One of my New Year’s Resolutions (Remember those?) is to hike Western Maine peaks that once were once home to Maine Forest Service fire towers. I have hiked a good many of these, from Snow and Kibby Mountains in Northern Franklin County, to Old Speak by Grafton Notch, in Oxford County; and Moxie Bald in Somerset County. But there are plenty of them I have yet to summit. A phenomenon of the 20th century, to protect the vast Maine forested lands, the fire tower system largely ended by the 1990’s as aircraft patrol proved a less expensive a way to maintain a fire watch. It is obvious that tower sites were chosen for their extensive views., and therefore are surely worth a visit. I am setting out in 2024 to go where I have not gone before!
On a bright January morning, following an 8-inch snowfall of the previous day, I call one of my hiking friends who has long celebrated Mt. Pisgah in Winthrop as a terrific snowshoe hike. I had yet to go there. This day, sun-filled, promises good footing for snowshoeing and long, pristine, views. He quickly changes his schedule; I make my own adjustments (I will paint a room in the house on another day!); and we are soon on our way.
Mt. Pisgah, with an elevation of 815’, is clearly diminutive when compared with four-thousand foot peaks in the Western Maine Mountains< which were the sites of Maine Forest Service fire towers – Old Speck, Saddleback, Mt. Abraham, and Avery Peak in the Bigelow Range. But I shall join my friend in speaking its praise from this day forward, after ascending the still-standing fire tower 60’ to the tower cab, and from there look east to the Camden Hills, and west to the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and Mt. Washington.
Ours is the lone vehicle in the trailhead parking area, when we arrive on this clear and brisk day. Mt. Pisgah is within the 1100 acre Mt. Pisgah Conservation Area, managed by the Kennebec Land Trust. Well-managed it is, as I am pleased to find the parking area freshly plowed in the morning following overnight snowfall, and that there is a trailhead register well-stocked with trail maps. A trailhead kiosk displays a large map of the trail system, a poster depicting Maine wildlife, and information on safety in the woods.
Three routes diverge within 100’ of the trailhead, all of which will converge at the summit tower. The Tower Road, 0.7 miles, not for vehicular use, but open to snowmobiles, is straight ahead. The blue-blazed Tower Trail turns left, ascending 1.0 mile northeast through woodland, much of which is former pasture, to the top. The Blueberry Trail, also blue-blazed, bears right, eastward, slabs a hillside, reaches a blueberry knoll, descends to slab the southern slope of the mountain, and completes its route with a modest northward ascent to the tower. A fourth trail, the Ledges Trail, extends north of the tower, crossing edges that afford more views. Th Ledges trail connects to the other routes and may be used to explore the high ground beyond the tower area. All trail junctions are clearly marked with signs.
For the ascent, we choose the Tower Trail, only 0.3 mile longer than the Tower Road, for the opportunity to walk entirely on a forest path, breaking trail on snowshoes. In five minutes, we cross without difficulty the rocky bed of a run-off stream, and move through a hardwood forest: ash, rock maple, the occasional yellow birch. Sunlight angles through the wood, throwing long shadows across new-fallen snow. Deer tracks cross our path. I watch for other tracks – fox, fisher, coyote, snowshoe hare. Those critters are out there – just not here, not recently. I carry a book of Maine animal tracks in my daypack, just in case.
Although the snow is light enough that I might have hiked without snowshoes, we both wear them for stability, and to avoid turning an ankle. We use trekking poles as well, for push-off on the accents, and to avoid slippage on descents. The combination of snowshoes and poles is also helpful for stream crossings, and for boggy ground – snow covered, but muddy underneath. Some sections of trail are over wooden bog bridges. Here again, our gear works well, as these bridges can become quite slick when wet from snowfall.
The clearing-out wind, which blows brusquely in the aftermath of the storm, sways the bare treetops, but we are well-sheltered in the midst of the woods. From time to time a gust reaches down below the cover, whips up the fresh powder snow, flings it into the air to settle as a miniature snowfall of its own. Quite the sight.
Our progress bears us into stands of hemlock, the red of the bark bright in the low-angled sun of winter. Here, too, are cedar, including one twisted giant that has surely been battered over the decades, but not beaten. Cedar is known for finding a way to the light, whatever angles it must take. Along backcountry ponds where the vegetation grows thick, cedar may be found reaching horizontally out from a bank to gain light. A don’t-give-up lesson there! Many a white pine rises here, too, most of the older ones which some irregularity – crotched, thickly branched – that spared them from axe and saw. A lesson there, too.
