Precision required to replace cabin atop Mt. Cardigan fire tower 

Alex Kershaw, left, Kyle Hathaway and Mike Morrison, of Valley Restoration, work on the demolition and rebuilding of the Mount Cardigan fire tower cab in August. The tower was originally completed in 1924 and has received upgrades to the steel tower and two cab replacements in its 100 years. “If we were going to do this in your back yard, it’d be a week project,” said Steve Hogan, project manager for general contractor Careno Construction. Because of weather delays, the difficulty of working in a remote location, and the concurrent cab replacement on Mount Belknap, the project is in its fourth month.

Alex Kershaw, left, Kyle Hathaway and Mike Morrison, of Valley Restoration, work on the demolition and rebuilding of the Mount Cardigan fire tower cab in August. The tower was originally completed in 1924 and has received upgrades to the steel tower and two cab replacements in its 100 years. “If we were going to do this in your back yard, it’d be a week project,” said Steve Hogan, project manager for general contractor Careno Construction. Because of weather delays, the difficulty of working in a remote location, and the concurrent cab replacement on Mount Belknap, the project is in its fourth month.

Javier Arias stretches out after hiking up Mount Cardigan to meet a helicopter dropping off materials for the rebuilding of the fire tower cab last month. A representative from general contractor Careno Construction was at the trailhead turning hikers away to keep the summit clear as the helicopter set down its loads.

Javier Arias stretches out after hiking up Mount Cardigan to meet a helicopter dropping off materials for the rebuilding of the fire tower cab last month. A representative from general contractor Careno Construction was at the trailhead turning hikers away to keep the summit clear as the helicopter set down its loads.

Kyle Hathaway, of Valley Restoration, found a Smokey Bear sticker at the Mount Belknap fire tower — also being restored as part of the $1.2 million project — and put it on his hard hat, which he wore while demolishing the Mount Cardigan fire tower cab.

Kyle Hathaway, of Valley Restoration, found a Smokey Bear sticker at the Mount Belknap fire tower — also being restored as part of the $1.2 million project — and put it on his hard hat, which he wore while demolishing the Mount Cardigan fire tower cab.

Hikers, from left, Matt Skoby, his son Carter, 6, Weston Beaulieu, 7, and his dad Tim Beaulieu, all of Concord, rest at the summit of Mount Cardigan after ascending the Holt Trail, as workers remove debris from the demolition of the mountain’s fire tower in August.

Hikers, from left, Matt Skoby, his son Carter, 6, Weston Beaulieu, 7, and his dad Tim Beaulieu, all of Concord, rest at the summit of Mount Cardigan after ascending the Holt Trail, as workers remove debris from the demolition of the mountain’s fire tower in August. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Workers close up their staging area and landing zone at the edge of Cardigan Mountain State Forest in Orange, N.H., after a helicopter delivered walls and other materials to the summit for the fire tower restoration on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Workers close up their staging area and landing zone at the edge of Cardigan Mountain State Forest in Orange, N.H., after a helicopter delivered walls and other materials to the summit for the fire tower restoration on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Mark McAfee, of North American Helicopters, communicates with pilot Mark Hitchcock about the location of his next materials drop for the fire tower cab replacement on Mount Cardigan.

Mark McAfee, of North American Helicopters, communicates with pilot Mark Hitchcock about the location of his next materials drop for the fire tower cab replacement on Mount Cardigan.

Mark McAfee, of North American Helicopters, sends a generator off of Mount Cardigan in Orange under a helicopter piloted by Mark Hitchcock last month. The helicopter flew 30 loads alone onto the mountain top with of supplies and scaffolding to surround the fire tower and has also been used to remove debris and deliver building materials.

Mark McAfee, of North American Helicopters, sends a generator off of Mount Cardigan in Orange under a helicopter piloted by Mark Hitchcock last month. The helicopter flew 30 loads alone onto the mountain top with of supplies and scaffolding to surround the fire tower and has also been used to remove debris and deliver building materials. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Javier Arias lands his drone in the hands of Valley Restoration co-worker Mike Morrison, left, after taking aerial video of the fire tower cab on Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. After more than three months of contending with weather delays, the new cab structure is in place and finish work can begin. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Javier Arias lands his drone in the hands of Valley Restoration co-worker Mike Morrison, left, after taking aerial video of the fire tower cab on Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. After more than three months of contending with weather delays, the new cab structure is in place and finish work can begin. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Over the noise of a generator, Valley Restoration project manager Bob McGlothin, left, and Mark McAfee, of North American Helicopters discuss plans for an incoming flight of supplies the fire tower cab replacement on Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Over the noise of a generator, Valley Restoration project manager Bob McGlothin, left, and Mark McAfee, of North American Helicopters discuss plans for an incoming flight of supplies the fire tower cab replacement on Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

With the walls of the new fire tower cab already in place, Mark McAfee, left, signals to pilot Mark Hitchcock as Bob McGlothin, middle, and Craig Lawlor direct a package of building materials onto the platform in Orange, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

With the walls of the new fire tower cab already in place, Mark McAfee, left, signals to pilot Mark Hitchcock as Bob McGlothin, middle, and Craig Lawlor direct a package of building materials onto the platform in Orange, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

North American Helicopters pilot Mark Hitchcock approaches the Mount Cardigan fire tower with the roof for the structure’s new cab in Orange, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Hitchcock lowered the roof as it spun in the wind to workers who positioned it onto the walls of the structure that had been flown in previous afternoon. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

North American Helicopters pilot Mark Hitchcock approaches the Mount Cardigan fire tower with the roof for the structure’s new cab in Orange, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Hitchcock lowered the roof as it spun in the wind to workers who positioned it onto the walls of the structure that had been flown in previous afternoon. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

As a trio of hikers watches from above, Valley Restoration workers Craig Lawlor, left, Christopher De La Rosa, Bob McGlothin and Mark McAfee, of North American Helicopters, board the last flight off Mount Cardigan in Orange, New Hampshire,  mountain after assembling the roof and walls of the new fire tower cab on Oct. 27. After more than three months of contending with weather delays, the new cab structure is in place and finish work can begin.

