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Bearwallow Mountain: Living at the Top
At an elevation of 4,232 feet, Bearwallow Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in eastern Henderson County. A grassy meadow occupies its summit, enabling long range panoramic views. The top of the mountain also hosts a lookout tower that once safeguarded the valleys below by aiding early fire detection.
“For 35 years it was my home,” says Clyde Curtis of the top of Bearwallow. Curtis, of Candler, began staffing the fire tower in 1957. “I jumped at the opportunity when the job came up,” he says. And, after serving for nearly four decades, Curtis says, “I haven’t regretted it yet.” Curtis resided on Bearwallow until 1992; the fire tower was decommissioned only a few years later. Today, most fire detection is performed with aerial flights, or reported by the public using cell phones.
Curtis and his wife lived at the summit year-round, first in a two-room log cabin and later in a small frame house. “We enjoyed the unhurried atmosphere,” he says. “It was pristine.”
While manning a fire tower may seem like a simple job, it was often hard work. More than 10 counties were visible from Clyde’s fire tower on Bearwallow Mountain, and so were a lot of fires. “We sometimes had as many as 30 or 40 fires in a day,” says Curtis. He often remained in the fire tower from dawn until dusk, and sometimes even into the night.
Perhaps no one else has spent as much time on Bearwallow Mountain as Curtis. There is no shortage of tales from his three and a half decades at his mountaintop post. His stories range from bizarre to fascinating. They reveal what one sees when living high up on top of a mountain: just about everything.
At the high elevation and without the protection of trees atop the bald summit, Curtis caught the full brunt of passing storms, including blizzards and hurricanes. “One winter, I had 57 inches of snow accumulation,” he recalls. In the summer, Bearwallow’s lofty summit was especially vulnerable to thunderstorms; lightning frequently struck the fire tower. Once, while standing near the tower, he was knocked off his feet by a lightning strike.
And wind was often intense on the exposed peak. Curtis had an anemometer mounted on the second landing of the fire tower so he could determine the wind speed. Inside his house, a “clicker” counted the revolutions to determine the wind’s miles per hour. “The highest it ever clocked was 103 mph. After that, the clicking stopped. The anemometer blew away.”
Life atop Bearwallow Mountain was exceptionally solitary; isolated at a high elevation and miles from the nearest town, Curtis obtained supplies only a few times a month. Often winter storms would leave him snowbound, preventing him from leaving the mountain for provisions. On one occasion, when low on supplies, Curtis benefited from some clever improvisation. Not long after radioing the Forest Service to report his dilemma, he noticed a small plane flying towards the top of the mountain. “The pilot flew over real low and real slow,” he explains. “He had made a parachute out of his daughter’s dress and dropped supplies from the plane. Coffee and cigarettes.” The care package helped Curtis endure several more days of bitter cold temperatures at the high elevation. As to the accuracy of the makeshift airdrop? “It landed on the front porch of the cabin.”
The resupply wasn’t Curtis’s only close encounter with aircraft on top of Bearwallow. “It was spring and the leaves had just come out on the trees. I heard a loud jet approaching, but by the time I looked, it was already gone,” says Curtis. A fighter jet had “buzzed” the fire tower. “He was so low, the exhaust from the jet engine burned the leaves off the tops of the trees.”
Often, Curtis still had plenty to look at from the top of the mountain once the sun went down. “On a clear night you could see the lights from Charlotte,” he remembers. On the 4th of July, he had perhaps the most spectacular firework display of anyone around, when the colorful light shows above five different towns were visible at the same time.
It was at night that the most bizarre incidents occurred during his career at Bearwallow. “At night you can see the glow of fire from a long distance, and I spotted one at Ferrin Knob,” says Curtis. Ferrin Knob is a peak near Mt. Pisgah only a short distance off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Like Bearwallow, it hosted a fire lookout tower on its summit and it was common for Clyde to communicate with its tower operator by radio.
Curtis called the tower operator at Ferrin Knob, who was already asleep. “I asked him where the fire was. He said he didn’t know,” explains Clyde, who was baffled at how the operator couldn’t see the fire. “Well, look around for it, I told him.” A generator beneath the tower had caught fire, and ironically, the fire tower itself was aflame.
Despite Bearwallow Mountain’s name, bears rarely visited Curtis. But he did receive other visitors from time to time. “Hikers would come up quite often,” he recalls. Local residents from the valleys below have sought out the summit of Bearwallow for decades. Its panoramic views and pleasant mountaintop meadow make it a favorite hiking destination in our area. Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), with the help of the Carolina Mountain Club and community volunteers, recently completed construction of a mile-long hiking trail from the road to its summit.
In 2009, CMLC placed a conservation easement on 81 acres at the top of Bearwallow Mountain, forever protecting the picturesque summit and access to its breathtaking views. It is the first phase in an effort to conserve more than 470 total acres at the top of Bearwallow over the coming years.
Perhaps no one is happier about preserving Bearwallow than Clyde Curtis. “It makes me feel real good. I wish more people could experience the mountain.”
Preserved forever, they’ll always have the opportunity.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.