Kaatscast: the Catskills' premier podcast!
June 21, 2022

Fire Tower Challenge!

Fire Tower Challenge!

If you're looking for a unique way to experience Catskills views, there's no better time to check out the Catskills' 6 hiker-accessible fire towers! The 2022 Catskills Fire Tower Challenge encourages hikers to visit all 6, with the added bonus of a challenge patch, a subscription to Conservationist magazine, and other prizes. 

We met with the Catskill Center's Olivia Bernard, a Visitor Experience Coordinator at the Catskills Visitor Center, for a rundown of the challenge, a little fire tower history, and a climb to the top of the Upper Esopus fire tower, right there on the visitor center's property in Mt. Tremper, NY. 

If you want to hear about a 7th fire tower coming back online, check out our story from Bramley Mountain. 

Thanks to our sponsors:
The Mountain Eagle
The Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway
Hanford Mills Museum 

--- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/kaatscast/support

Transcript

Olivia Bernard  
I grew up in New York City, but I've been coming to the Catskills since I was about 11. I remember as a kid like crying my mom, 'Do we have to go back? Can we stay here?' So happy that this is now the place where I live in the place where I work.

Brett Barry  
Olivia Bernard is a visitor experience coordinator at the Catskills Visitor Center. And we met with her at the Upper Esopus Fire Tower in Mount Tremper, New York to talk about this year's fire tower challenge. Visit all six by the end of this year, and you can get a commemorative patch, a subscription to conservationist magazine, and some other prizes. Plus the biggest prize, experiencing Catskill's views from a unique vantage point. Here's Olivia with the details.

Olivia Bernard  
My name is Olivia Bernard. I work for the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development as a visitor experience coordinator at the Catskills Visitor Center here in Mount Tremper, New York. And we talk to visitors about great things to do in the area, whether they're interested in going for a hike, go to a museum, find a town to get some food; all kinds of different visitor questions. We also help to coordinate events either on-site or off-site. We also stay connected on social media with our visitors. We post a weekly trail conditions blog post that talks about current hiking conditions. Leave No Trace is a big component of what we talk about. We helped to coordinate the Catskill fire tower project as well, which is a volunteer run restoration and interpretation program of the Catskills fire towers.

Brett Barry  
And this year, once again, the DEC, in coordination with the Catskill center, is offering a fire tower challenge.

Olivia Bernard  
Yeah, so the Catskill Fire Tower Challenge was started in 2019 by the DEC, and this year for 2022 visitors and hikers they complete six Catskills fire towers throughout the Catskill Park. Ours is included on the list this year at the Catskills visitors center. When they submit the list that they've completed, they receive a patch from New York State; really nice Catskill fire tower patch for 2022.

Brett Barry  
So it happened in 2019. Is this the first time since then? Is it supposed to be an annual thing or?

Olivia Bernard  
It was put on hold largely because of COVID. They brought it back this year, we had a lot of visitor interest in resuming the challenge. So I'm really glad that it's back this year. I'm not sure if it will be an annual thing, but it's been great the two years that it's happened.

Brett Barry  
So there are six fire towers in the Catskills, including the one right here on the property of the Catskill Visitor Center, which is probably the easiest to get to. So the challenge entails hiking to each of the six fire towers, and then what?

Olivia Bernard  
People put down the dates that they completed the fire tower, how many miles they completed to get to it, and there's also a section on the checklist, just with any notes that people want to add about their hike, anything noteworthy from the hike.

Brett Barry  
So tell me a little bit about these fire towers. I assume that you've had to each of them probably at least once. And so what should we know about them?

Olivia Bernard  
Yeah, I've definitely hiked to all the fire towers; would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a fun challenge and also a really great view and a really great perspective on the Catskills. The one here the visitor center would be the easiest to get to like you were saying. And then there are five backcountry fire towers, each one has a hike of about five to seven miles to get to. So they're kind of nice, like moderate challenge hikes. Each of the five backcountry fire towers were built largely in the early 1920s in that area. They're steel fire towers; a company that made them is called Arrow Motor. They used to be used for forest fire surveillance. So really important part of the Catskill parks history is that there were men and women who would be hired by New York State to monitor for forest fires, especially around the turn of the century, it was really crucial that they were present on those mountains to monitor for forest fires. There were a lot of fires that came up because of railroads being a huge part of transportation in the Catskills at that time, and also because of logging that was still permitted in the early 1900s. A lot of forests were clear cuts, so there were less mature forests at that time, and so it was easier for fires to spread. And now with more mature forests, it's definitely less of a concern as well as less with railroads these days, but we owe a lot to those forest fire observers for you know what they did to make sure that the Forest Preserve stayed intact and stayed preserved. They spent several months of the year up on the summits of those mountains. At the time in the beginning there were about 23 Catskills fire towers, original Catskills fire towers. Many of them no longer are on the mountains. But originally there were quite a few of them. And the people who were staffed by New York State, they would sleep on the mountains, there are observers cabins on the mountains, and they would stay there from April through October looking out for fires. They would communicate with local towns with telephone lines that ran up the mountains, you can still see evidence of those telephone lines when you're hiking. They use triangulation to cite for fires, they had tools in the top cabs of the towers called validates for like getting really specific locations of forest fires. So pretty neat job.

