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Before Class: Five summers of solitude

October 6, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
Before he became a junior high language arts and social studies teacher, Gord Holland spent five summers as a forest fire lookout in Northern Alberta.

The solitude was most profound in the evenings.

With a dark blanket of quiet enveloping the northern Alberta forest clearing that was his summer home, Gord Holland would hunker down in his three-room cabin, light some candles and settle in for some Scrabble, dealing out two sets of tiles, one for him and the other for himself, since there was no one else around for miles and miles.

The intense quiet heightened his sense of solitude and provided some of the most peaceful and enjoyable times of his career as a forest lookout.

"I knew it was an experience that wasn’t going to last," he says, "and I knew it was something really to be treasured."

Simple job

For five summers in the early 2000s, Holland operated one of Alberta’s 128 forest lookouts, which are sprinkled throughout the province’s forested regions. Holland spent all of his seasons at the Talbot Lake lookout, a remote site located approximately 130 kilometres northeast of Manning, in a vast sea of trees interrupted only by the odd cutline, gas plant and Highway 88, as well as a scattering of lakes and rivers.

It was a job he’d read about in a magazine and knew he wanted to try. And he knew he’d made the right decision as soon as the helicopter dropped him off on his first day.

"When they took off, I just felt like I was home," he says. "It was a weird, weird feeling but ... I knew that’s where I wanted to be."

Every day for four months straight, Holland’s job duties included gathering and reporting weather data twice daily. He also maintained the yard, buildings and generator. But his main duty was to occupy the eight-by-eight-foot cupola that sat atop the 100-foot steel tower and watch for errant smoke.

The fire hazard level dictated how much time was required "upstairs" on any given day. Hot, dry weather could mean as many as 12 hours in the tower, whereas wet or foggy days meant a day off from climbing.

When in the cupola, Holland was responsible for an area defined by a 40-kilometre radius of the tower, which is almost equal to the area of Prince Edward Island.

"Looking out over that much forest in every direction — mind-blowing," he says.

He says that once he was familiar with the rolling green hills surrounding his tower, his naked eye could easily detect any visual irregularities. He also had binoculars to help confirm any suspicious sightings.

In forestry parlance, lookouts report smokes, which aren’t referred to as fires until they’re investigated and found to be wildfires. Upon spotting a smoke, the lookout uses a firefinder — a ring with compass points and a sighting device — to estimate a location, which he then reports by radio.

"I remember my first year telling another tower man that, when I would see a smoke ... I felt like a cross between Mr. Bean and Harold from The Red Green Show," Holland says. "You sort of dance around a little bit [saying], ‘Oh gosh, oh gosh, oh gosh.’"

Some seasons he had only two smokes; others he reached between 10 and 20.

The remoteness of his site meant that the smokes he spotted were invariably due to lightning rather than human activity. As he gained experience, Holland could tell when ominous storm cells were preparing to lash out.

"You could just sense that something was going to happen, the conditions were right and you were totally ready," he says.

Of all the smokes that Holland reported during five years, there’s one that still haunts him. It came up very suddenly, already large and black (a sign of a highly vigorous fire) within a few kilometres of the tower. It ended up growing into a very large fire that took weeks to suppress and threatened to engulf the tower site, forcing authorities to evacuate Holland and send him home.

After a few weeks, he was allowed to return. The site was intact but a lot of the surrounding area was in charred ruins.

As it turned out, the fire was in a spot that was classified as blind, due to the topography, so it wasn’t his fault that he hadn’t spotted it until it was well advanced.

"In hindsight, there was nothing I could do about it," he says.

Storms didn’t have to produce smokes to be eventful. Holland rode out plenty of spectacular storms in the cupola, whose thin fibreglass roof and walls created a deafening cacophony under the violent pounding of rain and hail. Meanwhile, the entire tower would shake and rattle under high winds.

Forestry officials had assured lookouts that the towers’ robust grounding systems made them the safest places to be during a lightning storm, so Holland took their word for it and enjoyed the shows from his 10-storey perch.

