No one knew for certain what had happened to Alma Gatti and Jerry Walker after their disappearance on Lake George in summer 1949. To a certain extent, dragging for the bodies was a crapshoot because no one knew for sure where the presumed accident had occurred. There were no reported sightings of them that day, and no way to determine how far their canoe had drifted before reaching the shore.
Within a few days, first one paddle and then another, both stamped as belonging to Lamb’s Boathouse, were found in the vicinity of Watch Point, indicating that searchers were dragging the area likeliest to yield results. A Conservation Department boat continued working a five-square-mile area between Watch Point and Shelving Rock. Meanwhile, four state police divers spent an entire day probing the depths, but came up empty.
The families of both victims were devastated, but as the days passed and nothing was found, hope remained that Alma and Jerry might be alive. Film recovered from a camera in the knapsack was developed, with results suggesting the couple had indeed reached their destination and were on the way back when an accident occurred. It was therefore also possible they had reached an island, or maybe bad weather had driven them to a remote section of shoreline, where an attempt to hike out may have left them lost in the woods. Alma’s father, Alexander, chartered a plane to scour the area repeatedly from above, but the effort proved futile.
On June 2, the Albany Times-Union raised the possibility that the canoe had been struck by a motorboat, but also noted that Norman Lamb of Lamb’s Boathouse “said he was certain the damage was caused by the canoe rubbing on rocks. The bow was ‘chewed up,’ he said, and a gunwale damaged. The tip on the other end was rubbed away.”
Six days into the search, a group of Gatti’s relatives and friends were led by Alma’s brother, Arno, on a ground search between Shelving Rock and Watch Point. It was possible either she or Jerry had been injured while hiking, and the other person used the canoe to seek help, only to capsize in bad weather. Or maybe the uninjured person went inland for help and became lost. No one said those were likely scenarios, but they were possible, so the effort continued for a couple of days. Again, nothing was found.
Every effort met with the same disappointing result, and after two weeks of searching, official aerial, diving, and dragging operations were halted. State police and conservation personnel would continue boat patrols daily in hopes of finding the bodies floating at the surface. Officers and lake residents privy to the details of many past accidents knew that drowning victims normally surfaced within about two weeks, and that water temperature and depth drove the process. Warm and relatively shallow water gave up its victims the quickest, while cold and deep waters might delay flotation for many weeks. Local lawmen recalled some cases where bodies were never found: the victims likely surfaced for a period of time and weren’t seen by anyone before sinking again. Gases are formed and distend a sunken body, causing a powerful tendency to float. But even as that happens, putrefaction continues, and as the gases escape, buoyancy is lost, causing the body to sink once again — permanently.
In the case of Gatti and Walker, cold water may well have delayed the process considerably, especially if they sank where it was about 100 feet deep. According to the NYSDEC Lake George (South) map, the pair disappeared at or very near the lake’s deepest point, around 180 feet. While the water temperature was 60 degrees near the surface, 40 feet down it was in the mid 50s to low 60s, and beyond 100 feet down it was in the low 40s.
Speculating on the mystery of Gatti and Walker’s disappearance, reporters published possible alternative explanations. Rather than capsizing during stormy weather, they may have been the victims of a hit-and-run motorboat accident; they may have intentionally damaged the canoe to create the appearance of a fatal accident, and then eloped; or after their picnic at Shelving Rock, they may have been criminally attacked. But elopement seemed unlikely since they were openly planning to marry soon. And while a criminal attack on land seemed plausible at first glance, photos in the camera and the empty food wrappers indicated they were making the return paddle after picnicking when something went wrong.
My own inclination (without benefit of a close look at the damaged canoe) is that a daylight hit-and-run encounter may have occurred—and don’t be fooled into thinking such things happen only at night. Having paddled all the bays and open sections of many Adirondack lakes and ponds, and the entirety of Lake Champlain as well, I can assure you that close calls of that type are not uncommon. A brightly colored canoe might help prevent accidents on the open lake, but even candy-apple red can go unnoticed. Speeding motorboats have a raised front end, sometimes preventing the pilot from seeing down to the surface in the direction the boat is heading. To anyone in crafts relatively low to the surface, the sight of an oncoming powerboat can be downright terrifying. And cabin cruiser pilots on Lake Champlain often pay no heed to canoes and kayaks, even in close quarters.
With day after day of fruitless searching, the families could only suffer in silence and hope for the best. Most of the Walkers lived in Arkansas, but the Gattis were in Schenectady and could easily be accessed by regional media. While speaking with a reporter a month after Alma and Jerry vanished, Angeline (or Angela) Gatti revealed faint hope, but mostly resignation. “We don’t know what to think about what happened to them. Perhaps someone took them someplace. I don’t know…. All I can really say is that we are all broken-hearted…. If they are in the lake, their bodies should have come up by now. We don’t know what to say, though. If my daughter were alive, I’m sure she would let me know.”
On July 16, his daughter’s scheduled wedding date, Alexander Gatti offered his opinion of what had happened on the lake 48 days earlier. “My theory is that a speedboat hit their canoe. That was my idea from the first day. Whoever hit them may have become panicky and run away.”
Eight years later, in mid-September 1957, Schenectady’s surrogate court declared Alma Gatti officially dead, allowing the family to settle her small estate.
Most of the authorities involved in the case believed the couple remained submerged in the lake, the victims of accidental drowning. When such things happened and no body was recovered, the usual explanations were offered up: they were possibly trapped in rubble at the lake bottom; perhaps they floated upward but lodged beneath debris at the surface; or they came up briefly and then sank again. The odds against those things happening are high enough, but what set the Gatti and Walker case apart was that there were two victims of different physical size. The notion that both had become lodged at the bottom, or trapped beneath debris at the surface, was difficult to accept. For that reason, when stories of regional mysteries surfaced periodically in newspapers, their disappearance made the cut.
Coincidentally, almost exactly three months to the day they vanished, 18-year-old Robert Siersted of Queens Village, Long Island, drowned on Lake George. His partner riding in the front of their canoe reportedly heard a splash, and turned around to find Robert gone. He attempted a rescue by diving (they were in about 50 feet of water), but failed to locate his friend.
Siersted, despite his youth, had already been the subject of national attention. When America entered World War II, the call went out for all sorts of scrap materials to be collected in support of America’s war effort. The Boy Scouts, who had already undertaken several missions at the behest of the US government, collected massive amounts of waste paper—50 million pounds a month for more than seven months, enough that the shortage was eliminated.
Young Siersted, a devoted Boy Scout, built a hand cart, prepared a salesman-like pitch, and went door to door, collecting more than 100 pounds of paper per day. That effort was recognized in the media, and by the leader of the Waste-Paper Collection Campaign, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who issued medals to those collecting more than a thousand pounds. Siersted was cited as an example of what Americans could accomplish, and his efforts were later detailed in a book published in 1949, the year he drowned. (The title is Left Handshake: The Boy Scout Movement During the War, 1938–1945, by Hilary St. George Saunders.)
When Siersted was lost in the lake, much was made of the fact that he had recently received a Boy Scout merit badge for swimming. But like Gatti and Walker during that fateful summer of 1949, he was a presumed victim of drowning and his body was never recovered.
Photos: Jerry Walker, Alma Gatti (1949, Albany Times-Union); Robert Lamb with Walker & Gatti’s damaged canoe (1956, Pictorial Review, Albany Times Union); October 22 headline (1949, Times Record, Troy); headline (1949, Times Record, Troy)