Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Ridgelines and Airplanes

It was New Year’s Eve 2010, our first visit to Lost Brook Tract, just two days after we had closed on the property. I was standing in four feet of snow, contemplating potential trouble. I had bushwhacked down from the small plateau that marks the low point of our land, trying to get a feel for the ridge upon which it lay so that I could solidify the route in my mind.

My family and I had been guided in by Vinny McClelland the first time and on the way I had a noted couple of tricky spots. I was glad for the deep snow that provided sure tracks back to camp for at that moment I stood at one of those locations that raises the pulses of off-trail adventurers.

Some of you know this circumstance: you make your way down the line of a ridge and it seems easy enough, but you fail to see that the ridge is subtly bifurcated. That the bifurcation comes together as you descend is all but unnoticeable, but when you turn around you see that there are actually two different ways up. In this case the ridge line bearing to the right felt like the more natural course; it would have been easy to mistakenly follow it into ten or fifteen miles worth of no man’s land. Now that I know the course of Lost Brook better the bushwhack is easy (in daylight, for those of you who read the first dispatch), but a year ago it was all new discovery.

My expedition down slope to get that ridge right in my head was informed by a similar predicament that my family and I found ourselves in a few years before. Relating that adventure gives me an opportunity to describe the kind of landscape Lost Brook Tract inhabits without giving its location away entirely. It has the added benefit of allowing me to tell an interesting little story many readers may not know. The handful of you who may have ever gone looking for the wreckage of a plane know the story and landscape first-hand.

Just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, concerned about a possible attack on the East coast, the US Army constructed an air base Northeast of Syracuse. It is now the Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, but in World War Two, before there was a US Air Force, the Syracuse Army Air Base was a critical training facility for military aviators.

On September 20th, 1944 a crew of three took off on a routine night-navigation training mission in a Curtis-Wright C-46 Commando. The C-46 would be unimpressive by today’s standards, but at the time it was the largest twin engine aircraft in the world, a transport plane with a wingspan of over one hundred feet. During the mission the flight disappeared from radar and was not heard from again. To this day the cause of the crash is unknown. The Army spent over a thousand hours searching for the plane to no avail. Given the size of the craft a large debris field was to be expected; having located none, authorities assumed the plane had gone down in Lake Ontario.

Nearly a year later, in August of 1945, a civilian pilot searching for a small commuter plane which had crashed on a flight from Lake Placid to Boonville saw wreckage on the shoulder of a high mountain ridge west of Lewey Lake in the Central Adirondacks. The scope of the wreckage was too great to be the commuter plane so the pilot reported it to authorities as the possible location of the missing C-46.

A recovery mission was organized. A team of seven Forest Rangers and State Troopers, led by an airplane circling above, made their way through a forest “never before penetrated,” to quote one of the rangers. The Syracuse Post Standard described it thusly: “The dense underbrush was so thick that the progress of the ground party could not be followed from the air, and after reaching the top of the ridge, the searchers had to appeal for compass directions by radio on three occasions. Directed to build smudge fires so that their position could be located by McLane and Petty, the rangers received their directions from the plane thru Ranger John Hickey of Keene, who finally guided the party to within 300 feet of the wreckage by compass.”

What is remarkable about this story is not only that a wilderness dense enough to hide the wreckage of a C-46 could remain essentially unexplored in the most populous state in the nation well into the middle of the 20th century. What is just as remarkable is how long it took to rediscover the wreckage. Military plane crashes in World War II were routinely classified, including this one, therefore specific details of its location were not revealed. Perhaps a few locals or stray hunters came upon it over the years, but there is no record of anyone visiting the crash site again until it was found by members of the Caterpillar Club, a Syracuse pilots’ club (whose membership qualification is to have parachuted out of a stricken aircraft!). Their desire to find the plane and place a plaque memorializing the crew finally paid off on their fifth attempt, in May of 1997, fifty-three years later. [For a fuller account of the C-46 crash and rediscovery, the Caterpillar Club has a very informative website; the Almanack published A Short History of Adirondack Aircraft Crashes in 2009.]

Intrigued by the story of a lost plane wreck that sounded like it could have come out of an Indiana Jones adventure, Amy and the boys joined me in an attempt to find the crash site ourselves in 2005. To make a long story short, we failed. This part of the Central Adirondacks is not as well known or lauded as the High Peaks, but the higher parts of it are comparably dramatic, with a lot of vertical and a profusion of ridges, gullies and streams. It is also considerably more remote and less traveled than most of the High Peaks wilderness. We gave it a game try but ran out of time before we could figure it out.

Our failure was caused by just the sort of bifurcation found below Lost Brook Tract. We had successfully made our way into the general vicinity of the crash and established a base camp but the next day was mostly consumed by a mistaken ascent of the wrong ridge, divided from the right one at the critical point by a tiny stream flow too small to have cared about. By the time we corrected our mistake and worked our way high enough to be near the wreckage daylight was running out. Given that we were in a very a dense forest a good two miles from our base camp I brilliantly concluded that it was time to give up.

I had deployed Amy and our three teenagers in a grid search, each with their own whistle and distinctive signal pattern to make. The kids had been instructed to use their whistles every couple of minutes and be sure they could hear my reply in return. Sure enough the signals of two of them had faded away. I must say that at that moment the imposing feeling of utter wilderness with its attendant risks was quite powerful.

More than a little concerned, I blew the return signal hard enough to cause an aneurism. Thankfully that got everyone back and we made our way down having only the discovery of a stray piece of weathered sheet metal to show for our numerous scratches and bug bites. I came out of our adventure with a new-found respect for the difficulty of counting on any ridgeline to be obvious. But I also came out of it with an increased hunger for the feel of being in the middle of nowhere and not being quite certain where “nowhere” was. Little did I know that in a few years I would be back in related territory, this time as a land owner.

Looking up the ridge toward Lost Brook Tract, I allowed myself to imagine taking the wrong route and having to extricate myself from being completely lost. The remembrance of searching for the C-46 ridge came to me and I relived the feel of it with a sense of pleasure hard to put into words.

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

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