By Phil Brown
Wakely Mountain has much in common with Blue Mountain. Both fall just short of High Peak status; both offer outstanding views of the central Adirondacks, and both have fire towers. But Blue has something Wakely doesn’t: crowds.
When I climbed Wakely on a weekday in late June, I saw no other hikers, and no one else had signed the trail register. On the drive home, I stopped to examine the register at Blue Mountain and discovered that at least 38 hikers had climbed that popular peak.
The difference in numbers is easy to explain. The Blue Mountain trail begins just up the road from the Adirondack Museum, one of the Park’s major attractions. Many people who visit the museum also climb the mountain. Although Wakely is just 12 miles away, as the raven flies, its trailhead lies far off the main highway.
Wakely would get even less foot traffic if the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) dismantles the 80-foot fire tower, the tallest in the Adirondacks. From the tower, you are treated to a wilderness panorama that includes Raquette Lake, Cedar River Flow, Moose River Plains, the “Little Great Range” of Snowy, Panther and other mountains, and the High Peaks. Without the tower, there is no view to speak of.
The tower’s fate is uncertain. Wakely Mountain sits on the border of the Moose River Plains Wild Forest and Blue Ridge Wilderness. The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan created a 120-acre Primitive Area for Wakely, with the proviso that the parcel should be added to the Blue Ridge Wilderness “once the fire tower on Wakely Mountain is no longer needed.”
Although the fire tower has been abandoned for years, Peter Bauer of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks argues that it should not be torn down.
“There are many things in the State Land Master Plan that are subject to interpretation,” he said. “There is a new and needed use of the fire tower for recreational and cultural purposes.”
Bauer’s group and the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) both want to see the summit (and perhaps the trail) classified as Wild Forest, where fire towers are permitted, and the rest of the Primitive Area classified as Wilderness, where towers are considered an unnatural intrusion.
The Adirondack Council, however, wants the whole parcel added to the Blue Ridge Wilderness. Spokes-man John Sheehan contends that stretching “the plain language” of the master plan could set a dangerous precedent inasmuch as preservationists often rely on the plan in their battles to protect natural resources. “The tower has to come out,” he said. “Regardless of its recreational value, clearly a decision has been made that it can’t remain.”
But ADK counsel Neil Woodworth said the Adirondack Park Agency, which oversees the master plan, has flexibility to maneuver. One option is to amend the State Land Master Plan—a relatively rare occurrence. Woodworth, however, argues that an amendment would not be necessary if the APA simply votes to classify the summit as Wild Forest. Since the plan’s recommendation on the tower’s removal pertains only to the Wakely Primitive Area, he said, it would no longer apply to the reclassified mountaintop. Either way, the APA would have to hold public hearings.
DEC will address the issue in its unit management plan for the Blue Ridge Wilderness, which is now in the works. At a public meeting in June, numerous people spoke in favor of keeping the tower; none advocated its removal. The plan must be submitted to the APA for approval.
The hiking community has long been divided over the place of fire towers in the “forever wild” Forest Preserve. Many hikers see them as part of the Park’s heritage and as an extra incentive to climb a mountain. But others regard them as a blot on the natural landscape.
DEC plans to dismantle towers on St. Regis and Hurricane mountains this fall or next spring. On these summits, hikers enjoy magnificent views without going up the towers. In fact, both towers have been closed to the public for years. None of the environmental groups opposes their removal.
Gary Randorf, a naturalist with the Adirondack Council, believes hikers could still enjoy Wakely even if the tower is removed. “There’s more to climbing a mountain than simply the view at the top,” he said. “You also get the pleasure of hearing the birds and seeing the plants and the forest.”
Yet it’s hard to imagine most hikers relishing such an arduous climb without a reward at the top. At 3,760 feet, Wakely ranks as one of the Park’s tallest mountains outside the High Peaks region. Reaching the summit entails an ascent of 1,650 feet—1,200 feet in the last mile.
The trail begins easily enough. For the first two miles, it follows an old logging road with gradual grades and a few stream crossings. (This stretch would make a good mountain-bike route if the trail is classified as Wild Forest.) An old sign indicates where the trail takes a sharp right. The real climb is about to begin.
Before making the turn, you might want to continue straight a short distance to explore a large beaver meadow populated by gray-white boulders and skeletal snags. Once the site of a beaver pond, the meadow has filled in the area enough that you can walk through it. A remnant of the pond remains near the old beaver lodge.
Returning to the trail, you’re now on a footpath rather than an old road. As the trail steepens, you’ll be walking much of the time on bedrock slabs. The forest changes quickly from hardwoods to balsam-spruce. You’ll be amazed at the variety of verdant hues from the trees, moss, lichens and ground cover. On a sunny day, it’s like walking through a green prism.
A few minutes before the top, you’ll come to a level section with a partial view through the trees of Cedar River Flow. If the tower is taken down, this will be the best view of the hike. As you approach the tower, you’ll pass a side trail to the right that leads to a wooden helipad, which was used to fly in supplies for the fire observer.
In the clearing below the tower are the vacant observer’s cabin, a picnic table, an outhouse and, on the day I was there, clouds of blackflies. I climbed the tower to get away from the bugs as much as to take in the panorama. From the cab, I enjoyed the vistas in peace. Although the sky was hazy, I could see Raquette Lake to the northwest, Cedar River Flow and the Snowy-Panther range to the southeast, and Blue Mountain to the northeast. On a clear day, you can see the High Peaks. Even on this day, the vastness of the wild landscape was impressive.
After descending the tower, I hunted around for views from the ground. There was one break in the trees that afforded a glimpse of Cedar River Flow. I followed a path in that direction, hoping it would lead to a lookout, but all I found were broken glass, rusty cans and a garter snake. As far as summit vistas, that’s about it.
As I was leaving, I noticed again a primitive wooden sign that someone had fixed to the bottom of the gigantic steel structure looming over me. “SAVE THIS TOWER,” it read.
Now, that’s what I call a clear view.