Trail Chat with Samsara Duffey: US Forest Service Sentry

Samsara visiting Cinnamon Lookout (LO) in October 2015 with Josie & Rye. Photo by Megan Vandenheuvel.
Have you ever rented a Forest Service lookout tower? The Forest Service rents lookout towers for a nominal fee. The lookout tower trek varies from drive yourself to the tower to a long arduous hike to a mountain peak. Most come equipped with a wood burning stove, tables, chairs, wood bed with mattress, flies J , log book, some friendly critters and best of all the experience of witnessing in solitude the beautiful ever-changing orange and red sky as the sun sets.

Samsara Duffey grew up in Helena, is an avid hiker, photographer, trail runner, creator of beautiful shawls and clothing, and has spent the last 20 summers of her life working in solitude for the Forest Service scanning the landscape for fires from a high perch of a lookout tower. Having vacationed in various rent-able lookout towers and finding the experience enriching and rewarding, I was inspired to discover Samsara’s intrepid nature and her continuing desire to explore the outdoors through her solitary work as a sentry.

Samsara working.  Photo by Mark Duffey

Please tell the readers about yourself and about your path to living in an isolated mountain top lookout?

I was born outside of Missoula and my family moved to Helena when I was 3. Growing up we would camp and spend lots of time outdoors. The only sport I stuck with was swimming and I continue to enjoy it. When I was 16 my mom and I were camping in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 3 habituated grizzlies entered our camp and were able to pull our food packs out of the trees. Subsequently, the mother was killed and the cubs were shipped to the Little Rock, AR, Zoo. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about why the situation happened and the actions that contributed to their removal from the ecosystem. I also made a promise that I would work to prevent this kind of situation happening in the future.

In working toward this goal, I attended the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and earned a B.S. in Wildlife Biology, but the idea of only studying wildlife didn’t thrill me. I attended The University of Montana, Missoula, for 3 years and studied human/non-human interaction ethics and education.

Patrol Lookout in September 2015. A typical fall snow storm. Rye sitting on the north side. PC: Samsara
Before you met your husband a few years ago, you spent many summers living alone in a lookout tower. What did those experiences teach you about yourself and life?

This will be my 20th summer at my lookout. I would have to say that living there has taught me to be comfortable with myself. It is a little trite, maybe, but lookout living encourages the embodiment of “Know thyself” adage. I feel that I have become a stronger person in many ways, most of which are difficult to put into words. I know what I am willing to put up with or do and where I am less flexible. I have learned my strengths and weaknesses. I have learned that simple living is not “a rut” or a bad thing. I have learned that time passes, no matter what I’d like to see happen. Each moment is a joy and should be lived to its fullest. I guess, in short, I’m still learning how to live focusing on “now” and living a mindful life.

What draws you to spending your summers alone in a Forest Service lookout tower?

Initially it was just a job in a really neat place. Now it is a solace and a revitalizing of my life and spirit. I like being able to slow down to take the time feel the wind and watch the sunrises and sunsets. I love watching weather coming in, or happening around me. I love the work and being able to assist with whatever is needed from radio relays for emergencies to helping fire fighters understand the terrain and weather in the area. I work with wonderful people whom I may not recognize if I pass them on the street, but know their voices the second they key the radio mic.

Patrol Lookout from the ridge to the south, looking north. PC: Samsara
What unique things did your parents do to shape you, and how has your name, Samsara (translated from Swahili to mean “a wandering through”) influenced you?

I don’t know if how my parents raised me and my sister is unique, but we spent lots of time outdoors. We would camp on the weekends and we would go to summer swim meets. We hiked, skied, and camped. Maybe those experiences instilled a love of the simple life in me that I am still searching for.

I didn’t know the Swahili translation. I’ve always heard the Sanskrit and tie to Buddhism where my name deals with the suffering of life as a soul works toward Nirvana. I’m not sure how my name has influenced my life other than it has provided openings for conversations and meeting remarkable people.

Samsara and Mark during a winter trip into the Scapegoat. PC: Samsara
What rentable lookout towers would you suggest for runners seeking miles of runnable trails? 

There are many rentable sites that different agencies maintain. I’d recommend checking with the local land management office in the area where you would like to run to see if there are any facilities in that area. In Montana, there are many rental LOs on the Kootenai and Lolo NFs, but many other cabins scattered through out our public land. All rentals need to be reserved through and there is additional information about the sites on each listing. One thing to be aware of (and check on) is the seasonal availability of a site. Some lookouts are rentals in the winter, but are staffed either full time in the summer or in case a fire is close. Others, like Hornet Peak, have a limited season from June to October. You can make reservations only as far as 6 months out, so now is a good time to start planning and dreaming of a fantastic run!

On top of Scout Mountain during the SMUT 60K in 2015. PC: Samsara
How does one rent a lookout tower and what should one bring?

For any rental facility like a lookout or cabin one should be prepared for minimally provided amenities. Details of what will be at the site can be found on the reservation page, but be prepared with bedding, a variety of clothing (think layers), a water purification system, and a light source. Most sites say that there is no potable water and recommend you haul your own. Check with the local land manager to get additional recommendations.

Samsara with the snow coach "Shoshone", a 1979 Bombardier. This is one of 8 that the company runs into Yellowston National Park in the winter. Photo by David Alder
What is your one wish to make the world a better place and why?

I wish for everyone to live a joyful life. It is too easy to tend toward negativity which pulls everyone (yourself & everyone you interact with) down. Joy helps dispel hatred, anger, and negative competition and allows each of us to live a full, happy life.

Samsara's beautiful handmade Snowflake Shawl (Samsara's pattern) hanging on a tension wire at Patrol LO.
PC: Samsara
Thank you Samsara for the interesting interview. Your passion for the outdoors, intimate connection with nature, words of wisdom, and having the courage to follow what you project as your inner direction is inspiring. We wish you the best in running and life.
Samsara's handmade Snowflake sweater created for a friend on the rocks at the lookout. PC: Samsara
Samsara finishing Pocatello 50 mile in 2012. Photo by Bryan Johnson


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