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Sentinels of the forest (3 photos)

This week, Back Roads Bill looks at fire towers and would like to hear from you about your favourite fire tower locations as well as details about the view

Microwave and cell towers tend to be near main roads but as you drive the back roads of Northern Ontario fire towers continue to catch our eye. They remain iconic and symbolic for many intrinsic reasons.

Maybe it’s the remoteness and their pinnacle locations, or is it the pyramid-like grade nine geometry that strains your neck as you stand beneath and lookup? We always wonder how to get there and what the view will be like.

The first fire lookout towers in Ontario appeared on the scene in the 1920s. These early towers were constructed of wood; some were simply platforms in tall trees. By 1947, there were 52 wooden and 227 steel towers across Ontario. By 1962, there were a total of 316 steel towers in operation throughout the province, see the map attached here (link here…1963 Lands and Forests map as attached).

There are passionate fire tower aficionados or self-proclaimed “buffs” like Clay Self of Gravenhurst.

“Ontario - and all of Canada in fact- has a strong historical link to the forest, logging, firefighting, forest rangers, and fire tower lookouts. Watching the CBC adventure TV show The Forest Rangers on reruns for years, gave me a keen interest in the history and locations of these 80 and 100 ft. steel structures.

"Today it is sad to see many of the old towers have been dismantled without a trace, their illustrious past unknown by many young Ontarians. When I contacted various people across our province and asked them about each tower in their vicinity, I was alarmed to learn how many never even knew these sentinels once existed in their own backyards. I decided I would produce a website to preserve the history of our fire tower lookouts and the tower men that worked them."

He said, "they came under the jurisdiction of Ontario's former Department of Lands and Forests which became the Ministry of Natural Resources in 1972.

"As the 1960s progressed the towers were in use less and less as aerial fire spotting and then firefighting crews took over. The government decided they didn't want any lawsuits on their hands in case careless citizens climbed the unmanned towers and were injured in the process. The decision ended up in removing many towers.

"This was done by either placing dynamite charges at the base footings to blow them down, or by forest ranger crews who took them apart piece by piece. The odd one was pulled over by a truck and left on the sides of high places.

"Today, the few that the government has decided to leave standing are used by the province's municipalities as landmarks and tourist attractions. I consider them sentinels of the forest and that indeed their history should be preserved. But I know the MNRF is dismantling many in Northern Ontario now due to liability precautions.” He recommends the ‘Forest Rangers’ fan club on Facebook.

'Tower men' were thought to be a very unique and solitary breed. As a forestry summer student, Cliff Moulder was a “supply” tower man in the summer of 1959 climbing and descending the tower on a daily basis.

“When the fire hazard was low the Lands and Forests gave us different jobs to put in the time. When the tower man wanted a holiday I filled in. He was assigned to various towers and on occasion to the Widdifield Tower near North Bay. He explained each tower was situated in such a manner so as to provide overlap with at least two others. The location of smoke could be determined - using a device, called an "alidade" - through triangulation. The alidade was mounted on a map of the coverage area with the geographic position tower located at the centre of the map." 

"The remains of the tower are now fenced off but it was one of three towers featured in the ‘Forest Rangers’ television series. He said he really didn’t like climbing the tower, the day was a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift. He never spotted a fire."

Learn more about northern Ontario fire towers at a great exhibit at the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie or online.

If you're going exploring, the 1963 Ministry of Lands and Forests map of all the tower locations will help, an interesting note is that many follow the height of land and direction of the water drainage divide that crosses much of Northern Ontario. 

You can also check out an early Back Roads Bill column here or go to Dan Kanchur’s Algoma District’s fire towers website. He recommends the best view is the Mt. Baldy tower near Wawa and the “most surprising view,” the Grasset Lake Tower near Blind River.

If you are travelling Highway 11 North, take a detour and visit the Caribou Mt. tower in Temagami, which stands waiting for visitors to climb its staircase to the top and is a popular northeastern Ontario tourism destination.

The Fire Tower Lookout in Elliot Lake is located along the Deer Trail Driving Tour and can be found by turning off Highway 108 down Milliken Road. Follow the signs to reach the lookout. The structure is a replica of a fire ranger's lookout station and provides a 360-degree, panoramic view of the area's former mine sites that are now returned to their natural state.

In the distance, you can also see Manitoulin Island on the North Channel of Lake Huron.

There is also the Tower Trail at Fushimi Provincial Park just west of Hearst, This trail takes you to the Bannerman Tower, one of the few original fire lookout towers left in Ontario.

The fire tower at Windy Lake one of the oldest left standing in the Sudbury region and is accessed through Tower Bay at the southwest end of Windy Lake. With a trailhead on the shore, there is a view of Vermillion Lake in one direction and east to the hills rimming Lake Wanapitei.

In Timmins, the remains of a fire tower stand atop the old Kamiskotia Resort (which has been rebranded as Mount Jamieson Resort) and is now a communications node.

Learn more about the Ellis Tower on the top of Ispathina Ridge, Ontario’s highest point, in this story In Village Media and atop Maple Mountain, both within the Temagami wilderness, these are canoe trips.

A favourite of the author is the tower overlooking Stormy Lake at Restoule Provincial Park with a tranquil walk under the canopy of a mature hardwood forest. Some are gone but fire towers are not forgotten, they are relics though so “don’t tell mom” and it is always best “to stay off the tracks.”