Fantastic fall foliage. NYS DEC Forest Ranger rescue tales. A hike along Paul Smith College VIC trails with wife, family, and our own troop of “Paw Patrol” canine companions. Adirondack memories reflected, shared, and new ones made at the VIC.
I recently took time before heading full on into hunting season to spend some weekend time at Paul Smith College’s Visitor’s Interpretive Center, aka: “The PSC VIC.”
The “VIC” first opened its doors in 1989 under the auspices of New York State and the Adirondack Park Agency. My Father was DEC’s Region 5 Regional Director at the time. Its evolution came fairly late in his tenure. I was busy pursuing my own young career at the time, as a 10th Mountain Division (LI) officer, somewhere between missions, training Honduran soldiers to withstand Ortega’s Central American Sandinista unrest, and tracking drug mule trains and smugglers along the Mexican border with Joint Task Force IV.
As a result, most of my memories of the VIC’s early days are somewhat vague, snippets of conversations my father shared as he facilitated navigating swampy trails through the Adirondack political and regulatory morass. The one thing my mother’s memory confirms is that both he and she were in attendance at the VIC’s opening ceremonies.
My most pertinent connections to the Paul Smith’s VIC were much more recent. My Son & Daughter In Law to be, both Paul Smith’s grads, had just gotten engaged there! (See “An Adirondack Engagement”)
So, as luck would have it, when the VIC’s new Director, Scott van Laer, a recently retired NYS Forest Ranger himself, announced that he would be moderating another in the VIC’s ongoing Adirondack Lecture Series: “Old Rangers Tell Old Adirondack Rescue Stories”, I cleared my calendar and made plans to attend.
I always find myself drifting back into memory as I make the drive up along Route 3 towards my Saranac Lake hometown. The fall foliage along the route was turning reddish/orange/golden brown/just past peak, but nonetheless, was still fantastic.
I met Scott shortly after I walked inside the VIC building’s main entrance. We recognized each other immediately, although we had never before met. For me, meeting Scott was like looking at something of an alter ego reflection of myself. Slightly younger and a bit broader through the shoulders perhaps, (but not nearly as good looking). Scott had followed in his own father’s Forest Ranger footprints. An achievement of which his father I’m sure is with good reason quite proud.
Meeting him reminded me of my own youthful plans and aspirations, to follow in my father’s footsteps myself, attend Paul Smith’s College, and pursue my own career as a NYS DEC Forest Ranger. Dad had spent a lifetime grooming me for just such a career course. Long father/son talks as we spent time together hiking, hunting, fishing and camping together throughout the Adirondack High Peaks.
Literally from the time I was born, my life as a child revolved around Dad’s experience and lessons. The night after I was born, Dad was out fighting forest fire. “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute”, “Carry It In, Carry It Out”, “Forever Wild”. “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires”. Smokey Bear even attended my 6th birthday party!
I reflected back on those memories as I perused the array of Forest Ranger patches, photos, and Ranger artifacts displayed along the VIC’s walls. They reminded me of times I spent with my dad on dirt trails to fire towers in his jeep; fire brooms, rakes and two Indian Pumps mounted in the back. I still have one of those pumps, his firefighting axes and tools, all of his patches, and his Ranger Stetson.
More importantly though, as time went on, Dad took great pains to teach me other lessons as he rose through the ranks.
“The trick, Son, isn’t FINDING middle ground, that’s the easy part. The trick is getting everyone else to see it too, and then leading them to it.”
My Dad always talked, throughout his career, about the key to his success, the talented folks around him. He told me more than once,
“Son, I tell my people; I know what I think. I want to hear what YOU think.”
He always valued the input and opinions of those around him. Whether he always followed it or not, I know that he always considered that honest input to be critical.
As time went on and my dad spent more of his time dealing with administrative and regulatory issues. The public, politicians, and press claimed more and more of my father from me. Those footprints I yearned to follow in grew more distant, and larger. I could slowly feel the job consume him. By the time I was ready to graduate from high school, Dad was spending most of his time on the road, attending to administrative matters at his offices in Warrensburg and Albany. At times, I felt I had lost him.
Nonetheless, I even went so far as to apply to Paul Smiths College, where I was accepted. In the end though, I found the idea of trying to follow my dad’s career path far too daunting. I’d have never been my own man. I’d have forever been “Tom Monroe’s Son.” An ROTC scholarship at Cornell University gave me the escape hatch I realized that I desperately needed, an honorable way out.
Besides, as anyone who’s ever read any of my stories might quite quickly surmise, I was an Adirondack Outlaw from a very early age, trained by some of the very best up and coming somewhat scruffy young outlaw talent Saranac Lake had to offer. I’m pretty sure I’d never have survived the requisite NYS Forest Ranger background check. Let alone the polygraph. So, in the end, it was likely all for the best anyways.
I sat in the back of the lecture hall and listened as the panel of retired Rangers regaled the audience with their stories. It was clear as they told rescue stories, some with successful outcomes, others tragic, that they all took their roles to heart, with great pride and quite seriously. I found it all fascinating.
The 3 other retired Rangers on the panel, Rangers Lee (1965-1998), van Laer (1977-2003), and Dorchak (1967-1995), all had careers spanning the career era and tenure of my father, Tom Monroe(1961-1994). I even went to Saranac Lake High School, played football and ran track alongside Ranger Dorchak’s sons.
So, many of these, or similar such stories and perspectives, I had heard my dad share his own version of through the years. Many from the administrative level, others from his many co-workers and Forest Ranger friends, including his Wanakena roommate, Gary Hodgson.
Through the years, both via growing up my father’s son and my own two summers spent working under some of these same men on a DEC high peaks trail crew, I heard a lot of them.
It was interesting to me to hear these retired Rangers relate many of the same perspectives and frustrations, early “turf wars” with the NYS Police over who controlled Search and Rescue Operations, the important role of Fire Wardens, budgetary and policy constraints, organizing and sustaining successful search efforts, the public, press and politicians, the ever-evolving role of Forest Rangers.
What struck me the most was, that while it may not have seemed such through individual lenses, they were all facing and fighting the same battles and challenges, from one shared perspective.
I thought about these things as the presentation ended. I continued contemplating them as I spent the remainder of the afternoon strolling along the VIC’s trails.
My day at the PSC VIC was a great experience. I had a wonderful time. So much so that I returned the next day for further reflection.
This time with my wife, our two adult daughters, and our “Paw Patrol” Dogs (see photo at top).
The Paul Smith’s College VIC. It’s a wonderful place. A kaleidoscopic collage of time’s storied past, like fall’s fallen carpet along one of its many wooded paths. Images etched into these mountain’s forever memories. Memories replaced anew with each passing season. Memories, once experienced, never to be forgotten.
Adirondack Reflections. Well worth the visit.
All photos by/provided by Richard Monroe