Fire tower book is a good gift for the holidays

“Views From On High,” by John Freeman and Jim Schneider

Almost as if on schedule, I received a copy of the newly published book, Views From On High: Fire Tower Trials in the Adirondacks and Catskills, by John Freeman and Jim Schneider, in time for consideration as a holiday gift. Published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, it marks the extensive revision of a similar but smaller guide originally published in 2001. All surviving fire towers in the Catskills and Adirondacks have been included this time, as have a handful of such structures outside the boundaries of either park.

Fire towers have long been part of Adirondack life. They were first built in the region after devastating series of blazes in 1903 and 1908 that destroyed hundreds of thousands of woodland acres. Many early observation towers were made of wood, itself flammable, of course. Consequently they were eventually replaced by steel models during the years leading up to World War I.

By the 1970s, most were decommissioned. Some were removed from Forest Preserve land; other simply decayed in place. Over recent decades quite a number have been rehabilitated, and no wonder. For many, they serve as reminders of early hiking experiences. Historic preservation advocates, most notably from Adirondack Architectural Heritage and also from local communities, have taken up the cause. And perhaps most importantly, they guarantee such wonderful views for those who reach and climb them.

The extensive preface and an appended history of fire towers are a must read. Evolution of tower construction is discussed, as is the influence Maine’s observation strategies had on New York’s own planning. I already knew that the absence of railroads, whose sparks and cinders could be blamed for many fires, led to a decrease of such incidents. From this book, I learned that over time, environmental officials realized that over 90 percent of early fire sightings came not from observers in towers, but from people on the ground, including the general public. Thus, even before the substitution of air surveillance, the role of towers was sharply diminished.

Although at one time, some conservationists argued for removal of these man-made additions to “Forever Wild” land, more recently efforts to save them has moved to the forefront. “Friends” organizations have often been the rallying points for saving surviving towers, both for their advocacy function and as sources of volunteer labor. Adding summer staff at several locations, including Blue Mountain, Mount Arab, and Poke-O-Moonshine, lets the preserved structures become foci for education. It’s striking to note that towers listed as being threatened in the earlier edition have all been restored to public access.

The book’s segments on each tower trail are well organized, with clear and easy-to-read maps and directions to fire tower trailheads, length and difficulty of hikes, and a bit of history for each. Also included is brief commentary on suitability for winter access.

Checklists in the back of the book will prove useful to those of us who like to tally up what we’ve accomplished in the mountains. A summary of trails of varying difficulty also makes it easy to pick out a hike for specific purposes, for instance, a child’s first venture in the region, or one still accessible to someone of advanced age (note that I don’t define this!).

Indeed, “Views From On High” could serve as a excellent holiday gift, both for Adirondack veterans and for absolute neophytes. I suspect over time it will become a part of many hikers’ libraries.