Life at the tower on Kempshall Mountain 1953,1954 by Bill Tindall
Getting there: Kempshall was one of the most difficult mountain towers to get to. There was a trail that went down the edge of Long Lake but it made a very long trip to the tower. I only did it once. Typically a trip to the tower began at Town Dock in Long Lake. We had a Thompson canvas-over-wood rib boat and a 5 HP Johnson motor. Supplies were loaded into the boat for the trip down the lake to the landing, identified by the sandy beach on the right shore. It was a slow put pleasant trip with morning fog on the water. We rarely saw another boat. In those days we just pulled the boat up on the sand and left it. The start of the trail was gentle and through hardwood forest. There were two creek crossings; more on those later. About half way the trail steepened and passed from hardwoods to balsam, white birch and mountain ash. Some sections of the trail were on bare rock, some of the oldest rock in the world.
Communications: We had a telephone. The line paralleled the trail down the mountain and along the lake. There were short steel poles set in rock at the top of the mountain and wood poles at lower elevation. Repair supplies were kept in two garbage cans behind some rocks at the landing. There were two telephones, one in the tower and one in the cabin by the front door. They were the crank type made from oak. We rarely used them except for air craft spotting (more on that later). Occasionally I chatted with the operator. She was nice and I stayed at her house once. I think her name was Liz something. There was a radio and that was the way we communicated among the towers and with the office at Long Lake. It ran from 1-A and 2-B batteries. These were heavy. Dad could carry either 2-B’s or 1-A and they were the main motivation to get a pack animal. I don’t remember how long they lasted but it might have been about half the season. We also signaled with a mirror to my cousin Bruce Kunz when he worked at the lodge on Long Lake.
Water: In addition to the long trip to the mountain the other hardship was water. The spring was about ½ mile off the back side of the mountain. We carried drinking water in gallon wine jugs. Wash water was collected from puddles in the rocks or from the cabin eves.
Fuel: My job was cutting wood and a lot of it was needed for cooking, and heating in the early and late months. It snowed by my father’s birthday (Sept.6) every year he manned the mountain. There was a stove for heating in the front room of the cabin. It took large balsam logs. The cook stove in the kitchen was fueled with split white birch. They were plentiful off the back side of the mountain and I cut dozens of them. Wood was cut with a bow saw and ax and piled in the storage shed behind the cabin. There were many large balsam along the edge of the clearing blown down from the hurricane and they were cut for heating.
Food and animals: We hauled almost all the food up the mountain. Occasionally we killed a rabbit and that was good fresh meat. For lunch I ate many peanut butter sandwiches with peanut butter and anything else I could find on them, even grapes when we hauled fresh grapes up from town. The bread was usually stale. For dinner we had something out of a can. I particularly liked canned potatoes but I liked fresh rabbit best.
We had deer come each night but we never killed one of them. They were considered pets. Porcupines were plentiful. They ate on the cabin wood parts. We clubbed them at night but never ate one. Canned food left at the end of the season was buried in the spring. The following year it was pot luck because all the labels came off.
In addition to these animals there were huge bobcats on the mountain. My father trapped two and they weighed over 40 pounds each. One might have been a state record at the time. I have one mounted as a rug.
Accommodations: The cabin was two room. The front room was the bedroom and office. It had a bed, stove and desk. There was also a wall map of the Adirondacks. Each tower site had a compass and string attached where the tower was located. If one had a bearing of a fire from two towers one could stretch the string at that bearing and were they crossed would be the fire location. I thought it very neat. The back room was the kitchen, with a cook stove and table and two chairs. I did some of the cooking. The cabin had several windows and it was light inside. Out back was a shed for wood storage. In the edge of the woods was the out house. The tower had an Adirondack chair, map table with pointer for taking bearings, radio, a pair of binoculars, and telephone.
