Western NC’s Fire Towers Provide Panoramic Mountain Views

At the summit, they found a good excuse to set down their packs and stretch their toes: There, a tall, rusty Tinkertoy of a fire tower, known simply as Shuckstack, cast a portentous shadow. Another hiker, having just descended steps that didn’t seem nearly sturdy enough to hold him, brushed past Peter and Brad, declaring, “I might be the last one to climb that tower before it falls down.”

How could Peter let that stand? He scooted up each wooden, partially rotten step on his rear end, bolts rattling under his shifting weight. Steel beams, blemished by decades of corrosion and graffiti, gave the tower an easy, if unsettling, sway. On one flight, the handrails were missing entirely. At 75 steps, Peter’s feet were in the trees, and above that, the physical world seemed to fall away.

A few more steps brought him into the cab, where the keeper once watched for fires from an elevation of 4,000 feet. He could see blue sky through the gaping holes in the roof; underfoot, the wood was so soft his flimsy sneakers could have punched right through it.

Wind rolled in and out of the empty window frames in the 7-by-7-foot room. “I looked out at the Southern Appalachians around me, at where we came from near the dam, and out over the range,” Peter says. “If I can trace one moment where my life took a new direction, that was it.”

Now Peter, the trails coordinator at Conserving Carolina, spends his spare time drumming up the community support, dollars, and muscle needed for restoration projects like the one completed on Shuckstack in 2014. In the process, many dog-eared, coffee-stained copies of his book, Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers, have been passed among hikers.

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