Bill had been driving all over the Adirondacks since early Friday morning. I was in my car heading north to meet him. I’d get occasional calls from him about the wintry conditions and iced-over lakes that he found. Ice-out was late this year, so our original plan to canoe into the St. Regis Wilderness Area for a few days of fishing was scrapped. Instead, we decided on fish Rock Pond, in the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness.
Bill had been wanting to fish the pond for years, and he was sure we had a chance for some big brook trout. From the DEC boat launch in the campground on Putnam Pond we paddled about two miles to the carry at the other end of the lake, about three quarters of a mile from Rock Pond.
In the canoe, we had a good amount of stuff — more than we needed for three days. We hiked up to Rock Pond carrying the heavy packs first and then returned for the canoe, paddles, and a lighter pack. It had been raining all morning, but it was clearing as we left Putnam Pond and the weather was pleasant. As we arrived at the shallow cove on the far end of Rock Pond, I noticed a few ice patches in some of the shady spots.
We were pleased to find the Rock Pond Lean-to unoccupied, since it was the only real shelter on the lake. These rustic, three-sided log shelters are much appreciated when the fickle Adirondack weather changes for the worst. This one looked like it was in pretty good shape, including a newer roof.
We took some time to get our stuff situated, eat some food, and then fish in the early evening. I noticed we didn’t have cell service, so I set my phone to airplane mode and put it in the front pocket of my backpack. I had already let my wife know where we were camping and that there might not be service in the area.
Our gear was strewn all over the floor of the lean-to, and we were sorting through our fishing gear when four hikers approached from the opposite direction we had come. Three of them stayed on the main trail, but one came to talk to us. She was a confident hiker that looked like she might be in her late 50s or early 60s. She told us they would “let us have the lean-to” and camp at the primitive campsite down the trail. She said they might return to the lean-to if the storm coming she expected in the evening was bad.
They were on a short backpacking trip, hiking in from one of the many trails in the wilderness area. They left, and I saw them as they passed by the back of the lean-to, picking their way down the trail on their way to the next campsite along the lake.
We had had a good day of fishing. I used my southern New England bass fishing tactics and caught several brook trout on a black rubber grub, casting toward the submerged limbs and branches along the shore. Bill used his Adirondack brook trout fishing tactics and caught a similar number of trout on a “Lake Clear Wobbler” and a worm. We kept a couple trout for dinner, or maybe breakfast.
We were tired in the evening. It was a long day of traveling, paddling, hiking, and fishing, so we saved the trout for breakfast. We had plenty of food with us anyway, so we ate mac and cheese with sausage, built a nice fire in the pit in front of the lean-to, and drank some of the beers we brought. I brought a few beers from Connecticut, and Bill brought some from Vermont.
The sun was getting lower in the sky when the wind started to pick up. It was annoying, blowing smoke and embers at us. We prepared the campsite for the night, stowing our gear in the lean-to, out of the wind. It looked and felt like rain was coming. I walked up the hill and looked for a tree to hang the bear rope on. I picked a tree about 20 or 30 yards from the privy on top of the hill, figuring that we could follow the trail to the privy, then veer off to the left near a large rock and tree. I took a good mental note of the landmarks, knowing that it would be dark when we returned to hang the food for the night. We got out our headlamps and lights for the lean-to. I set up my solar lantern — a lightweight, inflatable plastic cylinder that looks plain and simple but is surprisingly useful. Bill’s headlamp wasn’t working right, and was using a little pocket lantern, or borrowing my headlamp.
Around 7:45-8 pm, the winds really picked up. It was getting dark, but there was still plenty of ambient light. I sat on the edge of the lean-to and watched the taller pines as they swayed in the wind. It was somewhat comforting that there weren’t any large trees in front of the lean-to, which faced the rocky hillside. There were some large trees between the back of the shelter and the pond, but they looked healthy and sturdy. We had a lot of pine trees on our property where I grew up in Connecticut, and I remember some of them breaking unpredictably during storms. It always made me nervous to camp in a pine forest, but, since Rock Pond is surrounded by pine forest, this lean-to was probably the best place to be in the area. Carvings in the logs that dated back to the early 1970s reassured me a bit. This shelter has seen some weather.
