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Family spends summers in fire tower; Idaho mountain top is second home

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PIERREPONT - Spending two months living in a tiny fire lookout tower on a remote Idaho mountain might not be everyone’s idea of a vacation, but one north country family can’t think of a better way to spend summer.

Thomas B. Van de Water and his wife, Betsy Kepes, 110 Orebed Road, have chosen to spend their summers that way for the past 33 years, and they don’t plan to stop anytime soon.

“I like really settling into the wilderness and going for weeks at a time without riding in a car,” Ms. Kepes related. “We hike everywhere and sleep out in tents and soak up the wild beauty,”

Each June after school ends, the couple pack up and head west to Idaho, where they work for the U.S. Forest Service until the end of August. Most years, they’ve been joined by their sons, Lee, 26, and Jay, 18. The brothers have joined their parents since they were babies.

“It’s very much a second home for us,” said Mr. Van de Water, a science teacher at Canton Central School. “We know all the plants and animals. We know where it’s safe to drink the water. It really is a very special place.”

When the couple started they were mainly clearing trails, but for the past 22 years they’ve also searched for fires from Cool Water Mountain, a wilderness mountain region in central Idaho. Their spot has scenic hiking trails that lead to two lakes.

Ms. Kepes said the western friendships established over the years, the natural beauty and the memories the family has created keep them eager to return each year.

“We’ve been going out west for so many years that we now have a community of friends there, people we’ve worked with over the years and who remain our friends,” she said.

Their work involves living in a tiny fire lookout building at about 7,000 feet elevation that’s equipped with bedding and a small cooking area with a wood stove, a propane stove and a small refrigerator.

The 144-square-foot building is cozy to say the least for a family of four. There is no electricity and water comes from an outdoor hand pump.

Thunderstorms and high winds are common in the midwest and most of the forest fires are caused by lightening storms which occur every few days, Mr. Van de Water said.

“Lightening strikes and you see the trees flare up into fire. Most go out and you have to look for the ones that keep going,” Mr. Van de Water explained.

When fires don’t extinguish, he calls them in to a radio dispatcher. Smoke jumpers or ground fire fighters respond to put out the blaze.

“If it’s in the wilderness areas, it’s usually allowed to burn. It’s part of the natural ecology,” he said. “Sometimes you have sleeper fires that have been burning underground and show up 10 days later.”

High wind speeds and lightening can be nerve wracking, but the lookout tower is safely grounded with several thick metal wires that run outside the building and underground to transfer electricity from the living space.

When they arrive each summer, the family drives a truck to a ranger station that’s about three miles below their lookout. They hike into their site equipped with supplies and vegetables like potatoes and carrots and non-perishable items like peanut butter and flour.

“We bake bread there and this summer I fished a bit so we had fresh fish to eat,” Mr. Van de Water said.

When the boys were small they spent countless hours playing outside, building forts and hiking with their parents. As they got older, the family was able to spend some of their indoor time reading books.

Each summer brings different adventures. Over the years the family has seen a variety of animals such as elk, moose, bear and cougars.

After their western adventure ends each August, Ms. Kepes said she’s glad to return to the north country, where she teaches piano and writes book reviews for North Country Public Radio.

“I do feel that Tom and I are like nomads,” she said. “We love both places that we live and work but definitely feel the need to move when the seasons change. I’m happy to be back home now. It’s so green here compared to the parched west,” she said.

How many more western trips ahead for the couple?

“We’ll probably do it as long as we’re physically able,” Mr. Van de Water predicted.

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