Tuesday, April 12, 2016

More Stories About The Dangerous Work of NYS Forest Rangers

ranger grover smith & dan mckenzieAutumn of 1948 had been a particularly dry season. Forest Rangers of that era often remained at their headquarters awaiting a phone call reporting the location of a blaze. The radio system of that time was poor but most outposts and fire towers were connected via phone line.

Daniel McKenzie, a 27 year veteran, was the Forest Ranger for North Hudson at the time and he lived on the Blue Ridge Road. A Ranger’s work schedule was much different then. During dry periods they stayed available all the time and they worked until the work was done. Ranger McKenzie, by all accounts, wore his uniform almost all the time. The Northway was decades away from construction and North Hudson was a more isolated community. In fact, McKenzie first came to the area prior to becoming a ranger to help construct State Route 9.

North Hudson had been in a prolonged drought, six weeks since the last significant rain, when on the afternoon of October 6, 1948, a truck driver on Boreas/Blue Ridge Road spotted a fire about 50 feet from the road. He drove directly to Ranger McKenzie’s home to report the fire. McKenzie responded in his Conservation Department truck and had the good samaritan ride along with him to the scene to help put it out. The fire had only been burning for a short time and the two men worked quickly to keep it small. Just as they were finished, Ranger McKenzie fell to the ground and died from a heart attack. He was 64 years old. He was buried in his uniform at the Schroon River Cemetery.

Jim Lawrence was the Forest Ranger assigned to the remote West Canada Lakes ranger outpost in the fall of 1952. Following a day of November hiking, he fell gravely ill, but waited a day hoping his condition would improve with bed rest. After 24 hours of pain and unable to eat, he made a call for help. An early season snow storm had left a few inches of powder on the ground, but more importantly, low hanging clouds obscured the terrain, making a flight in to the outpost too risky to undertake. District Ranger Halsey Page initiated a ground rescue effort. He started in by jeep, accompanied by Ranger Ed Broland, not knowing how many of the 22 miles he would be able to drive. A trail crew of three was staying at the relatively nearby Cedar Lakes cabin eight miles away, and they were dispatched to head by foot over to Ranger Lawrence to see if they could help. The trail crew arrived at Cedar Lakes first and reported out to Page that Lawrence was in dire straits.

Page and Broland were able to get the jeep to within three miles of the outpost. They walked the remaining distance in the dark in what was now nearly a foot of snow. The small crew would be forced to carry ranger Lawrence by hand to the jeep. As they prepared for the difficult mission, they noticed stars overhead. The snow subsided and at 3 am they made a call out to Speculator to check on the weather at the hanger of bush pilot Clyde Elliot. He was willing to attempt the flight.

Elliot left his truck running, the head lights shining on the lake to act as a beacon to help him navigate for the return leg of the mission. Once airborne Clyde ran into a snow squall near Pillsbury Mountain and the poor visibility forced him to turn back. He tried again, taking a different approach closer to Spruce Mountain, and was able to stay out of the fog and clouds. As he looked down he could see lights. Page and others climbed onto the roof of the outpost and were waiving flashlights. Elliot would recall later that there a lot of chop on the lake but the landing was successful. Lawrence was loaded into the plane and they were soon taxiing through the waves, gaining speed on the water and then lifting away into the air.

When they landed safely in Speculator, Ranger Lawrence was examined by the local physician who advised he immediately be taken to the hospital in Amsterdam. Clyde Elliot’s night was not over. He loaded Lawrence again, this time in his car and drove him the 54 miles to the Hospital. Ranger Lawrence received emergency surgery for what was termed a “ruptured ulcer.” He survived and would remain hospitalized for nearly two weeks. He would return to work around Christmas time and for his heroic flight Clyde Elliot, along with Jim Lawrence, was invited to be a guest on the game show, Wheel of Fortune.