A heavy rainstorm blew through, extinguishing our fire. We had built up the fire, hoping it would be hot enough to withstand the rain, but the rain was too heavy. Bill managed to restart it afterward, and the wet smoke filled the lean-to.
One of the tall pines on the hill fell over during a big gust. By this time, it was almost dark, and I could see the shadow of it as it fell up the slope of the hill. Later, when we hung our food from the bear rope, we discovered that the tree had fallen on the privy. It was difficult to find the bear rope after the tree had fallen — the trail looked much different. The wind was a lot stronger on the hillside than it was near the lean-to, and we quickly made our way back to the shelter after hanging the food. Why was the weather always bad when we camped together? A bit nervously, we joked around about it as we picked our way back down the hill.
It was around 10 pm. The darkness of the Adirondack wilderness made it so you couldn’t see what the pine trees were doing anymore. It was still windy — just as we thought it might die down a bit, a big gust would come though, snapping some pine tree off in the distance. I tried to guess what the sounds meant. A broken limb would make a higher pitched snap. An uprooted tree wouldn’t snap — just a dull thud when it hit the ground. A larger tree that cracked somewhere above the stump would make a deeper cracking sound, followed by a thud when it hit the wet ground. I wondered which way to run if we heard a snap from behind the shelter, and, after some thought, I decided that it would be better to stay in the shelter.
It was quite a storm. The last forecast I looked at called for 30-something mph gusts. This felt much worse than the forecast. We talked about the group of four hikers that we saw earlier. They must have decided to hike out after all, since they didn’t return to the lean-to in the storm. We hoped they hiked out — it was a bad storm, and the campsite that they were heading to when they left us was surrounded by large pine trees. We concluded we were the only ones crazy enough to be out here in this weather.
We turned off the lanterns around 11 pm, and got into our sleeping bags. I knew I wouldn’t sleep much — I never do on my first night in an unfamiliar place, and this storm made me nervous. In my younger days, I might have just drunk enough beer until I didn’t care about the wind anymore. Nowadays, I prefer to stay alert, sober, and fully functional during questionable situations. I’m glad I did.
I was sitting upright in my sleeping bag when we were startled by a beam of light bouncing off the trees in front of the lean-to. Someone was approaching from the trail behind the shelter. A ranger? Someone lost? Who would be walking around now? A female voice asked if anyone was in the lean-to. “We need help. A tree has fallen on one of the people in our group. She’s pinned and she can’t move.”
Those four hikers were still out here. I climbed out of my bag, sat on the edge of the lean-to, and laced up my hiking boots. I grabbed my rain jacket and headlamp and followed the woman down the trail. “I’m surprised that I could find you guys.” She seemed fairly calm. I thought it must be a small tree, and they just need our help to lift it off. Our lights reflected off the wet rocks and bushes as we made our way to their campsite.
It was a mess of tree limbs and sticks. In the darkness, it was hard to tell that it was a campsite at all. We came up from behind the tree, and I had to peer over it to see her. It was the lady that we talked to, the leader of the group. There was no way we were going to budge this tree; it was huge. We tried anyway.
We needed to get to a place that had cell service. We had to make some sort of plan. We could hike a little over 1.5 miles overland to Putnam Pond State Campground, but following the trail would leave us far from our vehicle, and the campground was empty this time of year. We decided to take the canoe, returned to our lean-to and grabbed my phone, car keys, and extra headlamp batteries. Bill put the canoe over his shoulders and I grabbed the paddles. He used my headlamp and I took the inflatable solar lamp and walked in front.
As we passed their campsite we saw the lights from their headlamps bouncing off the trees. We yelled over that we were going for help.
It was only three-quarters of a mile to the put-in, but the trail looked so much different at night. Near the top of the first hill Bill set the stern of the canoe down, and held it up while I climbed under, resting the yoke on my shoulders. The trail was a muddy mess. I slipped and fell a few times. I saw a little drainage channel made of rocks that I didn’t remember seeing on the hike in. I had a feeling that we were walking the wrong way, but we didn’t see any other trails, so we kept going. The trail opened to a wider triangular shape, and our light stopped reflecting off the trees. We had found Putnam Pond.
Bill’s kevlar canoe is great for backcountry trips. It’s large enough to hold a lot of gear, but weighs about 40 pounds. But in a storm with gusts that felt like 30 to 40 mph, the light weight worked against us. It acted like a sail, and wanted to turn broadside to the wind. It was cloudy with no moon or stars to light our way. I was in the bow with the headlamp and we could only see the outline of the shore, when you we were very close to it.
We paddled hard, broadside to the wind for a while — fighting to keep the canoe from blowing ashore as we rounded the a point, we aimed back into the waves and made for the opposite shore with the wind behind us. When we reached the boat launch Bill pulled the canoe ashore while I ran to the parking area to get my car. I felt relieved that the hard part was over for us — we just had to make a call.
It was just before midnight when I started my car. I picked up Bill and drove as fast as I could through the campground, slowing often to maneuver around fallen sticks and limbs. Our plan was to head towards Ticonderoga and drive until we either got cellphone service or saw a house with a light on. It wasn’t far from the campground gate when we saw a house with the lights on inside.
It was 12:03 am. Bill knocked on the door and a woman answered, invited us in, dialed 911, and handed me the phone. She grabbed the remote, shut off the television, and listened to Bill tell her the story as I waited for the 911 dispatcher.
The dispatcher asked me for a street address and I told it was a backcountry accident at Rock Pond. We went back and forth. “Putts Pond?” “No, Putnam Pond.” “Putts Pond Rd?” “No, the lady is out in the woods, you have to take a boat or hike to get to her.” “But it’s Putts Pond Rd?” Eventually the dispatcher said she would send crews to the boat launch at Putnam Pond.
We drove to the intersection of the main road to flag down the rescue crew. We met them shortly, and drove to the boat launch. Pickup trucks and emergency vehicles soon cluttered the launch. One truck had an old boat with no outboard. Flashing lights, diesel fumes, and engine noise replaced the noise of the wind and the waves. We talked with a police officer and some firefighters, and offered to use our canoe to take a young firefighter and his chainsaw to Rock Pond. We saw a paramedic come and quickly leave the area, and later learn that she and a firefighter were hiking in on the trail from the campground.
We load the canoe with the firefighter. He tries to sit on one of the thwarts, and we tell him to sit on the bottom to make the boat more stable. He kneels in the water that collected in the canoe. We begin crossing the pond, and are close to the point when we hear a voice on his radio. They want him to come back — they have a boat on the way from Ticonderoga, and they want us to ride out on the boat.
It’s about 12:45 when we returned to shore, and I’m sitting on a dock that hasn’t yet been put in the lake for the summer season. Bill is talking to the police officer and the fire chief, trying to explain the need to move all the vehicles from the boat launch for the boat that’s on its way. He eventually succeeds, and the trucks and ambulances are moved — but not far enough — and they needed to be moved further once the boat arrives.
The boat is launched. It’s a 23-footer powered by a 115-hp outboard motor. It has a top speed of about 45 mph. It has an open deck similar to a pontoon boat, and an overhead bar with flood lights mounted to it. After some difficulty with the trailer, the firefighters launch the boat, spin it parallel to the dock, and we hop in and wait. What are we waiting for? “Chainsaws.” I jump off the boat and run up to a man fixing a chainsaw. He points to a young firefighter behind me who jogs up to me, smiling, and hands me two chainsaws. I jump on board – “All right, let’s go!” No, not yet, we’re waiting for some other guy. Bill and I sit together in the seat across from the operator and stare at the ground as we wait for something to happen. It was taking too long. Maybe we feel different about it because we saw her out there, but these guys just weren’t moving fast enough.
