Azure tower gets 2nd life

Hikers delight in panorama

By Neal Burdick

Neal Burdick, Eileen Van Duyne and Sandra Hildreth atop Azure Mountain in the northern Adirondacks in July. Photos by John Barron.

You might say I’ve come full circle on Azure Mountain. When I was 12 or 13, a friend and I climbed it and then clambered up the fire tower’s rickety stairs. The fire observer, a slim and grizzled but cordial old-timer, pointed out landmarks on his table-mounted map and showed us how to ascertain the location of a suspicious wisp of smoke.

He wrote our names on wallet cards proclaiming that we had climbed the tower, and then we scrambled down, assuring each other we weren’t scared of the exposure.

When I next hiked up Azure, years later, the tower was abandoned. The lower flights of stairs were gone, the cab’s window glass lay in shards on the summit, and the tower’s steel superstructure had rusted like a gargantuan Erector Set left out in the rain.

But on my most recent ascent, this past summer, the tower was open again, sparkling in a fresh coat of paint. The stairs and cab woodwork had been replaced, the roof repaired and the broken glass picked up. I was a boy again, racing up the stairs to savor the 360-degree view.

To the east was the familiar pyramid of Whiteface; to the southeast St. Regis Mountain, identifiable by its own tower, with Algonquin and Marcy beyond; to the southwest the vast forests of the Tupper Lake-Cranberry Lake country, rolling away like swells in a great ocean; near at hand low wooded summits with names like Brushy Top and Lost that hardly anybody pays attention to; and finally to the north the flat St. Lawrence Valley, the river a silver thread near the horizon. An approaching squall—wind gusts punching through the cab (which no longer has glass), veils of rain smudging out the landscape below us—forced us down, but not before I’d been able to prove to myself that up there one can see from Quebec Province to Blue Mountain and the High Peaks, with precious little sign of civilization in between.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

All this once came within two days of being impossible. That was how long the 83-year-old tower had left in the summer of 2001, when a fortuitous phone conversation between Jack Freeman of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) and Tom Martin of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) saved its life. Freeman explains: “We were speaking about the fate of the St. Regis and Hurricane towers and were about to hang up when Tom said in passing that in two days a crew would be taking down the tower on Azure. I had already been in contact with Carolyn Kaczka [an active ADK member in Potsdam] about a restoration effort and just about fainted when he spoke of demolition. ‘Tom, you shouldn’t do that,’ I said.”

Freeman explained that the tower, along with six others, was a nominee for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, with acceptance imminent. That listing soon came through; Azure was the only one of the seven that had not been at least partially restored. Martin told Freeman that a restoration effort was needed “or DEC might remove the tower anyway.”

Out of that concern was born Azure Mountain Friends, a local organization that mobilized quickly and effectively to begin restoration of the tower. Under the leadership of Kaczka and Mike McLean, a DEC employee from St. Regis Falls, $15,000 was raised, materials were found, work crews were organized, a 45-page guide to the mountain was published, and trail stabilization projects were initiated.

The Azure Mountain tower in winter before its restoration. Photo by Sandra Hildreth.

Why go to all that trouble to restore a relic? “Without these towers, we might not have all these miles of forest to look at,” says Sandra Hildreth, an artist who was serving as the volunteer summit steward on the day of my climb. “That’s why it’s important to have them restored.” McLean, who as of mid-July had climbed the relentlessly steep mile to the summit 403 times with a full pack, as training for climbs of Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, says, “Losing the tower would be losing a huge part of the mountain.”

I said I’d come full circle on Azure Mt.  Not quite. After a new map table is placed in the cab, which should happen before Sept. 27, when dedication ceremonies will be held on the summit and in St. Regis Falls High School, the restoration will be nearer to completion. For now, I have a new card, again announcing that I’ve climbed the Azure Mountain fire tower. I just wish I could find the one I got when I was a kid.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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