Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rondaxe Fire Tower: An Adirondack Beauty

Standing watch over the Fulton Wild Forest, the Rondaxe Fire Tower is dwarfed by immensity of a recovered wilderness.

The Rondaxe Fire Tower at 2,350 feet atop Bald Mountain is a much-loved hiker's destination just north of Old Forge in the southwestern region of the Adirondacks. The trail can often be crowded and loud, especially on summer holiday weekends, but this Monday morning I awoke early and made my way up in the predawn light. The trail is mostly across bare rock, a pink-gray gneiss with great grip and pitch. The spine of rock that leads to the tower lays exposed for over a mile on a scarp that falls away into the valley of the Fulton Chain of Lakes.

From the cab of the fire tower the Fulton Chain of Lakes fades into the dawn.

These are old pulp and timber company woods, forests purchased by the state of New York generations ago that have recovered from lumbering and now are pretty much wild and continuous.
Stumps from the last cut-over are shrouded in deep moss. Logging roads are nearly grown over and no longer maintained, except for those that serve as snow mobile trails in winter. The Bald Mountain Trail is sometimes hand-over-hand on the steep pitch up, and once on the ridge, it's a mile out walk along the spine of the scarp that often less that few feet wide, but with plenty of places to pull over and explore or let another hiker pass.

The scarp to the southwest from the Rondaxe Fire Tower, looking towards Old Forge.

The trail along the emerging scarp.

This is ancient rock, a banded gneiss of the Pre-Cambrian Hudson Highlands, over a billion years old. Geologists once wondered why, being so old, these mountains have never worn away. Geodectic Survey crews had the answer. Periodically measuring precise elevations at levels from markers placed on dozens of mountain heights in the 1920s, modern surveyors note that these mountains are still rising! The Adirondacks continue to gain elevation, growing at a fast three millimeters a year. The whole region is a dome of rock in a slow-motion lift from below. The markers, resurveyed at regular intervals now using GPS/GIS systems, show a steady gain and with the advantage of satellite imaging, one can see the patterns of uplift in the visible faults and fractures of surface rock. Earthquakes and tremors are common, though barely felt at the surface.

US Geodetic Survey marker placed at the base of Rondaxe Firetower.

The fire tower is anchored to the narrow spine of rock and since its restoration in the 1990s is fully accessible to brave souls who climb its narrow stairway to the service cab at the top. Open views to the south, east, and west provide a continuous panorama of the Fulton Chain from the Fourth to Eighth Lakes. In the days of its service (1912 - 1990) the cab would have been enclosed with thick glass to protect the fire spotters inside from the strong and often biting winds that sweep up and over a high wall of rock. Inside the cab spotters would watch for plumes of smoke, triangulate the location of the burn site with the help of an Osborn Fire Finder radial map, and radio air or ground crews to direct them to the site.  It took a very rugged person to maintain watch in the cramped cab. Spotters often went weeks without seeing another person, camping below the tower for sleep, spending long days and stormy nights in the cab on watch.

Osborne Fire Finder map table in the cab of the Rondaxe Fire Tower, ADK.

Rondaxe Fire Tower

It was often the lure of seclusion of lookout service that attracted many good spotters. Some of my favorite authors and poets spent time alone on distant peaks writing their observations of nature, weather, seasons, and self.  Ed Abbey spent years serving spotter duty in several towers from Alaska to Arizona. Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Norman Macclean all wrote about their time as spotters. Many wrote of the difficult period of adjustment to society when their seasons ended, longing for the solitude and peace of the mountaintops. One of my favorite stories is of Romona Merwin who raised her family at 6,000 feet in a hut-style lookout at the top of Vetter Mountain in the San Gabriels Range, from 1955 to 1981.

Looking down on the Rondaxe Fire Tower from a seaplane after my hike.
Most fire towers were decommissioned by the National Forest Service in the 1980s and 1990s as technology replaced human spotters. The same has happened with lighthouses and coastal rescue stations. Many towers were removed due to vandalism and concerns over liability, but a few like Rondaxe have been restored and are again open for hikers. This one is a real beauty, thanks to the Friends of Bald Mountain who oversee its upkeep, trail maintenance, and (unfortunately) vandalism removal.


Romona Merwin, fire spotter, is interviewed here in preparation for the re-opening of her mountain-top home of twenty-five years,

Friends of Bald Mountain:

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