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A mountain tower in the Adirondacks lets visitors see more than wildfires

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK, let's take a few minutes to get outside because summer hiking season is here. And in New York's Adirondack Mountains, some of the most popular views are from historic fire towers. NPR's Brian Mann made the trek to a tower on the summit of Hurricane Mountain, leaving early enough to see the sunrise. He sent us this audio postcard.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: It's just after 3 a.m. and pitch dark as I head into the woods on a gorgeous summer night, my headlamp picking out the trail ahead of me.

Seeing the sunrise from a mountain fire tower is one of my favorite things. The downside - you have to climb in darkness to make it happen. It's perfectly still as I hike - no birds, no wind. It's a little dreamlike.

(SOUNDBITE OF FROG CROAKING)

MANN: And then I reach a bog on the flank of the mountain. The frogs are already wide-awake. I hike on, using the headlamp to pick my way over roots and rocky streams.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CRUNCHING)

MANN: As you might expect, I don't see another soul. The mountain is all mine.

People sometimes ask me if, you know, it's kind of spooky, especially when I'm hiking by myself through the night. And, you know, there is a little bit of a "Blair Witchy" (ph) sort of vibe.

A little haunted, but soon the sky starts to glow - a lilac pre-dawn light that filters through the trees. It's enough I can shut off the headlamp.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD SINGING)

MANN: The light is also enough to bring out the birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

MANN: The next hour, I move higher through birdsong, like a wash of color. We live in a world where forest fires are a growing threat because of climate change. The fire towers here were built a century ago after over-logging led to wildfires that burned nearly a million acres. I break out onto open rock, into the wind, on the summit of Hurricane. Around me, the distant mountains are still dusk blue, topped in mist with deep shadows in the valleys. Up ahead, I see the tall metal spire with a little cabin on top. These structures aren't used anymore by fire spotters. There are better, more modern ways to spot and track blazes. But roughly half the Adirondack towers are still standing, and most are open to hikers.

I've climbed to the top of the fire tower, and you can hear the wind just crackling around me. It's fierce up here.

Fierce, but warm - the summer wind rich with smells of pine and dusty rock. Looking from the tower window, the eastern sky glows brighter. And just after 5 a.m., the sun pops cherry red on the horizon. The last darkness washes away as the mountains and forest are colored with rose light. Brian Mann, NPR News, in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "UNDER THE BRIDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann