Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Newly Restored Fire Tower on St. Regis Mountain

As we neared the summit of St. Regis Mountain this past January, the conditions changed dramatically. Tree limbs — caked in snow and ice — hung down over the trail, and as we walked crouched through the tangle of branches, snow cascaded upon us.

“Most of the time I go past that rock outcropping, I feel like I’m home free,” said Doug Fitzgerald, co-chairman of Friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower. “Not today.”

The conditions slowed our travel, but the scenic beauty more than compensated for any inconvenience. The coating of ice and snow on the trees gave them a surreal quality as they glimmered in the afternoon light sneaking through the clouds. We soon emerged from the snow-covered woods onto an open expanse of rock covered by a layer of light snow.

“That was so unique,” Doug remarked after the trip. “I’m been up there countless times when everything is green and been up there, of course, in the winter and the fall when everything is gray or black or white, but that was pretty striking.”

Hikers can thank the surveyor Verplanck Colvin for the spectacular view from the 2,874-foot summit of St. Regis. In 1876, his crew started a fire to get rid of dead trees and brush. The blaze got out of control and burned the vegetation from much of the summit. On a clear day, you can see the High Peaks to the south, dozens of ponds in the St. Regis Canoe Area, and larger water bodies such as Lake Clear and Upper Saranac Lake.

As magnificent as this sounds, visitors can now obtain even better views from the restored fire tower. It had been closed for many years but was reopened to the public in September, thanks in large part to Doug’s group.

After arriving on the summit, Doug took in the vista (which, alas, was partially obscured by clouds) and then headed for the tower and started climbing the steps. The ice on the structure had grown so thick up high that he had to squeeze into the cab. Once inside, he enjoyed views in all directions, including places to the north that can’t be seen from the ground, such as Debar Mountain and Meacham Lake.

Doug has been visiting St. Regis Mountain since he was a student at Paul Smith’s College in the 1970s. After graduating, he taught forest recreation at the college. In the summers, he took his students to the mountain to teach them about trail maintenance. He later went to work for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, retiring as an operations supervisor in 2010. In recent years, he got involved with efforts to save the fire tower, which the state once planned to take down.

Doug estimates that he has hiked St. Regis more than fifty times, but he had never got to the top in the manner we did in late January. Starting at the public boat launch on Upper St. Regis Lake, we skied roughly two miles across the lake to the west shore.

Often, skiing across the frozen lake is a breeze, but we had to deal with ankle-deep snow on top of partially frozen slush. We tried skiing in icy snowmobile tracks, but they were too uneven. On the plus side, we had wonderful views of St. Regis Mountain and of rustic Great Camps along the shoreline. We also saw a bald eagle.

Apart from being passed twice by a lone snowmobiler, we didn’t see any people. That’s not surprising as most of the residences on the lake are closed during winter. On our way back, at sunset, we noticed only two homes with lights on. One belonged to Jim Cameron, a boat-builder whom I visited last summer for an article about makers of traditional Adirondack guideboats.

As we approached the far end of the lake, we skied on the north side of Ward Island and entered Averill Spring Bay. There we picked up the Teddy Roosevelt Trail, a route used by paddlers in other seasons. The trailhead is a bit hard to find, but there is a small dock jutting into the water and a sign a little into the woods. The sign and blue trail markers were installed last fall by DEC.

Here, we switched to hiking boots and snowshoes, leaving our ski boots and skis behind. From this trailhead, it’s about 2.3 miles to the summit. We had to break trail for about a mile until reaching the main hiking path that starts from Keese Mills Road. If you start from the main trailhead, the round trip is 6.6 miles. Our round trip, including the ski, was about nine miles. Though our route is longer, it offers greater variety and more scenery. Just be sure the skiing conditions are satisfactory.

At the outset, the Roosevelt Trail climbs steeply up an esker (a sinuous glacial deposit) and soon reaches a junction with a side trail. You bear left here to reach the hiking trail from Keese Mills Road, but we went right, taking a detour to find an old car, covered in snow, sitting in the woods, just a few hundred feet from the junction.

We returned to the Roosevelt Trail and continued hiking to the main hiking trail, where we turned left. For most of the way to the summit, the trail passes through a hardwood forest. Toward the end, it gets fairly steep. At this higher elevation, you’ll notice more evergreens as well as more birch trees.

After wildfires swept through the Adirondacks in the early twentieth century, the state stationed a fire observer on top of St. Regis starting in 1910. The fire tower was built in 1918 and staffed until 1990. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2010, the Adirondack Park Agency said the towers on both St. Regis and Hurricane mountains were in violation of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and should be removed. After a public outcry, the APA reversed course and classified a half-acre on both summits Historic Areas, a designation that allowed the towers to remain. However, officials said the state wouldn’t foot the bill to rehabilitate the towers. That would be left up to volunteer groups.

Friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower raised money and came up with a rehab plan, which was approved by DEC, and work began in 2015. Over the past two summers, the friends’ group partnered with the Adirondack Architectural Association on plans, and worked with the Student Conservation Association and DEC to fix up the cab and replace its roof and the stairs leading up to it.

