“I’ve been waiting for this firetower to be restored since 1973,” said one of the volunteers as he introduced himself to my SCA crew and other volunteers before the work week. He was in his sixties, a retired DEC employee, and also part of the Friends of St. Regis local grassroots organization that’s been fighting to have the St. Regis Mountain Firetower fixed.
The St. Regis firetower was built in 1910 and wasn’t closed to the public until 1990, making it the longest operational firetower in the state. Firetowers were observation stations that for most of the twentieth century, were used to spot forest fires. By 1971, 62 out of 103 firetowers were closed. As new technologies emerged, the state phased out the use of firetowers, leaving them for decades in neglect. Some firetowers were removed while others were nominated for renovation. Finally, this past week, Friends of St. Regis’ hopes and efforts came to fruition when the SCA and DEC partnered up to restore the St. Regis firetower.
My SCA crew was in charge of replacing five flights of stairs, five landings, and the lookout cab at the top, in five days. The dimensional lumber, chicken wire, potable water, and gas for the generator were already flown in by helicopter, waiting for us at the summit.
Each day started the same: we hiked up from our tents just below summit, cooked breakfast in a sheltered nook of trees, and ate on the exposed summit, looking out at the lakes and endless rolling mountains that stretched to the horizon.
It was the first week that felt like fall; reds and oranges sprinkled throughout the green mountains. During the shoulder hours of the day, a chilly wind kept us in hats and jackets, but in the afternoon, the sun beat down. My farmers tan reached a new level.
The community was so excited about our work that I wasn’t worried about our power tools disturbing visitors. They loved to watch as my crew and I drilled and hammered in timber steps ten, fifteen, twenty feet high, in fall-arrest gear strapped to the metal beams.
Despite the beauty of the work site, the crew didn’t escape frustration. On the fourth day, my co-leader, Noah, and I worked in the cab and ran into problems. We were enclosed in a questionably stable six-by-six square wooden box thirty feet high. We used a gas-powered saw to remove the old floor boards by cutting through the old bolts, splitting the boards into manageable pieces, and sending them down via a pulley system we set up with a rope tied to a bag. Not only were we both managing our slight fear of heights – pushing anxiety to the back of our minds – the blades of the saw were dulling, smoking and turning blue with heat. Wind chill gave us goosebumps, making it hard to hear, especially with ear-pro in; and the fall arrest gear was riding up my crotch; and volunteers popped their heads up to ask questions or borrow tools, and as we removed floorboards, the gap to the rocky summit thirty feet below widened menacingly, until we both lost our minds. We made a mistake sawing the notches of the new boards and were having trouble bolting them in.
Moments like that remind me that this job takes skill and level-headedness. I’m sure lots of people feel inadequate at their jobs sometimes, or feel they could have done better. That day up in the cab, I was humbled by a difficult task that put into perspective how much I have to learn in trail work and carpentry. Part of me believes that a lot of people are faking it. A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing but they do it anyway and get by. Especially someone my age. But there are moments where trial-and-error or even a partially educated guess won’t work because the nature of the task requires it to be done right the first time. Even though I had flickering doubts over my abilities on the job, I still found many reasons to feel accomplished. At the end of the week, a volunteer and old-time carpenter asked me how old I was. “Twenty-two.”
“Let me tell you,” he said, “you guys are skilled for twenty-two.”
At dusk, all visitors and volunteers were gone. Frustrations of the day lulled. The moon rose before the sun set, so for an hour they hung in the sky together, a duality of life visible in one moment. St. Regis Mountain was quiet and still and everything was back to the way we liked it, just my crew and me.
The sun set in smooth fury, piercing the sky with the most vibrant colors hard to believe were natural. Transfixed by the scene every night, dinner conservation stopped until the last of the blazing star disappeared. I remember thinking, another day gone.
*Photo cred to Leah Rudge, Kadie Mercier, Noah Pasqua-Godkin, and Shaun Kittle from Lake Placid News