As a trio of hikers watches from above, Valley Restoration workers Craig Lawlor, left, Christopher De La Rosa, Bob McGlothin and Mark McAfee, of North American Helicopters, board the last flight off Mount Cardigan in Orange, New Hampshire, mountain after assembling the roof and walls of the new fire tower cab on Oct. 27. After more than three months of contending with weather delays, the new cab structure is in place and finish work can begin.

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-06-2023 2:00 PM

Since July, scaffolding has surrounded the iconic fire tower at the summit of Mount Cardigan.

In the past few months, sometimes a small portable speaker has sat at the base of the construction site. The kind of music that contractor Javier Arias plays, “usually depends on who we’ve got up here,” he said.

The music has had to compete with mountaintop winds and the whir of a portable generator anyway.

But on a morning late last month, it was a rock ‘n’ roll day.

In a matter of hours, Arias and his team needed to put up four walls to rebuild the 100-year-old, 100-square-foot cabin that has sat atop the fire tower since it was built in 1924, and which the crew had demolished earlier in the summer. Leaky windows, rotting wooden siding, and lead paint has kept the cabin on the state’s maintenance for nearly 10 years.

Its time had finally come.

The task of reconstructing it, on a windy, late October morning, called for swift precision: the crew was coordinating with a helicopter, which would be flying up a new roof. From the top of the tower they’d have to guide it into place by hand as it dangled from an 80-foot-long cable on a particularly blustery morning.

Until budget cuts a decade ago, staffers spent 40-hours a week in the state’s fire towers scanning for smoke. Now, spotters are only in the cabin, known as “cabs” on weekends or during periods of high fire danger. Few sleep nights. But the function of the towers remains essential, said Steve Sherman, chief of the state’s Forest Protection Bureau.

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The New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is using $1.2 million in federal money that it received through the American Rescue Plant to replace the cab on Cardigan, as well as a cab on a fire tower on Belknap Mountain in northern New Hampshire.

Careno Construction, of Portsmouth, N.H., was hired to do the work. The company brought on Connecticut-based Valley Restoration.

At 3,100 feet above sea level, the Mount Cardigan job is Valley Restoration’s highest yet, and the first to require a helicopter, said project manager Bob McGlothin.

“It’s crunch timing up here,” McGlothlin said. “You’ve got to be spot on. Dialed in with material.” It’s not the kind of work where you can forget a tool at the bottom, he said.

Artfully moving against the high winds that morning, sometimes the navy blue helicopter, operated by pilots from North American Helicopter, chose to approach the top of the mountain belly-first, at an uplifted angle.

Flying back and forth in shifts from a former log landing on New Colony Road, it carried up construction materials on the bottom of a “hook line.”

Mark McAfee, is the helicopter company’s man on the ground. He handles the hook. It’s “pretty heavy,” he said, raising his voice over “Creeque Alley,” the 1960s folk-rock hit by The Mamas & the Papas.

The automatic release mechanism was broken, McAfee said, so that he had to unclasp supplies manually. Though “clasp” might be too delicate a word for what he did that day.

From the top of the tower, McAfee yanked on a heavy steel cable as the wind tossed it around like a paper bag.

The first fire tower in the state, built on Croydon Peak in 1903, came as the state got wise to increased wildfire risk.

As timber harvesting in the Northeast boomed in the last half of the 19th century, clear-cutting operations left a thick layer of dry debris on the ground, ideal fuel for forest fires. Nearly 10% of the White Mountains Region forests burned. In 1855, wildfire deforested the summit of Cardigan itself.

These days, as climate change brings increasingly extreme and erratic weather, wildfire activity in New Hampshire “fluctuates,” said Sherman, of the state’s Forest Protection Bureau.

“We can have a year where we hit drought really quickly, and we stay in drought status and have fires throughout the summer,” Sherman said. “Then we have a year like this year, where it rained quite a lot.”

Most fires in the state are relatively small, burning under 10 acres, he said. But drought years up the risk, and fire towers exist to keep small fires manageable.

The 100-year-old cab on the tower on Mount Cardigan, every day exposed to the elements on a bare mountain summit, has long needed some attention, said watchman Alton Hennessy.

Spotters also act as interpreters for hikers who make the mile-and-a-half trek to that top. “You’re either scanning for smoke, or talking to people,” said Hennessy, who’s also a deputy with the Canaan Fire Department.

“On a slow day, you can bring a book if you’re into reading. That’s a pretty decent way to pass the time.”

But there’s not even a shelf for a book. As far as furnishing goes, the cab is sparse: “There’s a desk, and I had a chair,” Hennessy, 25, said. “That’s really it.”

Hennessy said he calls down to the regional fire department for eight to 10 “smoke investigations” a season.

That morning, Valley Restoration closed the main trail up Mount Cardigan. But having embarked on a separate route up the other side of the mountain, a pair of errant hikers unexpectedly found themselves watching as the helicopter flew in materials for the cabin renovation.

In the end, McAfee deftly maneuvered the hook against the wind. The roof sealed on fine.

The action at the summit was a pleasant surprise, said Matt Levesque, of Epping, N.H.

“That thing needed an upgrade,” Levesque said.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.