Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The 1981 Ampersand Mountain Search For Kate Dekkers

ampersandmtIn the summer of 1981, in the High Peaks Wilderness, an organized outing consisting of kids and counselors went on a day hike. Twelve children and two adults went up Ampersand Mountain on July 24th to enjoy a summer day in the Adirondacks. Only eleven children returned. A 10-year-old girl, 4-foot-ten-inches tall, wearing blue shorts and a red #88 football jersey went missing, separated from the rest of the group.

It’s the type of unfortunate, yet often preventable incident that regularly happens during summers in the Adirondacks. Most separations like this are solved within hours –  it would take four days to solve the mystery of what happened to young Kate Dekkers.

She was part of a summer program affiliated with North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. Kate was running late that day, nearly missing the bus and leaving behind most of her stuff, she had no backpack. She didn’t even get a chance to eat breakfast. Kate was tired and hiking towards the back of the group, but made it to the top. Once on the open summit she ate the lunch provided, peanut butter and jelly on white bread with a soda and cookies. Relaxing, enjoying the view, and tired from the hike, she even managed a brief nap. The group then began the hike down and Kate was awake and began the hike with the group. Still near the top, she stopped to tie her shoelaces and, falling behind, moved quickly to catch up. The top of Ampersand is a series of small summits with numerous herd paths created by hikers exploring the open area and looking for views. It was most likely one of these paths that Kate accidentally followed off the mountain in her haste to catch up to the group.

Around 2:30 that afternoon, once the counselors realized she was missing, a hasty search was begun. The DEC was contacted for assistance. The initial professional search team consisted of Forest Rangers Gary Hodgson and Joe Rupp who went up the mountain and attempted to “cut sign” off trail around the summit, which was Kate’s point last seen, or PLS. “Sign cutting” means looking for disturbances in the landscape where a person travels and leaves behind a sign of their path. It can be as obvious as a broken branch or as subtle as the transfer of dirt from the sole of a boot. Late in the evening Hodgson and Rupp found just such a sign, a footprint in a drainage heading off the North West side of the Mountain, well off the summit and into the surrounding lowlands. They marked the location, but the impending darkness prevented their following the tracks further. They hiked out to the highway and spoke with one of Kate Dekkers parents, describing the tread pattern. They were certain the track was that of the young girl.

The next morning, July 25th, a much larger search was begun. Forest Ranger Doug Bissonette assumed command of the operation. Twenty volunteers and sixteen members of DEC staff began searching the mountain by 7:30 that morning. Ranger Hodgson returned to the track he found the day before with a bloodhound team from the New York State Police led by Trooper Brown. To everyone’s dismay and to the surprise of most, Kate was not located. Busy Route 3 is not far to the north of Ampersand  and the tracks found that first day were heading to the north. A change in direction by Miss Dekkers however, could lead her into the Western High Peaks, perhaps the must rugged area of the entire Park with 4,000-foot peaks and thousands of acres of swampy lowlands. While the weather was generally good, temperatures dipped into the upper-40s that night and the urgency greatly increased; even in summer, survivability drops off significantly after the second night.

Image5As dawn arrived on July 26th, more than 100 volunteers came to the search effort and the area was divided into search blocks. Grid searching is labor intensive as it involves people standing within sight of each other and walking a set direction, in theory covering every square inch of their assignment. The large number of volunteers provided the manpower to accomplish this task and a DEC helicopter was also put to use, flying over the wilderness looking for Kate in her red shirt. Ranger Gary Hodgson was still trying to follow the track he found the first day. Clue conscious search crews were positioned in front of him along Halfway Brook looking for new sign. Local outdoorsman Jim Lamy led one of the volunteer search teams. He hunted in the search area every year and was very familiar with the landscape. During the day he found tracks believed to be Kate’s on the East side of the Mountain, along Flag Brook, which represented a major change in direction for the missing child. Several dog teams were brought in to the tracks that had been found, but they failed to hit on anything. The day ended with new clues, but still no Kate.

As the sun set on the searchers there was foreboding that Kate would have to spend a third night alone in the wilderness, but also enthusiasm for the fresh new clues found that day. A light rain began to fall as the ground crews made it out to the command post. “We would not give up,” Forest Ranger Doug Bissonette recalled three decades later. “She was in an area where there was plenty of water. If you have water you can survive quite a while.” He moved resources toward the new tracks. Several Park Rangers, called Assistant Forest Rangers today, spent the night along the northeast side of the mountain. Doug ordered yet more Forest Rangers to lead crews the next day, expecting the number of volunteers to increase substantially as the search was also now garnering significant media attention. There would be 18 ground search crews and 2 helicopters assigned for the fourth day.

On July 27th, the fourth day of the search, Jim Lamy was again volunteering his time, leading a search crew around the area where they found footprints the day before. An age-old practice for locating missing hunters is for either hunter or searcher to fire a round from a gun to signal location or indicate distress. This crew was made up of local hunters, including Dave Whitson and Ray Scollins. Near the confluence of Cold Brook and Flag Brook one of them employed this tactic. “I had followed him a little bit in the morning. He had a gun and was firing it and yelling the name Karen. I thought he was hunting a girl named Karen,” Kate Dekkers remembered over three decades later. “The scariest part was approaching,” she recalled. “Do I hide or follow or call back? I had nothing to lose at that point.”