"I’m not a big fan of lightning storms. I’m like the dog that curls up under the porch when I hear them coming, but when I was up at the tower, I just felt so safe. It was weird, but I loved it."

Laid-back lifestyle

Most days passed without any hint of storm or smoke activity, so Holland did a lot of reading, some woodcarving and a bit of banjo picking.

"I didn’t know I could stare out a window and think absolutely no thoughts for so long," he says.

For Holland, it was a simple existence of being surrounded by nature and partaking in simple pleasures.

"The really exciting thing up at the tower was when it would rain and the water barrels would get full. You could do dishes or have a shower without having to go into your drinking water supply," he says.

There was a trail that left his clearing, which he explored just a few times, to the delight of the local blackfly population. Traffic the other way was limited mostly to moose and lynx. Bears also weren’t rare.

"Those casual encounters with nature, with different animals just passing through, those were really fun to watch."

The odd wildlife encounter provided fodder for later storytelling, such as the lynx that wandered into the clearing and spent half an hour cleaning and sunning itself like a content house cat, the bear that ripped a screen off the cabin and the wolves that awakened him one night with their howling, sounding as if they were right outside the window.

During Holland’s five seasons, only about three or four human visitors ventured up the trail into his site. He did feel connected to the outside world through the forestry radio and a built-in cellphone system, but the only guaranteed source of face-to-face contact was when a forest officer would fly in with his groceries and mail.

"It was just two people once a month and then I could hardly wait for them to leave," he says.

Something more permanent

Being a lookout was the culmination of a lifetime spent doing "a lot of this and that," for Holland. Some of his other jobs included testing water in the Yukon for a summer and cabinetmaking with his uncle for several years. When he started on towers, he knew from the outset that he wasn’t going to be a "lifer," as some are.

By the time he’d reached his fourth season, he’d met and married a teacher named Kim, and was actively seeking a direction with more permanence and meaning.

"It was a time in my life of complete change, new beginnings, new direction, reinventing myself," he says.

His tower experience solidified the notion that working with people was important to him, and he was also attracted to the idea of working in a learning environment. So, in his late 30s, he went back to university to pursue a teaching degree.

"You get the stories that people always wanted to be a teacher. Well, that’s not the case for me," Holland says. "Overall, the package seemed attractive.

A decade in class

Holland has been teaching junior high — mostly language arts and social studies — for 10 years in Penhold.

Holland’s wife, who also teaches at Penhold Crossing Secondary School, says his interest in the subject matter and sense of humour enable him to connect with students of junior high age, and he’s also able to incorporate his vast background into classroom lessons.

"From my perspective it’s an excellent fit," Kim says. "I just see how he interacts with the students."

But how can someone who was so suited for extended periods of intense solitude also be suited for the extended periods of intense interaction that come with being a schoolteacher? Like most questions, that one causes Holland to pause, consider and answer thoughtfully.

"The thing about teaching that I latched onto at the beginning, and that really seemed like a good fit, was that it really feels purposeful," he says. "There is something about working with and being with people in that purposeful setting — I can’t think of a word other than ... rewarding."

Holland’s five years at the tower were a time of being really reflective and considering life’s big questions. By the time he went into teaching, he had a profound understanding of himself and his values, which he says he was able to bring to the classroom.

"I really feel like having life experience makes me feel more confident as a teacher," he says.

Other than the fact that they both require patience, he says there’s really no commonality between teaching and towering.

"There are times I’m just really struck by [how] they are nothing alike, and I feel it’s kind of odd that I went into teaching," Holland says. "But I’m glad I did."

Looking back on his life, Holland wouldn’t change much.

"Mostly I would do the same things again, but I would ... wrap up the self-exploration and exploring 10 years earlier," he says.

Despite his satisfaction with his chosen profession, Holland often thinks of the tower life.

"There are times at school when I think, ‘I would just like to be alone for a day. I would love to just stand and look out a window.’"

Before Class

Before Class is a profile series about teachers who’ve had interesting jobs before entering the teaching profession. Instalments will appear in the ATA News periodically throughout the school year. If you know of a teacher who would be a good subject for such a profile, please contact managing editor Cory Hare:

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