The enduring mystique of fire towers/Out There

Americans hang on to a lot of romantic and literary notions about fire towers and about fire lookouts spending months at a time in introspective isolation high above the trees.

Jack Kerouac spent most of the summer of 1956 as a Forest Service fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State’s Mount Baker National Forest. He used his notes from that summer in the writing of The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. Edward Abbey, another rogue hero of American literature, also worked as a fire lookout, employed by the National Park Service in the desert Southwest.

I have never been a fire lookout, but fire towers have long held a certain mystique for me. It was exciting for me, in the early spring of 2010, to see just the foundation of the fire tower that used to stand not far from the Norwich Mine site in the Trap Hills of Ontonagon County. And when I first heard about the Bergland Tower – that it was still standing – a year or so ago, I was eager to see it, even knowing that the public is not allowed to climb it.

It is easy to imagine fire lookouts writing poetry in the Bergland Tower. It is located at the top of Bergland Hill, at the eastern edge of the Porcupine Mountains and the western edge of the Trap Hills. Beautiful country. As we drove down State Highway 64 toward the trailhead Saturday afternoon, I was excited to get a view of these hills in winter. But a few realities conspired to suppress my poetic notions on my first hike to the Bergland Tower.

From a trailhead on M-64, something like 5 miles south of White Pine, the North Country Trail cuts a fairly straight, 1.4-mile route through a forest of maple and hemlock to the top of Bergland Hill. The short stretch of trail crosses numerous contour lines on a topographic map.

About halfway up the hill, Saturday, the trail got hard to follow. I suspect the snow that covered the hemlock boughs and the windward sides of the maple trunks also covered up a good number of trail blazes. This resulted in a lot of beating around in the bush, looking for blazes, before the tower finally came into view.

The trail, when we rejoined it near the top of Bergland Hill, skirted the edge of an ugly clear cut on the hill’s west face. The fire tower was there, at the top of the hill, but so was a big communications tower. Scrub trees obscured most of the grand view I had hoped for.

After the long highway drive to get to the trailhead, all of this was sort of anticlimactic.

But it is Sunday morning now. The sun is rising outside the window as I sit here with pencil in hand and sheets of loose leaf paper scattered across the kitchen table. I’m thinking about the tower standing stoic and gray against the gray sky, wind whistling through its steel frame members.

I’m thinking about what it must have been like to climb fifteen ladders from the top of Bergland Hill to the top of that tower, and then to look out over the Trap Hills, the Porcupine Mountains and Lake Superior stretching out to the horizon . . .

. . . and the fire tower’s poetical mystique remains well intact.