installed on the granitic ridgetop knoll. A one-room log cabin was built on the site in 1943 and a weather station was added in the 1950s. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The lookout tower is the only one remaining on the Payette Forest and is among only twelve remaining throughout the entire Pacific Northwest.
Kristin is qualified as a master gardener, and she cherished the opportunity to use the summer studying alpine flora while I watched for forest fires. She is also a forester’s daughter who grew up on ranger stations in Idaho and Utah, and she looked forward to revisiting the wilderness experiences of her youth.