The pavement ends in Kokadjo, and a rough, dirt road plunges into the north Maine woods. Miles out, a mountain looms ahead. Big Spencer Mountain, cloaked in green, stands watch over the Moosehead region.
For decades, this 3,320-foot lump of volcanic rock has been a challenging hike for those willing to brave Maine’s daunting network of logging roads.
In September, I plodded up the mountain’s steep northeast face, camera in hand, with the intent of documenting this remote hiking location for BDN readers. I posted a video and written description of the adventure on my BDN blog, “Act Out with Aislinn,” and soon after, received an email from Bill Spach, 54, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
His story reminded me that mountains often mean much more to people than just a remote climb.
Spach’s father, whom he was named after, first visited Moosehead Lake in 1956, when he led a group of Boy Scouts from New Jersey for a week of camping and hiking.
“He fell in love with the area, and each year, we returned to the same cabins on Moosehead Lake for our annual vacation,” Spach said. “We would do short family hikes when my sisters [Lynn, Marilou and Joanne] and I were little — Kineo, Katahdin Stream Falls.”
As Spach grew older, his father brought him on more serious hikes to visit mountain-top fire lookouts throughout Maine.
Big Spencer’s fire tower — the fourth ever erected in Maine, in 1906 — was one of the first lookouts on their list. Spach was just 9 years old when he and his father first hiked up to it in 1967.
“The fire lookout was still in operation back in those days, as were most of the fire lookouts in Maine,” Spach said.
It became a summer tradition to hike Big Spencer and spend the afternoon with Ed and Dorothy Lambert, the “fire lookouts” or “watchmen” at the time.
Spach remembers the windows of the fire tower’s cab rattling when the wind blew, and the Lamberts reported on the radio, ending their transmissions with “Bigelow clear” or “White Cap clear.” In 1971, he and his father admired the new fire lookout cabin, built in a grass clearing halfway up the mountain.
“Back in those days, I wanted to be a fire lookout watchman when I grew up,” Spach said. “The idea of living alone in a cabin on a mountain and watching for fires from a mountaintop all day really appealed to me as a youngster. Unfortunately, nearly all of the fire towers were closed for good after the 1968 fire season.”
But not Big Spencer’s. During the 1980s, Spach continued to climb the mountain to visit Big Spencer lookout John Boydston, and he kept in touch with him during the offseason.
In 1990, Spach led his 6-year-old daughter Allison up Big Spencer Mountain. It was her first big hike, and perhaps for that reason, it became her favorite mountain to hike.
When the Big Spencer fire lookout closed for good in 1991, maintenance on the trail ceased and the upper portion began to get overgrown, said Spach. So he began maintaining the trail, cutting back spruce branches, clearing blowdowns and repairing the wooden ladders that help hikers climb the steeper sections near the summit.
Spach also continued his interest in fire towers by researching and locating these abandoned sentinels.
“All of them are long closed and forgotten, and many have been removed,” he said. “But many still stand a lonely vigil over the forests, their trails reclaimed by nature, requiring a compass or GPS to reach them.”
In 1995, Spach discovered and joined the Forest Fire Lookout Association, a group of people interested in documenting and restoring fire lookouts throughout the country. According to the association, at one time, Maine was home to 143 fire towers, and of those, 60 are still standing today. And in 2006, he met and became friends with Bill Cobb, director of the Maine chapter of the FFLA.
“[Cobb] often comes up to my camp for a visit, and we have some great adventures searching for obscure fire towers,” Spach said. “We’ve visited practically every fire lookout site within a few hours of Moosehead Lake.”
In 2002, the state of Maine purchased Big Spencer Mountain, and it became a part of a 4,244-acre ecological reserve specifically set aside to protect and monitor the state’s natural ecosystems. On the Big Spencer reserve, hunting, fishing and hiking are allowed.
He and his daughter continued to hike the mountain throughout the years. In February 2007, Allison, 23, was killed in a car accident on her way to work one morning. Two weeks after her funeral, Spach’s father passed away.
“The camps [on Moosehead Lake] were my dad’s and Allison’s favorite place on Earth,” said Spach. “I seriously doubted I would ever be able to return, as the memories were just too emotional. But by Memorial Day, I was ready to give it another try, and my sister and I had a wonderful time up there together.
“My camp has since become somewhat of a memorial to Allison,” Spach said. “Her hiking boots hang from the rafters, her wool jacket still hangs from the hook where she left it, and her handwritten directions to Big Spencer Mountain are now tacked onto the wall of her room.”
A storm destroyed the cab on top of the Big Spencer fire tower in December 2009, Spach recalled, leaving behind the metal frame.
The ranger cabin slowly yielded to nature. Animals tore apart the bunk mattresses and foraged from the kitchen cupboards. Hikers scrawled names and dates on every inch of the walls. Yet even with the front door broken and lying on the porch, the little red building, trimmed with yellow, retained a certain rustic charm right up until the end, September 2011, when the building was demolished by the Maine Division of Parks and Public Lands and volunteers. Decrepit buildings, however historical, don’t fit into the natural equation of an ecological reserve. It was also a safety hazard for hikers.
“Seeing the camp torn down was like losing an old friend,” said Spach, who visited the cabin to take photos before it was torn down in September.
Everything that wouldn’t burn had been taken out of the building and set aside, including the windows and doors. Reluctant to leave the old wood stove behind, Spach disassembled it and packed it down the mountain — about a mile.
A beaver had flooded the trail just past the cabin, so Spach created a path around the beaver-made pond so people could continue hiking to the summit without getting lost — a path I was happy to use in Sept. 2012 when I was hiking up the mountain.
The next year harkened an even bigger change, one that was harder for Spach to stomach.
For a mountain that has served as a fire lookout for decades, it’s a terrible irony that Big Spencer’s summit caught fire on Aug. 4, 2012.
“It’s burning from the top down, and it’s deep in the ground,” said Maine Forest Service Lt. Jeff Currier in a BDN story published Aug. 5.
Though the cause of the fire is unknown, a construction crew was camping out on the summit at the time, building a communication building on a private piece of land on the mountain’s ridge, a 2.6-acre parcel not owned by the state. The fire devoured more than 2 acres of old black spruce forest, ancient trees that have braved mountaintop winds for about 200 years.
“I was up there again in late August, about three weeks after the fire,” said Spach. “I sure have to see the changes being made on the mountain nowadays. I guess they call that ‘progress.’ I like it the way it used to be.”
The Forest Society of Maine is planning to replicate the old fire warden’s cabin in Greenville on land owned by the Natural Resource Education Center, according to Kristen Hoffmann, forestland steward of the society, so that future generations can learn about history of Maine’s fire lookouts. And the Natural Resource Education Center is looking to build an educational fire tower on the property as well.
The Forest Society of Maine is also working with the Maine Division of Parks and Public Lands to plan a new hiking route to Big Spencer’s summit ridge, a trail that would steer clear of the recent destruction and end at an untouched location with a more unobstructed view of the Moosehead Region.
“If they decide to construct another trail somewhere on Big Spencer,” Spach said, “I’d certainly like to help out.”