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Glacier Park’s Eyes In The Sky: Alex Hasson
Montana Senior News, June/July 2014
Rugged individualist to occupy rustic room with a view. Sharp eyesight, map-reading skills, backcountry savvy required. Must be in top physical condition and able to share isolated location with bears and lightning.
Although you are unlikely to ever see an ad like the one above, the description does portray the ideal person to staff a fire lookout. It hints at the challenges a lookout faces, and also indicates why some folks find one stint of mountaintop living more than enough. However, for people like Alex “Buck” Hasson, who serves as Glacier National Park’s eyes in the sky above Swiftcurrent Pass, coexisting with curious critters and lightning is no hardship.
For the past five summers, this retired Burlington Northern railroader has manned Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout to help keep the park flame-free. And he plans to return again in 2014 for another volunteer season. It is a post that suits Alex and his appreciation of wilderness and wildlife as comfortably as his favorite bluejeans.
“Living in the clouds is a whole other world. At 8,436 feet, it’s intense. Every day you live with the wind. It gets your attention. Rocks can fly through the windows at 70 mph and it snows every month of the year up there,” recounts Alex, who thrives on the demands of the area as well as its roughhewn beauty.
“I see a little of everything. I’ve watched wolverines, mink, weasels, and black bears—even a mountain lion stalking a goat. For two or three weeks, before moving on to different pastures, mountain goats literally live with me,” notes Alex. “As many as five kids have played on the porch in the morning. And during evenings, I can walk along the ridge line and watch the moon rise while the sun sets. It’s so peaceful and silent then.”
In addition to staying watchful for potential conflagrations throughout this heavily forested region, Alex industriously maintains the inside and outside of the 78-year-old one-room building, which doubles as his residence and workplace.
“When I began volunteering here, I was told ‘this is your home’ and I took that to heart. I take pride that this is my house for the summer,” says Alex, who makes his own repairs and annually paints the lookout when he is not busy communicating weather and fire information to park personnel.
The tools of his trade are both historic and contemporary. At the older end of the spectrum is the Osborne fire finder, a type of alidade fire lookouts have depended on for decades to find a directional bearing to smoke for fire crews. At the newer end of the spectrum are the solar panels and batteries Alex relies on to power his laptop, cell phone, park radio, and digital camera.
According to Alex, the biggest mistake most newbie fire lookouts make is calling in “raindogs,” which in wild-land firefighting parlance is a false alarm.
“You have to be patient before you get everyone excited. After a good rainstorm, steam may rise that looks like smoke,” he explains. “You learn to not get in a hurry to call it in.”
When he does spot an authentic burn, he quickly sends digital pictures of it to park headquarters.
“Taking photos is one way lookouts have to make ourselves valuable to the park,” states Alex. “We can provide visual as well as written reports to show how much a fire has grown or to give a weather update.”
Not surprisingly, in between his daily tasks Alex serves as an ambassador to visitors who trek to his alpine abode. Glacier’s lookout buildings have always ranked high as hiking destinations and Swiftcurrent is no exception. During prime hiking season he welcomes some 1,600 stalwart trekkers who have tackled 36 uncompromising switchbacks to reach the lookout from Swiftcurrent Pass. They begin showing up around 10 in the morning and continue till about 6 when Alex starts thinking about fixing dinner.
“I’ve been fortunate to travel. But I’m also fortunate to live in a place where the world comes to me—Africans, Israelis, Palestinians, Bulgarians, Koreans, Japanese, Europeans,” cites Alex. “People have so many wonderful questions to ask. And I have questions for them about their countries. Everyone who gets to the lookout wants to be up there and is happy to be there, especially those who struggle with the hike and are proud to make it.”
Although Alex maintains a firm policy that entering the lookout is by invitation only, he enjoys putting on the tea kettle for guests—be they from near or far—when circumstances allow.
 “But no matter who comes by,” he adds, “my binoculars are always out to check the viewshed. My job is to watch for fires though it is also an ambassadorship.”           
Of all the park’s lookout sites, Swiftcurrent was the one Alex felt especially drawn to. Perched in the middle of Glacier’s one-million-plus acres, it continues to lure him like a thirsty man to cool water.
“There are not many places you can go without seeing mankind’s intrusion. I’m a loner by nature and find solitude there. You hardly hear anything but the breath of the wind. It’s refreshing to be someplace where you can just think,” he says. “I look east in the morning and see where my great grandparents homesteaded near Fort Benton. I look west and see where I raised my family. Both are only a five-days’ ride apart on horseback to encompass my family’s Montana history. All that’s happened in my life is right there.”