The trail sign said it all: “.9 miles to the summit.”
“Stillwater Fire Tower boasts views of the Adirondack High Peaks 60 miles to the east, and Tug Hill Plateau’s 195 wind turbines to the west,” the tri-fold color brochure announced at the kiosk/sign-in register just beyond the convenient parking lot along Big Moose Road.
Friends of Stillwater Fire Tower (FSFT) are rightly proud of their newly refurbished trail and tower. It’s a historic landmark. The 1919 tower was closed in 1988 and reopened in 2016.
“Finding Station 77,” by Andrea C. Pedick in the October 2016 New York State Conservationist tells about the restored eyes-in-the-sky tower. “In August 2015, Jim Fox and the members of the Friends of Stillwater Fire Tower entered into a stewardship agreement with DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] to restore the tower. DEC provided and transported most of the materials, and in conjunction with the landowner, Lyme Timber Company, coordinated access. FSFT did the yeoman’s work on the tower. Over the course of a year, they replaced all the steps and landings, installed safety fencing on all eight staircases, replaced the cab’s floor and windows, and scraped, wire-brushed and painted the entire tower.”
I had been looking for a short, easy hike with an exceptional view for a physically challenged but mobile friend. The pretty forest hike that passes through private property turned out to be perfect. It’s a fine foliage season hike, but go early: The trail and tower are closed yearly during hunting season, from the second Tuesday in October to December 20.
It is very much in the romantic tradition to picture a solitary uniformed forest fire observer ready to greet climbers at the summit, where the restored forty-seven–foot steel tower rises from the granite bedrock, but those days are gone.
My parents introduced me to hiking Adirondack peaks topped with towers when I was four years old. I imagined the observers lived somewhat like hermits, picking up a few crumbs of news from the outside world by radio and from the occasional visitors, but for the most part communing primarily with chipmunks. I knew their sole job was to spot forest fires, but I didn’t comprehend at the time how lonely and boring the job must have been.
I remember that one time George Clair, the legendary Stillwater observer (1941 to 1964), commented, “more people visit fire towers every year,” but he didn’t know why. Perhaps it was the draw created when the Conservation Department (predecessor of today’s DEC) hung out a sign, “Forest Fire Observatory; Public Welcome.” They kept it visible long enough so that the public responded. Perhaps people became sportier than they used to be. Or, maybe they were just plain interested in fire towers.
I was. When Martin Podskoch published the two-volume Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, Northern Districts (2001) and Southern Districts (2003), I couldn’t wait to read about the histories of all the towers I had climbed over the decades and the lives of the observers who lived in tiny cabins at the bases of “their” mountain, or sometimes near the summit tower. In her September-October 2016 Adirondack Life article, “High Profile,” Annie Stoltie summarizes the towers’ significance: “Thirty-two of these steel structures remain on summits within the Blue Line. Though they’re no longer used to spot fires…, they tell the story of our landscape and its keepers; they deliver us even closer to the clouds and, for some Adirondackers, trigger a passionate connection to a place worth caring about.”
Visiting a fire tower doesn’t take any particular training. All that is needed is a knowledge of where the trail starts, a willingness to put one foot ahead of the other for an hour or two, and a determination to keep going even after the trail gets steep. See the excerpt from ADK’s new fire towers book on page 18 of the September-October Adirondac for directions to the Stillwater tower trailhead and a technical description of the trail.
Article written by William J. O’Hern
For the full article with images and more descriptions, pick up your September-October edition of the Adirondac available today. Members can view the magazine in their Members Area on the website. Non-members can purchase the magazine in our online shop.