Brett Barry  
Five still stand plus the one that was installed here on this property, and so now they're a really nice opportunity for hikers to both take in a little bit of that history but also the views.

Olivia Bernard  
Definitely yeah, I will always remember my first firetower hike going up overlook and just being like in absolute awe of where I lived and, you know, seeing bodies of water that I wasn't aware were there before and just taking in the views of where we live and being appreciative of that. So I think that the fire towers really do offer kind of a unique perspective. They're a gem of where we live recommend any of those hikes to visitors when they come through.

Brett Barry  
You can always hike to the fire towers, but they're not always open in terms of hiking up and going into the cab. So when are they open? And tell me about the people who are there to greet visitors.

Olivia Bernard  
On the weekends starting Memorial Day and going through indigenous peoples day in October, the fire tower top cabs are opened by Catskill center volunteers and this year we have two Catskill fire tower stewards who also be present on overlooking Hunter on Tuesdays and Thursdays; so those two towers will be opened on Tuesdays and Thursdays by paid staff person. The interpreters many of them have been volunteering for the Catskill center for over 20 years. They're really knowledgeable about the Catskills fire towers about the Catskill Park surrounding towns surrounding areas. The fire tower challenge, and our fire tower stewards are also trained in Leave No Trace Catskills Park information and talk about the mountains that you might see when you're when you're climbing one of the towers. The staircases are always open, so you can always climb to the tops of the staircases and get a really pretty view, even if the top cap isn't open.

Brett Barry  
But if you want that top cap view plus that local knowledge, go on a weekend.

Olivia Bernard  
Totally. Yeah.

Brett Barry  
Can you tell me a little bit about the fire tower that's here at the Catskill Visitor Center and Mount Tremper?

Olivia Bernard  
Yeah, we worked together with the Department of Environmental Conservation to restore a fire tower that had originally been in Florida. There's a company that does work in fire tower restoration, and they bought this fire tower from Venice, Florida. It used to be used for forest fire surveillance down in Florida. They restored it for us. It's quite a tall fire tower. It's 80 feet tall, here at the elevation of about 670 feet in Mount Tremper. If you look really closely, you can actually see where air condition used to be that was patched up by the fire tower restoration company that was definitely necessary where it was located in Florida. So it's not one of the original historic Catskills fire towers, but it's now part of the the Catskill Park in its own unique way.

Brett Barry  
And this property is a great starting point for people who come up and want to experience the Catskills, go hiking, and there are even some trails right here on the property.

Olivia Bernard  
Yeah, we have three easy walks here at the Visitor Center. The Loop Trail is just over half a mile, the interpretive loop trail that's where you'll find the fire tower. There is a quarter mile trail that takes you to the Esopus Creek, which is also a fishing access spot. There's also a quarter mile trail that's up hill gives you a little bit of a taste of some of the more challenging hikes in the Catskills and leads to some really nice picnic tables a really pretty view in the fall when the trees are a little bit less full.

Brett Barry  
You mentioned that this fire towers 80 feet tall. Do you know what the heights generally are of the other five?

Olivia Bernard  
They range from 47 to 60 feet and the tallest of them is on Hunter Mountain, so it's at an elevation of 4040 feet. It's actually the tallest fire tower on any mountain in New York state. So Hunter has that unique distinction. Overlook is also 60 feet; it's just at a lower elevation. Red Hill is at 60 feet; elevation of 2990 feet. Balsam Lake and Tremper are both 47 foot fire towers. One distinction that's kind of important to make is that the Tremper fire tower, which is 47 feet tall, is different from the fire tower at the Visitor Center. We're also located in Mount Tremper, but ours is considered more of a front country fire tower whereas the Mount Tremper fire tower is when you have to hike to. So ours is called the Upper Esopus and then the other fire tower is called the Mount Tremper fighter tower.

Brett Barry  
So the Upper Esopus fire tower right here at the Catskill Visitor Center is the tallest, so the most climbing but it's also the least climbing to get to; it's a flat path. Right? So would you be willing to show me to the fire tower?

Olivia Bernard

Oh, absolutely.

