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Interview with Mark & Rhett Moak at Spot Mountain Lookout

The Moak Family Bear Mountain Lookout 1984

It’s a lot of work to make a marriage thrive.  Now try doing that side by side in a remote log cabin.

It’s a lot more work to raise 3 kids.  Now try doing that – side by side – in a 15×15 cab. 

And now imagine both scenarios put you on a remote mountain top – far from playdates, washing machines and even ice cream. 

Meet Mark & Rhett Moak.  They are fire lookouts – and they’ve spent the majority of their summer lives together spotting forest fires from tall towers on remote mountain tops, all while raising a family.  That is either crazy or blissful – depending on who you’re asking.

For me personally I’d say a little of both.  The idea of raising a family in the woods, on that remote mountain top, sounds like heaven on earth!  But maybe I watched too many Wilderness Family Adventure movies – thanks a lot Disney!  As a kid I also thought little cute forest animals might clean my room, imagine my disappointment.

The reality was the kids spent their summers away from their friends – so pool parties and summer sleepovers didn’t happen.  Building forts, keeping daily journals and growing up with your siblings as your best friends took their place.  There was, however, ICE CREAM!  On one occasion a helitack crew dropped a gallon of ice cream for the Moak children and on another their supply packer brought up ice cream packed in dry ice. When I asked if their kids realized how lucky they were to have grown up in a lookout tower Rhett said they used to tell her “You’re making us so weird”. 

Some of that weirdness must have translated into a love of nature and, of course, fire-fighting.  Two of their kids are now working in in the forest service and fight fighting community.  Parental WIN!  Daughter Leah worked for 8 seasons as a firefighter at West Fork RD and her husband is a firefighter with the Darby-Sula District on the Bitterroot.  Their son Daniel is a 14 year seasoned lookout at Williams Peak on the Payette National Forest. 

These days Mark and Rhett are staffing Spot Mountain Lookout.  It’s a 7 mile, not so easy hike (aka VERY STEEP), to their tower in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.   They have recently retired from their ‘real world’ jobs as art teachers at Rocky Mountain College.  Spot had been abandoned for 9 years before the Moaks took up residence and began working on lots of deferred maintenance, that kept them busy their first couple of summers there.  I cannot wait to see that new outhouse they’ve told us about!

There are only a handful of lookout towers staffed compared to pre-1960s.  But the community of lookouts and those in the fire-fighting community is extremely strong.  

Back in the 1930s after the nightly call in to headquarters – the lookouts at their posts would hop on the radios and talk all night, it kept the isolated men sane.  These days it’s a group text or cell call. This quick exchange of information benefits the fire-fighting reporting and efforts on the ground.  It’s a true example of cooperation among them all – they share info without boundaries.  And I imagine it also still helps keep them sane just like it did back in the 1930s.

When we talked to Mark & Rhett on the phone and you could genuinely hear a love for what they do, their drive to make a difference and their conviction in their positions to keep people safe.  Rhett expressed to us that very thing – that’s what they are there for, to keep those fire fighters on the ground safe above all else.

“That ultimately may be the most important reason, but we are charged with seeing, locating and reporting fires, which most believe is our prime directive.” – Mark Moak

“This is the best job in the world” – Rhett Moak

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