On a cold rainy, unspringlike morning recently. Doug Rashkin parked his car in a chickenwire enclosure to keep porcupines from eating the tires, picked up his pack and walked up Stratton Mountain to spend six months watching for forest fires.
Up above Dishpan Springs, Packrack Rock and Bobcat Hollow, 3,936 feet above seal level, Rashkin settled into the Vermont Depart of Forests and Parks log cabin that comes with his job. To get there, you walk three uphill miles of the Appalachian Trail, and once you're there, the only people you see are hikers who happen along.
Not many jobs offer so much solitude, with only a radio link to the world below. Rashkin also gets a free log cabin and $137 a week.
"I like being away," Rashkin, 28, said after changing his shirt, sweat-soaked from his climb. "Some people might go stir crazy, but it's really not that isolated. Four days is about the longest I went last summer without seeing anyone."
Rashkins winters in Queens where he was an accountant two years ago.
Watching for forest fires is a shrinking job category. In 1971, lookouts were stationed in 13 of Vermont's moutains, but most lost their jobs to airplanes or budget cutbacks. Stratton, Killington and Burke are Vermont's only remaining inhabitated mountain tops.
Allan Sands and Rick White of the Forest Department met Rashkin at the nearest road and helped him carry supplies up the trail. Sands has been making his trip for years and remembers earlier lookouts who choped with even more primitive conditions.
One kept a Morgan mare and simply loaded her with his gear, tapped her rump, picked up his chain saw in one hand and a five-gallon can in the other and followed the horse to the cabin without a pause.
Another, with a doctorate in physics, was in love with the mountain and came back with his wife for seasons in the small ranger's cabin.
Now, the Stratton lookout post lives under the threat of being abolished. When Rashkin and the forest department closed it down last October. many thought it would be eliminated from the budget. Rashkin, Sands and White are thankful it wasn't. There used to be a rule of thumb that a lookout earned his season's pay if he made the initial alarm call on a single forest fire, Sands said.
With the state now paying $4 to $5 an hour to firefighters and with property values soaring, the value of an early warning that makes it quicker to put a fire out has risen.
On a clear day, when you can see 90 mile from here to the Adirondacks in the West and to New Hampshire's White Mountains in the East and the danger of fire is high, Rashkin will sit in his tower from 7 a.m. to dusk. He'll take a book and look up every few pages to check his domain for plumes of smoke.
In his first season last year, there were no forest fires to report. He called in about 25 brush fires, which were checked out by fire wardens. It is illegal to burn brush without a permit.
Sands in convinced that a lookout should be an Stratton. The land around the peak is like a bowl on top of a high plateau, so not many houses look into the 14-mile radius for which Rashkin is primarily responsible.
It is also a heavily used wilderness area and a high-value one. Although land sold here for $50 an acre not too many years ago, the area now has three major ski areas and a generous scattering of houses costing $100,000 to $200,000.
Hikers, campers and fishermen come from a wide area, particularly on weekends. Rashkin counted 1,400 of them walking past his post last summer.
More than 95 percent of Vermont's forest fires are caused by people, and the greatest danger is on weekends, when the largest numbers of people are in the woods.
Spring and fall are fire seasons in Vermont, and call for extra attention by the lookouts.
"When the snow goes off, it just takes two good, sunny days and it's ready to burn," Sands said.
The snow has melted in the valleys now, through the fields are brown and the trees still bare. But spring comes a little later on the mountain, so the first climb of the year is always through snow. This year, boots broke through at most steps on the trail, leaving the hikers up their calves in snow. t
A strong wind blew freezing rain around the cabin and metal lookout tower. "Sometimes the rain comes right through the walls because the wind is blowing 30 m.p.h.," Rashkin remarked.
It is usually 10 to 15 degrees colder on top of the mountain than in the valley. The difference seemed greater.
The wood stove barely warmed the cabin and visibility was close to zero. It was a day for the lookout to do his other chores.
He must cut and split his own wood, without a chain saw because Rashkin is not an expert and it is considered too dangerous for him to use one so far from any medical help. He scythes the three-mile trail, fetches his water from a spring three-tenths of a mile away, paints the tower and, every other year, stains the log cabin.
In addition to watching for fires, Rashkin helps hikers, many of whom arrive without maps and without proper clothing. He also functions as a human Smokey the Bear, reminding them not to litter or be careless with fire.
Last summer Rashkin grew rutabagas, peas, carrots and other vegetables. He carries most of his groceries up the mountain on his back on his single day off each week, unless the porcupines, eager for the taste of salt, have gnawed into a tire or radiator hose and he can't get to town.
This summer, Rashkin plans to take guitar lessons on his day off from a man living near the mountains, and he had one early task to complete.
Among his baggage as he unpacked were his rain-soaked tax forms.