Brett Barry

Okay, let's do it. After the break, Olivia takes me to the top of the fire tower that served as a lookout in Venice, Florida, until its recent restoration and relocation in Mount Tremper New York. Kaatscast is sponsored by the Mountain Eagle covering Delaware, Greene, and Schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham Weekly, Schoharie News, and Catskills Chronicle. For more information call 518-763-6854 or email mountaineaglenews@gmail.com. And by the 52 mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the Central Catskills. For maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com. This episode is also supported by Hanford Mills Museum. Explore the power of the past as you watch the waterwheel bring a working sawmill to life. Bring a picnic to enjoy by the millpond. For more information about scheduling a tour or about their new exploration days, visit hanfordmills.org or call 607-278-5744. I was expecting more of a ladder system but this is fairly easy looking kind of a steeper staircase but with handrails and everything. So even for people who might be a little afraid of heights, it seems pretty doable.

Olivia Bernard  
Yeah, but I definitely want to mention that it's still scary for some people. I think that sometimes it's an accomplishment just going up a landing or two. If you have any fear of heights, what I like to tell people is you know, try like a landing today and then go maybe another landing tomorrow and just keep coming back until you you're able to get there. But yeah, it's not a ladder. There definitely are ladders if you're hiking in the Adirondacks. Um, there's a ladder I know of that you can climb if you are interested between Slide and Cornell Mountain in the Catskills. But all the fire towers have have more of a staircase kind of a more gradual slope of a staircase.

Brett Barry  
So even if the cab is closed, there's still plenty of opportunities to stop at each one of these landings and get a beautiful view all the way up.

Olivia Bernard  
Oh absolutely. Sometimes I even prefer the view from the stairs because it's unobstructed with the windows. And yeah, you can hear the birds even better too from the stairs. Yeah, if you visit any of the backcountry historic Catskills fire towers, they have wooden steps. So this one is kind of unique in that it has all steel going up. I think the hope is that it will make it easier to maintain over the long term and you know a little bit less maintenance required.

Brett Barry  
To participate in the fire tower challenge, it's not necessary to climb to the top. Even getting to the first landing or two can open up some beautiful sights and sounds. Olivia and I did climb all of the Upper Esopus Fire Tower's 105 steps, and she opened the hatch to the enclosed cab at the top.

Olivia Bernard  
So looking toward the north, we have a view of Mount Tremper, which has one of the backcountry fire towers on it. And you can't see the fire tower from this tower. But if you're driving down Route 28 on a really nice sunny day, you can see a little glimpse of the fire tower out in the distance, usually in like the Boiceville area where that hill is. We have Mount Pleasant right across the road here, right across route 28. That's part of the Phoenicia East Branch trail, fun, challenging hike getting there; a longer hike. And then when we're looking to the south, we have Ashokan High Point, which offers some really nice views of the Shawangunks, so the Catskills of the Ashokan Reservoir. And one of our closest neighbors is Mount Tobias, which is basically in our backyard here at the Catskills Visitor Center. It doesn't have an official trail that leads to it, but it is part of the State Forest Preserve land so you can hike to it. It's just more of a bushwhack than a traditional hike.

Brett Barry  
And in the middle of the cab is a map oriented to the compass points and identifying all the surrounding peaks and valleys.

Olivia Bernard  
Yeah, it's a reproduction of an Alidade. It's the map of the surrounding area that a fire tower observer would be looking out and surveying; usually there's a tool that goes across for sighting fires. We have that; it's just down in our office down the visitor center but but yeah, it is a reproduction of what the Alidades look like. Some of the towers do have some of the original Alidades still in them, like Hunter for example.

Brett Barry  
Just then two local high school friends joined us at the top with lunch from Boiceville's provisions in hand.

Olivia Bernard  
Hi there guys. How's it going? Welcome, welcome.

Apollo & Liam  
Hi, I'm Apollo. I'm from West Hurley. Hi, I'm Liam. I live in Shandaken and I've been here for like 10 years. Yeah, I love the Catskills and this is one of my favorite spots. I didn't expect running into you guys here.

Brett Barry  
So you come up here often?

Liam  
Oh yes, very often. I've been to almost all the fire towers in the area. I've only done this once with my friend Apollo right here but I've been to this with other people before and yeah, provisions is my go to it's. I know the owners. They're very nice and they make some of the best sandwich I've ever had. So yeah, it's, the wind, the breeze it's just enhances the flavor somehow. Yeah.

Brett Barry  
Enhances the flavor somehow. Lunch at a Catskills fire tower from a local sandwich purveyor, not a bad way to end the school day. And with that, we made our way back down the fire tower's 105 steps with a renewed appreciation for these mountains we all call home. If you'd like to participate in the 2022 Fire Tower Challenge, just download the form linked in the show notes and start logging your own fire tower adventures. And to hear about one more fire tower coming back to Bramley mountain later this year, we covered it in Episode 40. Just go to kaatscast.com/40 to hear our interview with fire tower historian Laurie Rankin. Kaatscast is a free bi weekly production of Silver Hollow Audio. Check out kaatscast.com to hear any of our episodes, make a donation, or buy a kaatscast hat embroidered right here in the Catskills. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you again in two weeks. 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / JL