Old stone walls, their rough rock mounded over with powder snow, cross our way. This elevated ground was once cleared for pasture. The hillside location offered good drainage, and extended hours of sunlight in the course of a season. Now trees grow here 60-80 feet high. My hiking companion and I speak of the work it took to clear this land, move those stones, craft the walls. Hard work.
Most of the time, we hike in silence, listening to the wind, alert to a signal from the forest that a creature is near. In winter, when the hardwoods are bare, the wind may raise a certain sound as it whips among the trees – like a wind harp. A red squirrel darts across the pathway, and is gone. A raven shrieks, but once, that is all. Many a discovery awaits those who hold silence in the woods.
We pass a junction for the Ledges Trail, which departs to our left, makes a long angular way to the northernmost tip of Mt. Pisgah’s higher ground, and joins the Blueberry Trail beyond the summit. In a few moments we reach ledges of the true summit, where the tower reaches into a sharp blue-flame sky. Ascent is by a set of stairs with railings and landings. Up we go, ascending nearly five stories of height. The wind roars across the summit, nothing to block it until we reach the confines of the tower cab. I take my time, one sure step after the other.
I pull myself up through the opening between the top of the stairs and the cab. We have arrived. My goodness. Rolling forest in all directions sweeps off toward distant high country to the north and west. The iconic cone of Mt. Blue is prominent on the northern horizon. East and north of Mt. Blue, less distinct, but still unmistakable, rise Saddleback, and Mt. Abraham. Swinging my gaze to the northwest, I spot Old Speck. Somewhere in that direction is Mt. Zircon in Milton, by Rumford, another former fire watch peak that bears resemblance to Pisgah, modest elevation, a 60’ tower – though that tower no longer stands. Then there is the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. We discern that distinct mountain mass of 6288’ Mt. Washington soaring beyond the Wildcat and Carter-Moriah Ranges. The wind surely blows hard up there on this winter day.
To the east, the Camden Hills, with their multiple summits, mark the edge of Penobscot Bay.
Southward, more rolling forest land, more lakes and ponds, extend towards the low summit of Bradbury Mountain, and the sea – the last not in our sight, not at least without binoculars to confirm. ‘Tis a 360 degree view. And to think that I had never been here before! In fact, I had never heard of Mt. Pisgah until my friend, who has relatives in the area, and hiked it many times, recommended it to me. This has become one of those good-it-gets days.
Did I mention? The tower cab is intact, but the windows have been removed. I was quite warm while hiking, and donned a warm layer before climbing the tower, but now am becoming chilled. Time to move on. We descend, fuel up with food and water – and hot tea. Our route of choice for the descent is the 1.3 mile Blueberry Trail, which will return us to the trailhead.
We drop down off the summit ledge, pass the east junction with the Ledges Trail, and move through more stone-walled former pastureland, where the hemlock and pine predominate. I look for old pasture pine, trees that extend horizontal branches from near the base because as thy grew, there were no other trees to shade their growth. We cut across an eastern slope marked by run-off streams, some with footbridges, that flow in the direction of Nancy’s Bog beyond the base of the mountain. Some lay quiet, but out of the silence I hear the low gurgle of one flow, locate the source of the sound in one small rocky pool amidst snow-draped rock.
The trail ascends a partly-open knoll – a break in the forest land – where blueberries grow in the far-off months of summer, taking advantage of the sunlight. The trail takes a 90 degree turn here, well-marked. We continue back into the hardwoods that greeted us when we began our hike, and soon reach the trailhead.
In the course of the day, we do meet other hikers – a few in pairs, a threesome of college students on winter break, a couple who helped to cut the trails when the Kennebec Land Trust established the Mt. Pisgah Conservation Area, and a number of those making their way solo. Our conversations center on a common theme. The day offers ideal weather; get out in it!
Mt. Pisgah Conservation Area is open year-round. The trails are well-maintained, signed, and blazed. With a modest elevation gain of about 350’, and summit access routes ranging from 0.7 mile to 1.3 mile, in length, the trail system offers high reward in terms of views, and of the opportunity to be in woods of remarkable beauty. I shall return here in the coming seasons! Check the Kennebec Land Trust website for details: tkit.org
What are your hiking aspirations for 2024?
I hope to see you on trail!
Text and photos copyright 2024
Douglas Allan Dunlap