After what seemed like an eternity, we’re finally ready to go. With a crowd of people and equipment on board, the propeller is stuck in the mud. The operator fumbles with the controls of the boat. He finally finds the trim control, raises the motor, and frees us from the mud.
“Be patient guys, it’s going to be a long, slow ride. I don’t know this lake,” he says as we putter away from the dock, as the wind and waves buffet the boat. Bill and I look at each other. We’re not just going slow, we’re not even going fast enough to keep the boat straight. The deck lights light up the inside of the boat, making it impossible to see anything past the bow. I asked the operator to turn the lights off, but I’m ignored.
It seemed like everyone on the boat was giving directions to the operator, but they were all different, and they always started or ended with things like “when I was hunting out here, we went over there’’ or “I haven’t been out here in years.” I felt my heart rate increasing. I knew I could get this boat there. Bill could get it there, too. People were fumbling with some spotlights, one of which wasn’t working at all. One would flash on and off constantly. After about 15-20 minutes of wallowing around — not even out of earshot of the vehicles at the boat launch — they decided that they couldn’t make it any further. The reasons were numerous — It was too windy, those other people are hiking there, that “they tried, they gave it their best shot.” I couldn’t take it anymore. “You didn’t try at all.” Some guy up front barked back at me “You’re not in charge of this operation.” And that was it. They turned the boat around, after traveling about half as far as we did when we tried to take the firefighter out with us in our canoe. I couldn’t get off that boat quick enough.
As some of the firefighters were trying to get their boat back on its trailer, Bill and I took our canoe and brought it to his truck in the lot on the hill. “Hey, where are you guys going?” We turned around and saw a firefighter chasing us up the hill. Bill told him that he was getting his canoe out of the way. “My chief wanted to know where you guys were going. He didn’t want you to try to go back in there on your own.” I thought about how much sense that made — that we would carry our canoe away from the boat launch and up the hill into the woods to launch it into the pond.
By this time, I was sure that our biggest mistake had been calling 911. I think we would have been better off paddling to the launch, driving to the 24-hour Walmart in Ticonderoga, buying a couple cheap chainsaws and shovels, and paddling back out there ourselves.
We put the canoe on Bill’s truck and stood in the dark parking lot, thinking about the woman still trapped under that tree while we were here, standing around, while people talked on radios and chatted with each other and went on boat rides and fixed chainsaws and drove their UTVs all over the campground. I thought about the sense of relief I had felt when we got to a phone and the naive thought that the people we called would be able to help us. I thought of the responsibility that we had taken to go find help. There were four people out in the woods waiting for us, and here we were leaning on a truck in the parking lot. Some wonderful job we did. I felt awful.
Around 2:45 am, we heard the sound of one of the UTVs coming into the parking lot. Two men were in it. “The chief wants to speak with you.” We’ve given them detailed directions a few times already. What now? What else could they want? We climbed back into my car and followed the UTV through the campground to another trailhead. This must be the trail that the paramedic hiked in on. They started that hike hours ago when we were still waiting for the boat. Where did they go? It’s only a mile and a half from the trailhead.
The chief was sitting in his pickup truck with another firefighter, listening to his two-way radio. He complained about the radios, telling us that the department spent a fortune on them and they didn’t even work right. Were the rescuers there yet? No, they were lost. It sounded like there were multiple groups of rescuers wandering aimlessly in the woods. One group contacted the chief — they hiked to the wrong pond. The chief wanted to know if we had a map — they needed to know where Rock Pond was. We told him that the map and GPS that Bill brought was in the lean-to. I handed my phone to Bill and he used the crude map on google to show the chief where the rescue party took a wrong turn and hiked to a different pond. We stayed at the chief’s truck long enough to hear that a rescue party had reached the woman. It was well after 3 am. Finally, after more than three hours of trying, the fire department had found them. We excused ourselves and returned to the parking lot where Bill’s truck was parked.
We were in the parking lot discussing what to do next when two New York Forest Ranger trucks pull up and park. They had just launched their boat, and were getting ready to help with the rescue. Bill explains where the campsite is located, and they tell us that they know which one it is. They even knew that there were a lot of large pine trees around the site. They finished preparing their gear, thanked us for the help, and walked down the hill to the boat launch.
