Is this the same mountain? Fire changes the face of Big Spencer

I walked into the clearing expecting to see a cabin. It was gone.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. The trail up Big Spencer Mountain leads to a clearing about halfway up the mountain on Sept. 13, 2012.

Sept. 13, 2012, I was half way to the summit of Big Spencer Mountain in the Moosehead Lake Region.

I remember the cabin well because, though rundown, the building had been picturesque. A peaked roof and sides of cedar shingles painted red, the paint faded and peeling. Yellow trim. Broken windows. Broken door lying on the creaky porch. Across the clearing stood a matching wood shed.

Three years ago, I walked up to that cabin and wandered inside, stepping over the broken door. Upon entering, I was startled by a fury creature (I’m not sure what) that skittered across the floor and hid under a cabinet. The front room was a kitchen, complete with a wood stove and sink. An empty egg carton on the floor had been gnawed on by some animal. On the small kitchen table, a book

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. The trail up Big Spencer Mountain leads to a clearing about halfway up the mountain in 2009. (Same view as the photo above)

had been signed by the many hikers who’d climbed the 3,230-foot mountain. Names and dates also marked the cabin walls. In the back room, a mattress was shredded to pieces by animals looking for nesting materials.

I didn’t touch anything. I don’t know why. I didn’t even sign the book. I just read some names and messages, looked and left.

 

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A fire warden’s cabin and wood shed stand in a clearing half way up Big Spencer Mountain in Maine in 2009.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A fire tower stands at the top of Big Spencer Mountain in Maine in summer 2009.

I climbed the final mile of trail to the mountain summit and clambered up on the wooden platform (that I now know is a helipad).The I headed to the fire tower and climbed a slender metal ladder to the floor of a roofed lookout. The door to the top was locked, so I just stood at the top of the ladder and took in the view of the Moosehead Lake Region.

Thunder grumbled in the distance, so I quickly headed back down the mountain.

That was three years ago.

Back to Sept. 3, 2012. The cabin was gone, but evidence of its existence remained — a patch of charred wood, ashes and cement blocks. The woodshed had also been demolished.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. The fire warden’s cabin half way to the top of Big Spencer Mountain had been demolished as of Sept. 13, 2012.

I sat on a rock and soaked in the late summer sun before continuing on the trail, one mile up to the summit of the mountain.

This time, a stream had turned into a pond and the trail made a detour. Beaver had built a dam that summer, I learned from two men who were working at the summit of the mountain on a communications building.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. The fire tower at the top of Big Spencer Mountain no longer has a lookout platform and roof on Sept. 13, 2012.

The summit had also changed. The fire tower was partially destroyed. The square lookout platform at the top was gone, though the base and small metal ladder remained. The helipad remained the same as before, as well. This time, I had no reason to climb the ladder. The view was just as breathtaking from below.

But just past the fire tower and small communications building, much had changed.

A forest fire in early August had wiped out about 2 acres of old black spruce forest.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A spruce forest destroyed by a forest fire in early August 2012 near the summit of Big Spencer Mountain in Maine is a row of charred tree trunks on Sept. 13, 2012.

A construction crew had been on-site when the fire broke out, and they wisely retreated from the dangerous situation while forest rangers battled the fire by dropping hundreds of gallons of water by helicopter. On Sept. 13, 2012, the fire had long been extinguished. I saw a forest of blackened tree stumps surrounding abandoned tents, machinery, tools and supplies remained at the construction area.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Construction site on Big Spencer Mountain on Sept. 13, 2012, beside the forest affected by a fire that broke out in early August 2012.

I didn’t linger long to take in the ugly sight — and I hope that construction will resume and the camp will be picked up soon. Instead, I walked back to the partial fire tower. From there, you can’t see the damage, just a beautiful view of surrounding mountains, lakes and ponds. I sat on the helipad, ate my sandwich and reflected on how quickly things can change, even in spots that seem so remote, so untouchable.

 

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A portable toilet on a construction site on Big Spencer Mountain on Sept. 13, 2012, beside the forest affected by a fire that broke out in early August 2012.

While Big Spencer Mountain is open for hiking, Maine Forest Service District Manager Bruce Reed asks hikers not to tamper with the construction site or the burnt, which may be dangerous to walk in. While much of the equipment is ruined by the fire or foraging animals, it is also off limits to hikers. Leave everything as it is and hopefully it will be picked up soon. Reed also asks that hikers be careful around the wooden helipad near the summit by listening for approaching helicopters, which might be trying to land.

According to the BDN story published on Aug. 5, Forest Ranger Jon Blackstone said the fire began around noon on Saturday, Aug. 4, when a construction crew was on-site building a communications site that will be used to extend digital communications for border patrol agents as well as other federal and state agency officers. Blackstone said it’s likely something related to the construction work caused the fire, but the cause hasn’t been determined yet.

If interested in hiking Big Spencer Mountain and to see a video of the hike shot on Sept. 13, 2012, visit the “1-minute hike: Big Spencer Mountain” blog post.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Construction site on Big Spencer Mountain on Sept. 13, 2012, beside the forest affected by a fire that broke out in early August 2012.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.