Monday, September 8, 2008

Pat's Knob, Labor Day 2008

I know I need a small vacation.
But it don't look like rain.
And if it snows that stretch down south,
won't ever stand the strain.

--Jimmy Webb

Pat's Knob USFS Lookout (and Radio Tower)
Taken September 1st, 2008
Pat's Knob, Sanders County, Montana

Glenn Campbell can have it. I want no part of climbing poles, towers, anything else in a blizzard. It was bad enough just standing on the mountain watching (and photographing) the guys hanging from their belts.

If you read my previous blog, you’ll remember that Sunday, August 31st, brought torrential rains. Monday, September 1st, it was still raining, albeit not as hard, as Kevin and I headed out of Missoula at 6 am. We were on the way to meet friends of his in Dixon, Montana—a small Sanders County town on the Flathead Indian Reservation about 60 miles northwest of Missoula. Prior to this, Dixon was known to me as the place where the Beatty family, friends of my first partner Stephen Eberhart, raise melons. It is also the home of the Dixon Bar where poet Richard Hugo used to hang out. Now I know it to be the home of Keith Rogers, owner of the ham radio repeater station located on top of a mountain near Plains, Montana.

This is the story of how I spent a day on top of Pat’s Knob. Get your mind out of the gutter. Pat’s Knob is the name of a mountain three air miles south of Plains, Montana—three miles that takes roughly an hour to cross in a car. The US Forest Service has a fire lookout on top of the Knob, and the FAA, the Montana Highway Patrol, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and numerous other agencies and companies have transmission towers and antennae up there. The Knob itself is close to 7,000 feet above sea level, and being the highest point in the area, it’s subject to just about every weather pattern that comes through. That was certainly our experience on Labor Day.

The rain had stopped by the time we reached Keith’s home in Dixon. Another ham radio operator, Cory, joined us and while I took pictures of Keith’s flower garden, the three radio guys strapped a new 20’ antenna on top of Kevin’s Ford Expedition. Once we had everything tied down securely, we headed out on Montana Highway 200, cruising alongside the Flathead River toward its confluence with the Clark Fork near Paradise, Montana (home of the Pair-A-Dice Bar).

A few miles further west and we pulled into Plains, Montana, also known as Wild Horse Plains, or the place where the wild horses gathered back in the days when this was all Indian Country. Kevin and I were in the Expedition, Keith and Cory in Keith’s truck, and meeting us in Plains were Bruce and his son Tyrel, driving in from the West. We all met at Benji’s Restaurant, even though Bruce and Ty had already eaten. Keith pointed out that we needed time to commune with our fellow radio folk.

I hate to have my blog turn into a series of bad restaurant reviews, but I call it as I see it. Used to be you could get a decent meal at Benji’s right in the middle of downtown Plains. These days Benji’s is under new ownership, apparently the same people who own Quinn’s Hot Springs near Paradise, and one of the local motels. I’ll keep this short, but we probably should have taken it as a sign when the waitress asked everyone at our table if the bacon was fixed correctly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. We all felt the bacon was too greasy and not fried sufficiently. There were two ham and cheese omelets on the menu, one with just Tillamook Cheddar and the other with a three cheese combination. I ordered the more expensive three-cheese omelet, and was charged for it, but I couldn’t find any swiss or pepper jack cheese in my eggs. I don’t think there was one of us happy with breakfast.

While eating, Keith realized that we had left Dixon with the antenna, but without the supporting rods that held the antenna to the tower. While Kevin, Bruce, Ty and I drove “SLOWLY” up the mountain, Keith and Cory returned to Dixon to pick up the remaining hardware. Keith told us at least three times to make sure we drove slowly.

I think the first sign for the lookout said that we had thirteen miles ahead of us. Thirteen miles of Montana mountain dirt road. Along the way we noticed huckleberries hanging full on their bushes, along with a few thimbleberries and even some wild raspberries. At least we wouldn’t starve to death on this trek.

Plains, Montana in the distance

Taken September 1st, 2008

Pat's Knob, Montana

The top of the mountain holds numerous microwave and radio relay towers. Keith had put a smaller antenna up many years before, but it was time to replace it with something stronger. The base of the Forest Service lookout is an enclosed concrete block structure housing radio set ups for various Montana state agencies. It also houses Keith’s repeater. Looking much like an unfinished basement, the room provided us with shelter from the weather.

