Forest Ranger Rob Praczkajlo covers the district just east of the High Peaks Wilderness, namely the towns of Jay, Elizabethtown, and part of North Hudson. Due to the high rate of search and rescue operations in the adjacent High Peaks, he is just as likely to be found there as he is patrolling his own district.
The High Peaks district had more than 100 emergency incidents in 2015 and they do not occur in a vacuum. They are not handled exclusively by the half dozen rangers stationed there. Rangers from all parts of the Adirondacks, and the Forest Preserve they protect, are affected by the drain from so many incidents. The following chronicles one week in July for Ranger Praczkajlo.
On Monday, July 3, Rob was scheduled to work the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, which often has him fielding calls from people whose loved ones are overdue from their outdoor excursions during the day. Most of these calls work themselves out and don’t result in a significant response or incident report but still require significant time speaking to concerned loved ones on the phone, driving to trailheads and checking register books. Working those hours helps resolve potential issues early and provides for a quick initial response if needed. It is the “problem solving” shift where you sometimes field calls like, “he went hiking in the Adirondacks, on the mountain….” or take questions such as “has his car passed through the gate and left the park yet?” And my personal favorite, “Can you call him on the park’s P.A. system and check on them?”
Rob began his tour about 30 minutes early. He was requested to respond to the “flume” in Wilmington, part of the High Peaks district, as soon as possible to help search for a missing swimmer. A popular cliff jumping and swimming hole at low water. During periods of high water, the series of waterfalls creates dangerous currents and hydraulics that should be avoided. He searched the waters with nine other rangers until about midnight without success. The Wilmington Fire Department and the New York State Troopers were also part of the coordinated effort. Rangers from the southern Adirondacks, as far away as Queensbury, would continue the search through the night.
On July 4, Rob was back at the flume by 6 a.m., one of a dozen rangers assigned to the incident that day. Searching this section of the West Branch of the Ausable River requires caution and expertise that the Forest Rangers are trained for, and with which they have experience. By morning, the search area was narrowed down to a particular pool, where rangers built a complex rope system, a telfer lower on a high line, to safely search the area below the falls with a raft. That afternoon the body of the missing swimmer was recovered. A sad ending, but closure was brought to a heartbroken family.
Once the mission was completed at the flume, some of the rangers immediately got out of their wet suits and whitewater gear and drove to the Ausable Club to help search for a missing hiker who had already spent an unplanned night in the woods. Rob was at the command post there by 5 p.m. Richard Maxwell, 49, was missing from his hike the previous day, July 3. Rangers were not notified until July 4 that he was overdue.
The lack of an adequate itinerary had rangers initially checking trailheads all over the Adirondacks. Once his vehicle was located at the Ausable Club, also part of the High Peaks Ranger district, a search response was quickly initiated. Trailhead register data showed that Bear Den, Dial and Nippletop mountains were his planned destinations. Trails were checked, and rangers hiked the same planned loop as well as to the summit of Pinnacle and the drainages that form Gill and Gravestone brooks.
The search effort paused around midnight on July 4 with Mr. Maxwell having to spend a second unplanned night in the wilderness. A much larger response, with 19 rangers, began at 6 a.m. on July 5. State Police aviation was utilized to insert four separate ranger crews at interior locations. Ranger Praczkajlo was teamed with Ranger Glen Bronson. Their assignment was to search the south drainages coming out of the ponds at Elk Pass that flow into Elk Lake.
They were able to take ATVs in several miles before beginning the search up the steep rocky brook on foot. At around 10 a.m. they made voice contact with the subject. Fifteen minutes later they were with the subject. After completing a medical assessment they determined they could hike him out. Mr. Maxwell was driven back to his vehicle at the Ausable Club. After the successful mission, Rob was able to sign out of service at 5 p.m.
On Thursday July 6, Ranger Praczkajlo got a reprieve and was able to perform equipment maintenance, primarily drying ropes and rafts from the recovery at the Flume. At the end of the day all equipment was inspected, packaged and made ready for a future deployment. The following day, on Friday July 7, he finally got a chance to patrol in his district, a hike up Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain, meeting briefly with the fire tower steward to go over some stewardship issues.
The next day, Saturday July 8, Ranger Praczkajlo was dispatched to search for a missing kayaker on Kiwassa Lake in Franklin County just as he was beginning his tour at 9 a.m. Some of the missing man’s equipment, including his kayak, were found on the water early that morning.
Utilizing much of the same gear from Monday’s search, Rob was one of eight rangers involved, along with the New York State Troopers and the Saranac Lake Fire Department. The search operations were halted for the day at 8:30 p.m. without locating the missing man. Rob was then dispatched to the Garden parking area for a carry out of a subject in the High Peaks Wilderness who had sustained a head injury in a fall. Fortunately the injured subject was able to walk out on his own, avoiding the labor intensive operation. Ranger Praczkajlo was able to sign out of service at 10:30 p.m.
On Sunday July 9, Ranger Praczkajlo began his day at 5 a.m. and was again on Kiwassa Lake conducting an underwater search for the missing kayaker. The man’s body was found in approximately 25 feet of water at 11:30 a.m. It was the sixth drowning in the North Country in a week.
The work schedule of Ranger Praczkajlo chronicled here is not unusual. Unfortunately it is becoming fairly typical for a NYS Forest Ranger to work this many hours and respond to so many search and rescue incidents. The number of people recreating in the outdoors is exploding, particularly in the High Peaks Wilderness. This is taxing the entire Forest Ranger force, whose staffing levels have remained stagnant for decades, despite increases in use and over one million acres added to their patrol responsibilities.
While people debate what to do about overcrowding, overuse and overtaxing the rangers who cover the High Peaks, they must realize that the frequent occurrence of these incidents has a domino effect on the entire Adirondack Park, as well as the state. Rangers statewide are hiking less for patrol, doing fewer campground checks, delivering fewer public presentations in order to keep pace with emergency response. Rangers from other districts are constantly pulled into the High Peaks for emergency response and the areas they cover are suffering as well.
As the state celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Adirondack Park, we simply do not have enough Forest Rangers to provide the appropriate level of stewardship for the High Peaks Wilderness. The solution seems obvious: increase Forest Ranger staffing levels to the capacity where their other missions, primarily state land stewardship, can still occur. The current staffing levels are untenable.
Photos: Above, a recent recovery at the flume; and below, Ranger Rob Praczkaijlo.