Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Great American Wilderness: Two Tragic Anniversaries

Snowy Mountain from the Jessup River Wild ForestI have noticed some opinions floating through the media lately calling into question the extent to which the Adirondacks really qualify as a wilderness.

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

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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.

8 Responses

  1. Scott van Laer says:

    The Douglas Legg incident changed search and rescue management forever and the lessons learned are still applied today. It was key to legislation that made forest rangers the lead agency in the “fire towns” of the state, (Adirondack and Catskills). I have a photo of the C-46 from the official crash report. Not sure how to post here but I will put it on Twitter.

  2. Bill Joplin says:

    By chance, a hiker has just posted pictures of a visit he made to the C-46 crash site two days ago:

  3. adirondackjoe says:

    it sounds to me more like Douglas Legg was abducted.

  4. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Nicely written and still another measure of wilderness.

  5. dhpalmira says:

    I have lived in the Northeast all my life and have traveled repeatedly through many of its areas from eastern PA to the Canadian boarder. The Adirondacks has always been a fascinating mystery, unlike any other area. (perhaps a distant 2nd being the Manhattan subways deep into the night) Yes,its all in my mind, but why? My guess is that the Adirondacks is a rare and well preserved representation of where we as a species were conceived in spirit.

  6. Paul says:

    “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.

    If you have kids and this doesn’t creep you out you are nuts. I was canoeing and hiking with my 11 year old the last three days and just reading this makes my heart sink.

    There is a recent story in Tupper Lake that makes my heart sink every time I see that big sign near the Raquette.

  7. Charlie S says:

    “it sounds to me more like Douglas Legg was abducted.”

    I’ve thought about that photographer Jack Coloney who disappeared way back in Moose River at Lost Pond some few years ago.I felt weird about that one. It would seem probable that he wandered into the woods and panicked when suddenly everything looked the same and he did not know which direction was which.And then he kept walking and disappeared in that vast wilderness.

    I’ve entertained the thought too that he could have been a victim of foul play by felonious humans or maybe even beings in a ufo floated him away into space to experiment on him,to see what made him tick. That may sound like I’m off my rocker but I’m open and we’ll never really know for sure what happened to Jack. People from all walks have claimed to have been witness to some very strange ufo,and other paranormal,events,all of which cannot be discredited, especially considering who some of these people are,ie…police officers,military personnel etc.

    I’ve seen two ufo’s in the Adirondacks.(A ufo of course being,simply… an unidentified flying object.) The first one was when I was a young teen camping at Durant Lake, the second one was when I was camping at the lean-to at Cascade Pond maybe fifteen years ago.In both instances there was a light in the sky being chased by a jet.In the first case (Durant Lake) the jet was following a silent larger object then flew back a few minutes later without the light in front of it.My dad and my younger brother were both witness to this event.I remember well it was on a spring night and it was windy and smoke was blowing in our faces from the fire we had going.

    I’m skeptical and I’m open about these things.Skeptical about what other people claim because I believe they watch too much television and it effects them,and open because I know what I saw though unexplainable.

  8. Dan Ling says:

    Article 14 created the first forest preserve on Earth. It’s Constitutional protection is the strongest found anywhere, and served as a model for the National Wilderness Act, which itself has often served as a model for the rest of the world. The largest park in the lower 48, the Adirondacks saw the earliest wilderness guiding (the “leatherstockings”), and log lodge architecture (the model for the National Parks). We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the APA was also the first planning agency of its type and scope anywhere, not a small thing, as the question of whether humans can live sustainably with Nature becomes more relevant each day.

    The Adirondacks are not merely a wilderness, but they are arguably the most important wilderness on this planet.

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