On October 12th 1965, a Conservation Department helicopter that was conducting a resupply mission to the West Canada Lakes outpost crashed just after takeoff from the Piseco airport. Some external cargo, reportedly a canoe, came undone and the rigging wrapped around the tail rotor causing the crash. District Forest Ranger Don Decker was one of three on board and was seriously injured. He was hospitalized but would recover and continue to be the supervising ranger for the Northville area for another decade.

Gilbert White was a WWII Army veteran and purple heart recipient who became a Forest Ranger in 1947, primarily patrolling the Adirondack portion of Saratoga County. On July 23rd 1970 he was working on the east side of Lake George, doing trail work near Lapland Pond when he cut his leg severely. It was a “high risk” wound that needed medical attention quickly. The bleeding had been abated but he was unable to walk out from the remote area and a helicopter was requested for an emergency evacuation. There was no clearing nearby to land the helicopter so Ranger White would have to be lifted up while the helicopter hovered overhead with the use of a cable hoist. Today helicopter hoist operations are a frequent component of ranger rescue missions but in 1970 the procedures were still being refined. The first use of the hoist in a rescue had just been performed the summer before and now rangers were using it for one of their own. The operation was a success and Ranger White was flown to a landing zone not far away and into a waiting ambulance. He would spend several days in the hospital but would eventually return to active duty and work another decade, retiring in 1981 with nearly 34 years of service.

david amesIn the fall of 1977 veteran High Peaks Forest Ranger Dave Ames led a rescue group up the Bottle Slide on Giant Mountain in a search of a missing climber as darkness settled in. Ames was one of the best rock climbers the rangers had at that time and in his crew was volunteer climber Jim Wagner from the Mountaineer, an outdoor store and guide service located in Keene. The Bottle Slide is considered a 4th class climb, meaning it can generally be done without ropes but is not necessarily without risk to a climber. As Ranger Ames placed his hand on a large rock, it pulled free. Jim Wagner described the incident to the Lake Placid News shortly after the incident. “He was in free fall for about ten feet then the rock rolled one way and Dave another. For a second I thought it was all over for Dave.” The rock was described as being the size of a man.

Ranger Ames tried to walk and hobble out but he could not bear any weight on his leg. Rescue professionals refer to this as an “incident within an incident.” They were still looking for a lost person but now also had an injured rescuer who needed to be rescued. More rangers were called to assist Ames while the search operation continued. Ames lay in a sleeping bag for hours in immense pain waiting for his coworkers to bring a litter up to him. “I never expected they would have to carry me down in one of those things,” he would later recall. They carried him throughout the night, finally reaching the trailhead in the morning hours. After handing Ames off to medical personnel, the rangers then went back up the mountain to continue looking for the lost climber. He was found around 11 am having spent a cold wet night high on the mountain that he was not prepared for. The climber was hypothermic but recovered quickly. Ames would nurse his injuries for the next few months before returning to full duty. Dave Ames would eventually become the highest ranking ranger in the state, serving several years as the Division Director.

Another High Peaks ranger, Gary Hodgson, who retired in 2000 after participating in over 700 search and rescue missions, summed up what Forest Rangers cope with, “There are just a lot of risks that most people don’t know about.”  Nonetheless, training and risk assessment have led to an impressive safety record for the Forest Rangers working in the Adirondacks throughout their history.

Photos from above: Ranger Grover Smith and Dan Mckenzie (on the right) at Lake Colden in 1937. Dave Ames in 1977 provided.

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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.

4 Responses

  1. Cranberry Bill says:

    if your forthcoming book is in this writing style, then I will buy two copies.

  2. Helga Frick says:

    Are we ever grateful enough?
    Those men (women?) really lay down their lives
    for others without expecting any rewards or recognition

  3. Dave Gibson says:

    Another great read. Two comments so far sum it up well. Scott continues to chronicle the remarkable history, duties and dedication of NYS Forest Rangers – even as he performs those duties.

  4. Rick miller says:

    I worked on an Adirondack fire tower for 6 years and saw much of the work the Forest Rangers did. All of the Rangers from the 70s and 80s are now retired, some passed and a new group has taken over. They continue to be an awesome group of men and women who I have complete confidence in.

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