As I write this, on July 10th, a sad and sobering anniversary has arrived. Then in September we will mark the seventieth anniversary of another tragedy, one of many plane crashes that have occurred in the park, this one remarkable for the longevity of its mystery. Both anniversaries remind me just how formidable a wilderness the Adirondack region really is.
On a lovely July afternoon in 1971 at Santanoni, eight-year-old Douglas Legg set out with his uncle on a hike. After they had traveled a few hundred yards, the uncle, having determined that the bugs were very active, sent the little boy back for some long pants. They were close enough to the beginning of the trail that the main house could still be made out in the distance. But at some point on the way back the boy veered off the trail and disappeared.
Over the ensuing days the search for Douglas Legg blossomed into the largest manhunt ever undertaken in the Adirondacks, involving nearly a thousand people including Marines, college students, forest rangers, police, psychics, dogs and scores of volunteers from places unknown. Desperate to find some trace of their little boy, the family even paid to have the elite Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Unit, considered the best in the world at the time, flown in from California. The Californians took charge, but to no avail, eventually declaring the search area to be the most impenetrable and challenging they had ever encountered. After thirty-three days the search was finally abandoned. No trace of young Douglas was ever found. To this day his disappearance is a mystery.
In September of 1944 a World War Two military transport plane with a crew of three on a training mission from Syracuse Army Air Base disappeared from radar as it looped over Lake Ontario. After ten months of looking elsewhere, Army searchers were finally led to the right vicinity by the report of a pilot who had sighted debris in the Blue Ridge Wilderness while searching for an altogether different missing plane.
Forest rangers and woodsmen cut a five-mile swath through a forest “never before penetrated,” one so thick that searchers had to light smutches periodically because aircraft overhead could not see them. Eventually the remains of plane were located, the bodies recovered and the wreckage was left where it was found, its location classified by the military. But others, including curiosity seekers and amateur aircraft enthusiasts, maintained an interest in the crash and strove to rediscover the wreck on their own. It was finally located again, on May 11th… May 11th of 1997, that is, fifty-three years later.
Midwesterners in my neck of the woods might wonder of what great and remote wilderness we speak, one so formidable and deep that the wreckage of a C-46, the largest airplane flown in World War Two, could remain lost for more than five decades; that the headwaters of a great river (the Hudson) explored two more than two-and-a-half centuries earlier could remain unknown until well after the Civil War, about the same time that the source of the Nile was located in deepest Africa; that (according to lore) an entire British garrison, retreating from the loss of a fort in battle, could disappear into its depths without a trace. Perhaps parts of Pacific Northwest would come to mind, perhaps Colorado or Wyoming. If my flatlander friends were knowledgeable about American wilderness they might think of the vast millions of unpopulated acres in Idaho.
But those guesses would be wrong.
Here’s to the memory of the C-46 crew and to Douglas Legg.
Photo: Central Adirondack Wilderness