Shelter wasn’t a concern when we first arrived. The sun was shining, the sky was blue with clouds in the distance, and the temperature was probably close to 60. It looked to be a beautiful day to work on a mountain top. The big concern was temperature. Last year, Labor Day had near record high temperatures, and no one was looking forward to broiling under the hot sun. We needn’t have worried.

As Kevin and Bruce unloaded the antenna from the Expedition’s roof, Ty and I did some exploration of the Knob. The views on all sides were wondrous, with vistas overlooking the Clark Fork flowing from the Southwest, the Clark Fork flowing toward the Northwest, and the Flathead flowing from the East. I played with all my lenses, and got out the new 2x extender which allowed me to pull up the railcars on the Paradise siding and the Sanders County Fairgrounds in Plains.

It wasn’t long before Keith and Cory arrived with the support poles, and work could begin in earnest. While Bruce and Kevin stayed on the ground, Keith and Cory donned climbing harnesses and ascended the tower. Using a series of ropes and pulleys, Bruce and Kevin passed each successive piece up the tower where Keith and Cory fastened them in place.

Keith and Cory fasten the first support in place

Taken September 1st, 2008

Pat's Knob, Montana

The first supporting rod went up fairly quickly, and the second didn’t take much more time. As we left Missoula, I had asked Kevin just how long we should expect to be gone. Kevin assured me that we’d be done by noon. My concern was that the Missoula Men’s Chorus rehearsals are on Monday evening, and I didn’t want to miss that with three performances coming up in September. Between stopping for breakfast and the long, slow drive up the mountain, we got to the mountain top around quarter of 11:00 and had the first support rod in place by 1:00. The second rod was in place by 1:30 and things seemed to be moving right along. Then the storms hit.

By 2:30, we were fighting snow and wind, not to mention rapidly dropping temperatures. As the men began pulling the antenna up the tower, the snow was making it dangerous to remain balanced on metal braces. Even wearing climbing harnesses, Keith and Cory found their footing becoming slippery. They descended from the tower and all of us tried to warm up and thaw out in the lookout’s basement.

The storm clouds meet to surround us

Taken September 1st, 2008

Pat's Knob, Montana

A break in the storm allowed our climbers to start the process of securing the top brace around quarter of four. But as we watched, the storm approached from the west, blocking out all visibility. The way the storm surrounded our perch fascinated me, and I snapped away at the clouds filling the sky on the south, on the west, on the north, and eventually meeting to our east. At that point we were completely encased in the storm.

The plan was to get the antenna and its three supporting rods up, attached to the tower and wired. Once everything was secure, the supporting rods would be pushed out moving the antenna away from the tower and minimizing any radio interference. Unfortunately, by the time everything was in place, the snow and wind had frozen the pipes to the tower and they could not be moved. If you look at the pictures from this trip on my Picasa gallery, you’ll see the snow blowing across the scene and sticking to our clothing. You may even find spots from the snow hitting my lenses. I tried to clean up the images, but in some cases there was just too much snow to eliminate it all. Besides, you wanted to share in the experience, didn’t you?

Cory covered in snow and hanging from the tower

Taken September 1st, 2008

Pat's Knob, Montana

At five, I knew I would not be back in Missoula in time for rehearsal. One thing about being on top of a mountain with lots of radio antennae, we had great cell service. I called the chorus director and explained where I was and why I wouldn’t be at rehearsal. I knew that we’d be on top of the mountain for at least another hour.

By six, it was clear that we would not be able to finish the project, so we cleaned up the area, packed up our trucks, and started down the mountain. An hour later we were back in Plains, and Kevin and I were back in Missoula by 8:30. It took another two days for me to thaw out.

We still have to return to Pat’s Knob. The antenna has to be moved away from the tower, and Kevin and I will be back to help Keith and Cory get that done. In the meantime, the new antenna is working well, and ham operators throughout the area are noting how much better their signal is.

Keith is after me to get my ham license, but as it is I have too many expensive hobbies I have no time to enjoy. Still, it is interesting riding along listening in to all these not-so-private conversations, and, at least in Montana, there still are places where cell service is non-existent but where Kevin can talk with others on the radio. I’ll have to give Keith’s urgings some serious consideration.

Just in case you were confused

Taken September 1st, 2008

Pat's Knob, Montana

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