Life at the tower: We got up at dawn, ate breakfast and went to the tower. The weather was recorded in a log and we scanned the woods for signs of smoke. There were only two fires that I remember. One was in some knobs I think called St. Anthony and the other the famous Cold River Fire. Once while my father went to town I called in a “fire”. It would probably be thought child abuse today to leave an 11 year old at the tower but it was ok to me. I spotted smoke in the morning, took a bearing on it and called it into the office at Long Lake. Percy Stanton was the ranger there. At first he was alarmed by the report and then walked me through taking the bearing again. I had misread the bearing by 180 degrees by reading the pointer backwards. Instead of an alarming smoke sighting, I had spotted the Long Lake dump smoldering.
Mostly we just watched the scenery and occasionally cleared brush from the trail. It was almost always hazy but it made everything appear soft. There were occasional thunder storms and they were of concern as we were quite exposed on top of the mountain. Lightning hit the phone line once and came into the cabin in a big flash. Occasionally a plane would fly by and it was called in as part of the cold war spotting program. I forget our code name but it had “ Alpha Black’ in it. We would ring up the number, give our code name and describe the airplane we saw. Occasionally we talked to other towers. The man on Mt. Morris was nice but I never met him.
Occasionally we had visitors. Mostly they were from a rich kids camp on Long Lake. One kid showed up with a $20 bill in his pocket and that was more money than I would see in mine for some years. Another claimed his father owned the NY Yankees.
I cut a lot of wood. Once I cut my toe with the ax I had just sharpened. I still have the scar. My father thought he would have to carry me off the mountain but it healed enough in a few days and I walked off. It was the only injury while I was there. The last summer my father was very sick. Helms dropped him medicine from the plane one day. He died of cancer later that year.
At night we had a Coleman lantern for light. We played a lot of cards, usually Pitch. Dad read Zane Grey westerns. Deer came to the clearing at night and I liked to watch them. We had a .22 rifle. It was left on the mountain and I don’t know what happened to it. I loved to shoot it. The cells from the dead batteries made great targets.
We went to town about every other week for a day or two for supplies and mail. We could go to town if it was raining because if it was raining there was less likelihood there would be a fire to spot. Of course only taking vacation on rainy days had it downsides. I would get an ice cream cone at Ma Beckers store in Long Lake. Once my father bought a new double bitted ax and we went to the ranger station to sharpen it. I got to crank the wheel. I still have the ax. I had my own single bitted ax I cut wood with. My grandfather bought it for me when I was 7. I still use it.
Cold River Fire: We were in town and I was down by the Long Lake bridge. My father came running after me and asked if I wanted an airplane ride. I had watched Helms take off many times and wondered what it would be like to fly. He would wag at us in the tower when he flew by with tourists. We took off and went straight down the lake to the outlet. I could see smoke and flames in the valley. Above the valley was severe blow down from the hurricane. It was scary. The huge white pine trees lay like pick- up- sticks on the side of the mountain. They had blown down in the hurricane and by now they were dry. If the fire got into these trees there would be no stopping it. I went to stay at Lake Eaton while my father raced to the mountain. He would be radio relay from the fire crews to headquarters. He stayed on duty for two or three days straight. He received a commendation letter from the head office. I have it. The camps were emptied of able bodied men to fight the fire. It was contained and never spread from the valley, but it was a close call.
Jerrico: Hauling supplies to the cabin was difficult. The second year we got a donkey, Jerrico. He became a colorful character. He was brought down the long lake trail and apparently remembered the details of the trip. The first trip up the mountain he stalled at the first creek. Dad pulled him across with the block and tackle used for stretching the phone line. Ditto on the second creek. There were places on the trail he simply would not budge. Next trip up dad loaded him up and kicked him in the rear. He took off and we found him standing on the cabin porch waiting on us. From then on he made his own way up the mountain, using his personal trail which deviated from the people trail in places, especially the creek crossing. We always found him standing on the porch waiting for us. He was a good friend on the mountain. He would come and stomp on the porch when he wanted a treat. He roamed free around the tower clearing. I liked to ride him. The kids from the camp would try to ride him but he would put his head down and off they would slide. Once he tangled with a porcupine and got a nose and front feet full of quills. Late one year after I left for school he disappeared. There was a large building along the trail from Long Lake. Apparently he remembered it had lush grass for he took off and was found grazing on the lawn.