A little after 9 am, Kate was found in surprisingly good shape. She had a lot of bug bites and her arms were scratched from pushing her way through thick vegetation. During the ordeal she put her socks on her arms to protect them, but lost them the final night. The search crew fed her a PBJ and soda, the same menu as that of her last meal, four days earlier on the summit. Ranger Bissonette made plans for the DEC helicopter, which was float equipped, to fly to Little Ampersand Lake. The searchers carried Kate on their back at times. “I remember being more concerned for my smell when someone was carrying me and wanting to walk” Kate recalls. They made their way to the lake and at 11 am DEC pilot Ace Howland landed in the state’s bright yellow N600. Kate made her way in and was flown directly to Saranac Lake Hospital.

282807_10200393250182297_97130975_n“I wasn’t horribly scared throughout. No one believed that, but I just sort of believed I was going to walk out on my own any minute and just sort of dealt with it as it was happening. I thought the rivers would lead to the lake and the main road, but they never did they just went underground and disappeared. I never felt doomed or freaked out or intimidated by animals,” explains Dekkers of the ordeal today. “The event itself never felt as traumatizing as learning all the mistakes I had made after the fact. Stay put, bring a pack with essential items. A lighter and a whistle might have been helpful.”

Kate is unnecessarily hard on herself to this day about becoming lost on Ampersand, especially since she was only 10 at the time. It’s something she rarely talks about. “I was so deeply embarrassed by what had happened.” She lives in Portland Oregon now, but still often visits friends and family in the Adirondacks. She did hike Ampersand again, and as she’s quick to mention, in less than 4 days. “I am so grateful to the men who found me after those four long days… and everyone who looked for me,” she said. “My silence was from childhood humiliation and I am thankful and grateful to them. I am so happy I survived.” So too no doubt, are all the searchers who search for her that day.

Photo of Ranger Bissonette and the N600 helicopter N600 courtesy Doug Bissonette; photo of Kathryn Dekkers today courtesy Kathryn Dekkers.

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Scott van Laer has been a forest ranger for 21 years and is currently a delegate for PBA of NYS, the union which represents forest rangers.

9 Responses

  1. Steve Cooperdock says:

    I love a happy ending. As a Scout leader, this teaches me to be more careful with my boys in the wilderness, and constantly to take body counts.

  2. William Brown says:

    I see that you are writing a book about plane crashes in the Adirondacks. I wonder whether you might know of extant wreckage of a small plane that is still in the woods in the Lake George Wild Forest, on the Tongue Mountain Range. I was told by a local guy some years ago that the plane crashed perhaps in the 1950s. No other information is known to me, but I do know where the wreckage (just a few engine parts and other steel objects) is located. I would be glad to show you the site if you’re interested.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      July 16 1953-Pilot David Serge and passenger Charles Romano died when their seaplane crashed into the side of Tongue Mountain, which towers over the west side of Lake George near Bolton Landing. A fisherman reported seeing the crash from the lake. New accounts report the bodies were burned beyond recognition…My intel was that the wreckage had been removed, so yes I would very much like to have you take me to the crash site. Thanks

  3. adkDreamer says:

    Scott – Great story. Back in the 1970’s I became ‘lost’ around the Lower & Upper Wolfjaw area with a team mate of mine from High School Ski Team (We were hiking for conditioning & the experience). But there is a twist: We got lost because we were ahead of the main group, not behind. We were both by far the strongest endurance kids on the ski team and just took off. It started to get dark and we both sort of reached a panic point thinking we were on the wrong trail. We reached the cars in record time, but what we didn’t realize is that main hiking group was looking for us. When they finally arrived we realized our mistake, even though we were not technically lost – But the main group did not know that. In their minds we were lost. My take away: In large groups have a front guide and a rear guide – no hikers are allowed to pass the front guide and none fall behind the rear guide. Every one arrives safe – no loose ends.

  4. Charlie S says:

    A happy ending.I like that! There should always be an adult in the front and an adult in the rear when in groups with children in any wilderness.All children should be taught,when in the Adirondacks,that if you suddenly become disoriented and am not sure where you are SIT TIGHT DONT BUDGE AN INCH.

    • M.P. Heller says:

      Isn’t that what that fella did on the NPT a couple decades back? Sat and waited? For,(IIRC) 34 days? Until he died of starvation. Only a few miles from Lewey Lake CG…..

      • scott van laer says:

        You are referring to David Boomhower. Yes that was his plan, wait for rescue. There is no hard and fast rule when lost if you should move or stay put. It is situational dependent. In the scenario Charlie S is describing, kids on a day hike, I would say he is correct, advise them to stop and stay put if they are confused or disoriented.

  5. Charlie S says:

    A child is not going to be on the NPT M.P. And if the child did get lost off the trail somebody would have known and if he or she child was learnt well he or she would have surely been rescued. I know nothing about the fella on the trail a coupla decades ago but evidently nobody knew he was on the trail otherwise they would have looked for and found him….No?

    I was on the trail to Tirrell Pond probably fifteen years ago,after that big blowdown and about a mile or so in I suddenly became discombobulated.Trail markers were not in plain view and I wasn’t sure if I was on the trail or not but I did not panic.I stayed in the immediate area,did not keep walking,and finally figured out the trail. I was sorta on edge for a few moments I must say though,but I did not panic.I think that is what gets hikers and campers lost…fear,and they keep walking into the wilderness which all looks the same.

  6. In 1980 three of us who were the last remaining members of the Tompkins County SAR Team, reorganized and revitalized the team into the Wilderness Search and Rescue Team (which is still operating today out of northern Onondaga County). The Dekkers search was our first actual call-out. I remember driving up from Ithaca overnight with one teammate in my AMC Eagle, and going right into the field after a 15 minute nap. It was a great way to start a new team off, and we gained several new members after that, who have become life-long friends.

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