For example, during the recent recovery of hiker Hua Davis on MacNaughton, a Forest Ranger was accidentally submerged up to his chest in a freezing mountain brook – a perilous situation when you are 13 miles by trail from the nearest road.
Although New York State Forest Rangers have an excellent safety record, there have been numerous fatalities in the line of duty and many injuries. What follows are just a few examples.
Forest Ranger James Ahern worked during the formative years of the modern Forest Ranger force, when much of their time was spent assisting in the surveying of state land and documenting the wide-scale illegal cutting that had occurred since the formation of the Forest Preserve in 1885. On April 26th 1917, Ahern was helping state surveyor George Collins mark state land boundaries when he fell off a ledge or down a steep embankment, sustaining a fatal injury about five miles from Ray Brook.
According to newspaper accounts, Collins assisted Ranger Ahern out of the woods “as best he could” to the Ray Brook hospital (now Adirondack Correctional Facility). Ahern was admitted and treated for internal injuries, but his condition deteriorated. When doctors realized nothing could be done, he was taken to his home to spend his last days with his family. He died there, surrounded by his family in the early hours of April 30th from what was termed “ruptured intestines.” He left behind a wife and two children aged 11 and 9.
The following year an effort was made to grant death benefits to Ranger Ahern’s widow and children. Specific state legislation was required so his case could be heard by the state’s workmen’s compensation board. Signed by Governor Charles Whitman, the act declared Forest Ranger work was “hazardous” under the workers compensation law. It also cleared the way for the family to pursue benefits from the compensation commission.
Forest Ranger Albert Tebeau was another early rangers who left a legacy as the primary engineer of the steel fire tower, working in remote locations supervising their construction and maintenance. In the summer of 1929, prior to completion of a highway up Whiteface, Tebeau was putting a new roof on the observation deck of the summit cabin when he became seriously ill.
The tower was connected by a telephone line that ran down the western flank to Lake Placid and Ranger Tebeau used that phone to call for help. (This was a bit of luck, the line was notorious for breaking, requiring constant attention from rangers and observers).
James Hopkins, the supervising district ranger initiated a rescue effort and the team of eight made the summit in what newspapers termed “the quickest ascent ever made up the mountain.” There they found Ranger Tebeau incapacitated with ptomaine poisoning (a bacterial food poisoning). He had been living remotely for some time and apparently some of his food had gone bad.
Tebeau’s illness could have been quickly remedied in town, but was life threatening at the top of Whiteface. Lacking the modern litters Forest Rangers use today, they carried him out to the north on a stretcher, a more gradual and safer decent. He remained hospitalized for a days and was unable to return to work for even longer. This is believed to be the first time Rangers rescued one of their own, and the longest “carry-out” ever.
When it comes to legendary exploits, those of Forest Ranger Fred Brundage were well-known, especially in the Cranberry Lake community. He was stationed there after his appointment in 1920, at a time when the majority of search incidents involved hunters. His skills in the woods, especially search and rescue, became part of the foundation that transformed the ranger force into the lead agency for wildland searches.
Ranger Brundage was involved in more search and rescues than most rangers of his time. He lead the successful search for hunter John Wiley in 1935 and in the winter of 1937/38 he was lauded in letters to Commissioner Lithgow Osborne for his work on a search for Joseph Umpleby of Homer. Brundage and another Ranger found Umpleby’s body three days after he went missing. (His death was attributed to his accidentally cutting his hand.) His companions praised the men for “staying with us and helping loyally in the search, both morally and physically, in the hardest sort of work without one word of complaint.” (Brundage died after suffering a heart attack while battling a wildfire in Colton in the summer of 1941.)
Ernest Ovitt was the Forest Ranger assigned to the West Canada Lakes, living in a remote outpost there in 1946. While clearing a trail that fall his axe slipped and the blade sliced through his wrist, creating a severe wound. Ovitt removed his uniform shirt and took off his undershirt to use as a tourniquet. In need of urgent medical attention but with no means of communicating his predicament, he hiked two miles to Cedar Lakes and then rowed two-and-half miles with one arm to the telephone at the Cedar Lakes outpost.
Clyde Elliot, one of the pioneer Adirondack bush pilots based in Speculator flew into Cedar Lakes to rescue Ranger Ovitt. He was familiar with the route, having often flown in fisherman, hunters and occasionally contracting with the Conservation Department for resupply missions to the outpost. He landed on the lake, taxied to the dock, and flew Ovitt to Speculator where he was transferred to a waiting ambulance and transported to a hospital in Gloversville. He eventually made a full recovery and returned to his post at the West Canada Lakes Ranger cabin.
Photos: Above, a Forest Ranger talks to backcountry visitors (DEC photo); and below, Forest Ranger Albert Tebeau.