Saddleback Look-out: Remote, not always serene |

Saddleback Look-out: Remote, not always serene

Now in his mid-fifties, Mike Gates has celebrated 14 birthdays as a firewatcher atop Tahoe National Forest look-outs. Far from his Florida home, in 2000 his experience on Saddleback Mountain Look-out above Downieville was “special.”

Rose had come up from Downieville to spend the day. Most often Mike doesn’t see anyone for four or five days in between visitors. A Nevada City/Grass Valley resident for many years, Rose met Mike years earlier when visiting Saddleback with her boyfriend. Now, Rose was special.

The afternoon sky darkened; gigantic clouds piled thousands of feet into a threatening thunderstorm. Casting an eerie purple glow onto evil gray clouds, lightning slashed across the ominous skies. During a break, sunrays split into double rainbows arching above the Sierra Buttes; then another lightning cell passed.

The exceptional day ended with a bang: Lightning struck the rod on Saddleback’s roof. With an enormous crack, night air in the cabin flashed into an instant explosion. Rose bolted awake off the bed where she was napping and for extra protection stood atop the lightning insulated footstool with glass feet. Mike remained standing, taking dozens of photographs. The smoke alarm set off a racket far greater than any birthday party noisemaker.

Saddleback is always remote but not always quiet or serene.

The ever changing, sacred blue or ominous gray skies and lightning are why he and Rose drive thousands of miles from Florida each spring and back again in late fall. He tracks strikes to look for wildfires early on. And he takes hundreds of photos. The first is a job, the second a passion.

Mike says, “I return to Saddleback more for photo opportunities than even the keen satisfaction of being a firewatcher. I’ve learned every photogenic rock, tree or snag. Yet each day, every year, settings change because lighting changes.”

“I have more images of Saddleback and Sierra Buttes than anyone. Even though pictures of the Buttes are always of the ragged crest jutting above the eastern skyline and constantly from the same angle, the light changes; clouds, colors in the sky and storms building then clearing transform the setting. Photography is all about the light.”

Mike appreciates that he’s nearly always ready to catch photo opportunities. As a contractor, he agrees to watch for fires each and every day – following storms, often well into night. Rose brings supplies. He seldom leaves; in the last six years, he has never taken a day off. “I love the joy of simple isolation.”

For nearly one-half year, his home is a 14’x14′ cabin, glass windows covering all four sides, a catwalk perched on stark, rock outcrops cresting Saddleback Mountain. Built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corp, it’s essentially unchanged. He sleeps, cooks, frequently looks around and walks the deck often. By the door sits his camera equipment. Mostly digital now, he keeps wideangle and telescope lens and a SLR for timed shots. He loves to listen to the radio; KVMR is his favorite station. The outhouse is a short walk away.

Mike carries a camera everywhere he goes – even to take weather readings or to the outhouse. “I made the very rare sighting of a weasel on a trip to the bathroom. These are images of a lifetime.”

For star trails, he does all-night shots with the shutter locked open. “The best are in the fall when a new moon doesn’t cause light pollution washing out the stars. I don’t have to worry about city lights. During long shots, I like to ‘paint’ highlights – setting flashes off in cabin windows or lighting candles.”

Lightning shots are time-elapsed composites usually over 30-minutes long. He feeds hummingbirds colored, sugar-water nectar in especially photogenic wine glasses. “They’re wine glasses, not wine. The Forest Service frowns on liquor.” He has the time, the place, and has taken numerous images over the years. Time to himself, to enjoy, is what he comes for.

Wildlife critters adopt him as a father figure. “Those that return often, we name. Busta and Calamity are California Ground Squirrels. One of a pair of chipmunks we’ve enjoyed has a nick in his ear. He’s Evander Holly Field, the other Mike Tyson. Rat L is his pet, or pest, rattlesnake.

“I look forward each year to sunrises over Sierra Buttes ridges. I’ve learned October 19 is the one date the sun rises directly over the Buttes. These photos are special. Sandhill Cranes flying over mark the harbinger of the season’s end. I anticipate White Pelicans migrating. Those times when it’s too cloudy or because of a wet fall I leave early, I’m disappointed.”

But, he’ll be back next year.

It’s a long backcountry drive to Saddleback.

Visit: for directions or call the Forest Service at 530-265-4531.

You can enjoy many of Mike’s best at:

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