It was almost first light, and these were the first people other than us that had any idea where the victim was. Why did it take so long for them to get here? Bill and I guessed that maybe the firefighters hadn’t bothered to call them until hours after the rescue operation started.
Bill wanted to let his family know that he was in good health. They live in an area that gets news updates from Ticonderoga, so he didn’t want his family to think he was the one that was injured. We drove into Ticonderoga and sent a couple emails. It was about 4:15. There was an airport near the gas station, and a helicopter was running, preparing to take off. It flew away as we were discussing what to do next. There was no point in trying to sleep. We grabbed some breakfast from a gas station and headed back to Putnam Pond.
It was a cool gray morning. It was still windy, but much calmer than the night before. We carried our canoe back down the hill past the Ticonderoga and Chilson Fire Department trucks idling at the boat launch. There was a medevac helicopter perched on the edge of the stone wall, its tail boom hanging out over the water. The pilot said he just got there, that he couldn’t fly from Burlington because there were 50-mph winds last night. He wished us luck and told us not to drown as we paddled away. We rounded the point, headed toward the island, then rounded the island and followed the shore to the canoe carry trail.
We could see the rangers’ green flat-bottom boat at the carry. We slowed down and waited — we were far enough away that we couldn’t see much. A crowd of people carried an orange litter onto the boat and the boat slowly made its way back to the launch. It was after 5 am. Once the trail entrance was clear, we brought our canoe to the trail. There were a couple tired-looking young firefighters there and a ranger. They told us that she was in rough shape, that she looked OK when they first got there, but her condition worsened as they came down the hill.
The rest of her party passed us on the way up the trail. Two of them thanked us, one of them after giving Bill his saw back. One of them didn’t recognize us and told us “that lady would have loved to see you and your boat last night.” The firefighters that passed us didn’t make eye contact as they walked by.
It felt strange to be back at the lean-to. I don’t think either of us wanted to be there, but Bill was too exhausted to pack up and leave, and I wasn’t sure about anything. Maybe I was just tired, too. I slept for a few hours. The sun was out when I got up, and the lake was calm. It was a nice spring day — chilly in the shade, but warm and comfortable in the sun. I didn’t enjoy it at all. The last place I wanted to be was here, at this beautiful lake on a sunny day with loons calling to each other and spring peepers singing.
I went for a walk and saw three or four trees that had fallen the night before. I fished for a while. Bill got up and we combed through the details of the night before. It was all we could think about. Why didn’t the hikers come to the lean-to? Why were the firefighters so inept? Why did it take so long for the rangers to get there? What did we do wrong? Why didn’t we have the rangers phone number and why didn’t we call them instead of 911? Why did we both feel so bad about the whole thing? We thought of everything, and it consumed us for the rest of the day.
A couple guys set up camp where the tree had fell the night before. They had no idea what happened there a few hours earlier. When I got home, I still couldn’t get the trip out of my thoughts.
We found a few vague articles about the rescue, and eventually found one that identified and described the woman as Lynn Malerba. She was an experienced and licensed Adirondack Guide. She must have been taking the other three hikers on a guided trip. She taught map reading and navigation courses.
Over the next few weeks Bill and I kept talking about what happened. We want to make something positive out of this experience. I’m not sure how, but maybe sharing our story will help. At the least, maybe it will educate hikers to prepare for the worst and to think about who you call for help in the wilderness. It makes a big difference.
I wish this story had a happy ending. Lynn Malerba died from her injuries on May 7, 2018 at the age of 60. I only talked to her for a matter of minutes, but I doubt I’ll ever forget her name.
Rest in Peace, Lynn.
Photos of Rock Pond, the Rock Pond Lean-to, and the hiking trail near Rock Pond in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness by John Warren; Map courtesy Adirondack Atlas.
Joe Wagner is a Connecticut-based writer who likes to share his stories and his unsolicited opinions on public policy at www.overthereef.com.