Doug says there is still a lot of work to do. The cross-braces need to be replaced, which will likely cost more than $15,000. The group is also looking to continue the fire-tower steward program. Last summer, the friends partnered with the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute to put a steward atop the mountain one day a week to provide visitors information about the tower and the landscape. They also plan to install panels inside the tower with panoramic photos that identify key landmarks within view.

Friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower has a core group of five people and about twenty others who volunteer their time. “We’re far from done, and we’re looking for help,” Doug said.

Despite long days of work, including hikes at both ends, Doug has no regrets about signing up. He recalled being blown away by the view last September while installing railings on the last flight of stairs beneath the cab.

“You can see what most people consider the lakes region of the Adirondacks and you can see the High Peaks, so you’ve got the two most distinct geographic features in the Park,” he said. “That to me is part of the beauty of it.”

Photos by Mike Lynch: From above – Doug Fitzgerald crosses the summit of St. Regis Mountain; Doug Fitzgerald approaches the St. Regis fire tower; Doug Fitzgerald skis Upper St. Regis Lake; Wooden signs mark the start of the Roosevelt Trail; Ice encrusts the inside of the St. Regis fire tower’s cab; and an old car lies hidden in the woods.

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.


Mike Lynch

Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues.

Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.

From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake.

Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at mike@adirondackexplorer.org.




9 Responses

  1. Doug says:

    Great article. Thanks Mike.

  2. Scott says:

    It is a good thing APA was willing to do one acre spot zoning to get around the requirements of the State Land Master Plan or we would have had this tower removed.

  3. Kevin Sigourney says:

    Unfortunately, other 500-foot towers will be seen from this fire tower in the very near future. Wind farm towers (turbines) will be encroaching on the “Blue Line” and through state forests in Hopkinton and Parishville. These will be seen from many peaks, probably up to 75 miles or more away. However, the DEC and/or APA doesn’t seem to mind one bit.

    • Chaz says:

      Unless one just happens to live within walking distance of the newly restored St. Regis firetower, they would had to have driven their fossil fuel burning, NOx and CO2 emitting, vehicle some distance to get there.

      Even those driving e-vehicles are not immune from contributing, lest they have their very own alternative electricity generation facility with which they charged their vehicle. Save for the possibility, all that energy that went into their batteries came from a fossil fuel burning, NOx and CO2 emitting, power plant.

      Nobody seems to like the thought of new wind farms, or hydro generation dams, or nuclear power plants, or any other form of alternative energies. Exactly the same way they don’t think twice about their very own negative contributions to air quality.

  4. Charlie S says:

    “Unfortunately, other 500-foot towers will be seen from this fire tower in the very near future. Wind farm towers (turbines) will be encroaching on the “Blue Line”…”

    Unfortunately many birds will die as a result of these turbines. I’m all for alternative any thing but i’m iffy when it comes to the lives of our precious creatures and critters lives being put on the line so that us humans can once again be convenienced!

    When they erect these towers can it not be done in a way where some sort of intermittent beeping signal can be sent out from somewhere on their surfaces so that birds can be forewarned of danger ahead? Or do not those in charge even think about these things? It breaks my heart all of the damage done to the lesser species because us industrialists do not think ahead.

    • Boreas says:

      Charlie,

      It would be easy enough to install beepers or whistles on the blades, but the problem is, flying critters like birds and bats need to be taught what they mean. They have no instincts to avoid a huge blade since they can’t really conceptualize it as a danger as it is something foreign to both Earth and Nature. Streamers made of foil or something might get their attention, but right now it is simply gruesome Darwinism at work. And even if the blades don’t get them, skyscraper windows, pollution, and habitat loss will. Nature will likely be pretty dismal in a century or two.

  5. Charlie S says:

    We have the technology to send humans to the moon but we can’t come up with something to keep birds from crashing into man-made objects here on earth. Maybe if there were money in protecting the lesser species we’d put more effort into doing just that!

  6. Paul says:

    “convenienced”? Trying to generate power from the wind so that we make the planet a cleaner place to live and so that it might not be “pretty dismal in a century or so”. Seems to me like it doesn’t have much to do with convenience. Many more critters are going to perish if we don’t do things like this. Most of the opposition to these sorts of things is classic NIMBY. If we really cared about birds we would outlaw house cats. Charlie you don’t have a cat right? If you do, and its outside some, it probably kills more birds per year than one of these turbines. The current estimate is billions of birds per year in the US alone killed by house cats.

    • Boreas says:

      Paul,

      Animals (birds) have many predators. Cats are but one. Animals (birds) have instincts and reproductive mechanisms to avoid predators and/or negate their effects that have evolved over millions of years. Predators are a necessary part of nature.

      Wind turbines, communication towers with lights, skyscrapers, windows, etc. are all novel to nature and flying vertebrates. These animals have no mechanisms to cope or adapt quickly to the mortality these types of things present to their populations. We aren’t saying they should be abolished, rather we are asking what can be done to mitigate this unnatural mortality. These are but a few of thousands of different stressors that humans put on natural systems including pollution, habitat destruction, and warfare. Some of us feel that as co-habitants of Earth, we should at least try to minimize our negative impacts on Nature when we can. If these structures can be made or positioned to minimize impacts, shouldn’t we try?

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