Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Dangerous Work Of Adirondack Forest Rangers

Forest Rangers DEC PhotoForest Rangers are often thought to have an idyllic profession and it is an exceptional job, but not without risks. The terrain is often difficult and assistance hours away.

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.

James Ahern

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.

Albert Tebeau

ranger TebeauForest 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.

Fred Brundage

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

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.

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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.

17 Responses

  1. M.P. Heller says:

    Interesting and informative. Thanks Scott!

  2. Steve King says:

    Good article but you left out the classic tale of the accidental gun discharge that left one Ranger with a sore bottom.

  3. Ron Konowitz says:

    Great Job Scott !

  4. Bruce says:


    I’m curious, were the early rangers also considered game wardens? The idea of a “ranger” watching over the forests and everything which goes on there goes back to the distant past in Europe. Many of what we now consider “guides”, were the game keepers and river keepers of old, and still are. It is considered an honored profession by most.

    Multi-piece fishing and fly rods which could easily be hidden were considered to be the tools of a poacher.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      No, Game Protectors, as they were called was a different position. The early Forest Rangers (of course they are today) were granted the same powers as the Game Protectors and would enforce game laws. The early policy and procedures manuals I have read, 1919 and 1926, stated Forest Rangers were to make an arrest for Game Law violations they witnessed and then adjourn the case until meeting with the Game Protector. There were many more Forest Rangers in the Adirondacks then Game Protectors prior to 1970.

  5. John Seifts says:

    A very good article. Much of the danger I thought was in the continuous working alone, in remote locations, the unscheduled hours, and sometimes the unexpected confrontational situation.

    Well written article Scott.

  6. Excellent article, Scott! I remember reading some of this somewhere, maybe Lou Curth’s book or Paul Hartman’s Ranger history website? Looking forward to Part 2.

  7. John Vernon says:

    Being an English man resident in the UK Channel Islands, I found this very interesting, and something that I had not even considered before regarding dangers associated with the work of forest rangers. Very good and well written article. One day I hope to visit the Adirondack region.

  8. stephen e morris says:

    That was my dream job…..as a kid I would tell anyone who asked that I was going to be a forest ranger……It didn’t happen but it could have.

  9. NoTrace says:

    Good stuff, Scott. A lot of what the Rangers do (when not being hamstrung by the second-guessing suits of 625 Broadway), goes un-recognized.

    It’s not all heroic life and death stuff; sometimes it’s the small things that matter: In the winter of 1977, I was skiing back out from Silver Lake to Piseco with a full overnight backpack when my bamboo ski pole cracked, leaving me with only one pole, making skiing – well, rather difficult. Shortly after this happened, a ranger came by on a snowmobile from the opposite direction. He assessed my pole, and then opened up the toolbox underneath the seat of his snowmobile and got to work: He found a suitable sapling of length and diameter, and then used his knife to remove the basket and handle and strap from the bamboo pole, and then sharpened the end of the sapling so that it would jam and lodge into the basket, using tape to hold it all together. It took a while, but when it was all over I was able to ski out the rest of the way to Piseco without any problems.

    I still have that makeshift pole after all these years, made by a ranger whose name I forgot. I was so impressed by his handiwork that I submitted the fix to the nascent Backpacker Magazine as an item for self-help in the woods, and they published it, step-by-step in the magazine and paid me a whopping $25 for the idea.

    • NoTrace says:

      Now that all my neurons are firing, I think that Ranger’s first name was Gary.

      • scottvanlaer says:

        That is a great story! I would love to see the pole. I am not sure who the ranger would have been. There was Gary Lee, Gary McChesney and Gary Roberts who all worked in that vicinity at that time.

        • NoTrace says:

          Will have to rack my brain on that Scott, unless you have records of who would have covered the Piseco area in 1977…. Let me see if I can take a pic of that pole – send me your email address at jamesclose@earthlink.net (drat! I outed myself….)

  10. NoTrace says:

    Ernest Ovitt any relation to the recently retired Steve Ovitt?

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