Last fire observer savors vistas once again
By Phil Brown
Looking north, we see nothing but hills and trees and clouds and blue sky for 60 miles. The High Peaks outline the distant horizon. We’re trying to make out the slides on Gothics.
“Holy cow! I never thought I’d be up here again.”
That’s Bryan Clothier speaking, the last fire observer on Spruce Mountain, as he climbs the mountain’s fire tower for the first time in 15 years. He’s obviously delighted to be here.
“It’s amazing how little things have changed,” he remarks. “It was such a beautiful view, such a beautiful way to spend the summer.”
Clothier, now 61, spent 10 halcyon summers in this tower, scanning the horizon for forest fires. When things were slow, which was often, he taught himself to paint with acrylics and to wood-carve. His painting of the tower hangs in the living room of his 19th-century farmhouse in Corinth.
“You could sit up here and look out over the countryside for fires and the whole time you were enjoying yourself painting,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get up the tower. It was kind of like entering your own little world.”
On this day, Clothier has left his paints behind, but he soon lapses into his old habit of watching the countryside. “There you go!” he says, pointing to a column of smoke a few miles to the south. In a minute, it vanishes, and he concludes that the smoke was actually a cloud of lime created by an application of fertilizer.
“There’s a little smoke coming up,” he says, now looking to the east. “Probably nothing more than a campfire.”
In his years in the tower, Clothier learned to distinguish between real forest fires and false alarms. He thinks the state made a mistake when it phased out the tower observers in favor of aerial surveillance. “It’s kind of like canceling your fire insurance,” he says. He points out that he was paid less than $10,000 for 30 weeks and received no benefits. “That’s a pretty good bargain for somebody’s eyes, ears and knowledge of the terrain,” he says.
Now that the tower is not needed, its fate is uncertain. The lower steps have been removed in an attempt to prevent people from climbing it, but hikers have piled rocks at its base to provide a footing to boost themselves onto the first landing. From there, they go up the remaining steps to the cab. The 1.1-mile trail to the tower is no longer maintained, although state markers can still be seen on trees and hikers have created cairns along the route. Nevertheless, the trail is hard to follow in places because it traverses private land that has been logged heavily.
Without the tower, there is no view to speak of. The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) would like to see it preserved. Jack Freeman, who wrote the club’s guide to fire-tower trails, Views from on High, has spoken with a dozen or so people willing to work on a committee to preserve the structure. One of them is Steve Schriber, who lives less than two miles from the mountain. “It’s a great view,” he says. “You can see all of the Green Mountains down to the Taconics; you can see Albany with the Catskills off in the distance, and to the north you can see some of the High Peaks.”
In his book, Freeman listed the Spruce tower as one of five in the Adirondacks “that may not last.” Two of them, on St. Regis and Hurricane mountains, are in parts of the state Forest Preserve where land-use rules forbid most man-made structures. The tower on Mount Adams (see page 10) will be in the same boat if, as expected, that mountain is added to the High Peaks Wilderness. But Freeman now thinks the towers on Spruce and Lyon Mountain, which is owned by Domtar Ind-ustries, can be preserved if the public shows an interest in them.
Because the Spruce summit is not state land, there is no concern about violating Forest Preserve regulations. But there are other complications: The trail starts on Forest Preserve but soon turns onto land owned by a private individual and then crosses land owned by International Paper before reaching the summit, which is owned by Saratoga County.
IP spokesman Robert Stegemann said the timber company does not mind if hikers cross its land as long as they stick to the trail and don’t litter or otherwise misuse the property. “If they abuse the privilege, we won’t be able to keep the trail open,” he said.
Likewise, Richard Baker, who owns 100 acres on Spruce, said hikers may cross his land. In fact, now that Baker has finished logging the property, he would like to sell it to the state. Asked what his selling price would be, Baker replied, “It would depend on what they’re willing to pay. It wouldn’t be that much.”
Saratoga County is the only landowner with reservations about public access. The county has erected relay towers on the summit for fire, police and ambulance communications, and David Wickerham, the county administrator, worries that vandals might damage the equipment. Nevertheless, he said the county is willing to look at the access issue.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation still owns the fire tower. DEC spokesman David Winchell said the agency has no plans for it. If Baker wants to sell the land, Winchell added, he should contact DEC’s Real Property Unit.
Bryan Clothier can attest to the lure of the Spruce Mountain fire tower. When he was the observer, he could count on visitors just about every day when the weather was nice. Usually, they drove up the gravel utility road, which is now closed to public traffic. Most of the time he welcomed the company.
“One day these two Hells Angels types drove up on their motorcycles,” he recalls. “They appeared to be high on something. The three of us were squeezed into the cab. They were fantasizing about what it would be like to throw me off the tower. I was scrunched down in my chair hoping this was a bad dream. It was one of those times when you wondered whether the pay was worth it.”
Luckily for Clothier, those times were few and far between.
From the traffic light at the three-way intersection of Main Street and NY 9N in downtown Corinth, drive south on 9N for 3.1 miles to Wells Road. Turn right and go 2 miles to the end at Spruce Mountain Road. Turn right and go 0.2 miles to a large parking lot.