On July 30 of this year grandkids Kody, Kaiah, and my wife and I became members of the “Ancient and Honorable Order of Squirrels” by climbing the Deadman Lookout Tower in the Roosevelt National Forest off of Deadman Hill Road, not far from Redfeather. When we reached the top, two veteran volunteers, David Street and his daughter Samantha, presented us with certification cards to prove it. Volunteers-in-training Dave and Sue Miller also gave us a warm welcome. While Dave and Samantha shared the view and their knowledge of local history, Steve and Cheri Conklin, additional fledgling volunteers, arrived for training.
What compels 10 people to navigate bumpy dirt roads, climb an imposing metal tower at an elevation of 10,710 feet, and—in the case of the volunteers—spend days or weeks at the tip of a potential lightning rod? Dave summarized it this way: “Incredible view, historical landmark, fascinating visitors, interesting local stories. It was too much to resist!”
Dave, a research scientist by day at the Boulder-based Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, also enjoys feeding his interest in astronomy during the star-studded nights. Over seven years of volunteering, he and his daughter have become adept storytellers who compete to spin their favorite yarns. They both thrive on “meeting new people and sharing a spectacular piece of Colorado.”
Earlier this year Kristy Wumkes, longtime volunteer coordinator with the forest service, put out the call for additional volunteers at the tower. She received 75 inquiries and 40 people decided to participate — an impressive number, considering that access to the site is often blocked by snow until early July. The Millers were one couple that answered the call. “It sounded like a great adventure,” they said, “plus wildfires are quite personal with us as we have been evacuated four times between our cabin up that way and our home near Horsetooth Reservoir.”
Wumkes said that volunteers are extremely important. “Not only do volunteers help the Forest Service complete mission-critical work that would not otherwise get done, they serve an important role as community liaisons and educators.”
As part of their training the Millers enjoyed learning how to use the Osborn firefinder — a device employed for nearly a century to pinpoint fire locations. The circular metal device allows a user to line up front and rear sites much as if you were lining up a target with a rifle. A firefighter can sight a column of smoke and take a horizontal reading in degrees and minutes followed by an estimate of distance using a sliding metal piece on the rear sight. Sightseers can just enjoy spotting distant mountain ranges as we did, locating our stop later that day at Vedauwoo in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming. These firefinders are becoming rare as the last manufacturer of the device, Leupold & Stevens, Inc. has not produced parts since 1975, according to a USDA Forest Service website.
Time atop the tower gets exciting when thunderstorms roll in. Dave said, “You aren’t just close to them, sometimes you are IN them!” No one can be on the tower when lightning strikes are possible and those inside the tower must make sure they are not touching the metal shell or the firefinder. They advise any visitors to stay within their cars (as long as they aren’t touching a conducting metal surface).
During their six-day stay at the tower this year, the Streets averaged about 20 visitors per day. Over the years, their slowest day was a dozen and two years ago 122 people showed up on one day. Volunteers greet visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays until Labor Day.
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews built the original wooden tower in 1937/1938. The current metal structure dates to 1961. The wooden tower was removed in 1963, but you can still see the foundation a short hike away from the parking lot. Samantha finds it interesting that the original tower was “manned” by a woman: Bernice George. George spotted fires during the 1940s.
Those interested in volunteering next year can contact Kristy Wumkes at 970-295-6721. Those aspiring to the Ancient and Honorable Order of Squirrels can put Deadman Tower on their bucket list at any time. Expect gorgeous views, inspiring history, and an eclectic mix of visitors keeping one eye peeled for gray clouds and electrifying possibilities.