Saturday, December 10, 2022

Reminiscing about the search and rescue of young Inlet hunter Charlie Mitchell

This up-and-down fall weather is not good for the little critters that live just under the snow searching for food. The rain comes and takes most of the snow away, the ground freezes, and leaves them without a home until the snow comes again. Most winters in this area, there is hardly ever frost in the ground when it is covered with snow. The year of the 1980 Olympics, we had a big washout just after Christmas which bared up the ground, [and] then [we had] a deep freeze for a few days.


There were a few natives who had waterlines just under the ground a few inches and they froze for the first time ever, with no snow cover to protect them. We [got] some snow, but up in the Lake Placid area they got no snow and had to make and move snow for the whole cross-country track…which was quite an effort. I remember going up to get our ID passes as Forest Rangers, and the ground was bare two weeks before the Olympics.

The snowshoe hare looked like white bullets running around on bare ground. This week, I got in to repair a bridge that a tree had fallen on and broke off the railing last year. All the parts were there last year, but this year an upright post and an angle brace were missing. I measured the post and cut one and an angle brace at home. I carried them in the next day with nails and a pinch bar to pull the nails from the pieces still there. I saw where someone had been in and out on the trail before me that day. I got to the bridge and the parts that were there were gone. I hid mine in the woods and checked to see if anyone had seen who might have taken the missing parts.


Forest Ranger Gary Miller said the forester was parked there in the morning. We contacted her, and sure enough she had taken out the parts to make new ones. Contacted her and met her, Jamie Parslow, a Planning Forester, and Forester Jonathan DeSantis, at the trailhead the next day. We carried in the missing parts and, using my parts, we had the handrail back up in less than half an hour. That sure makes the bridge a much safer walk across the brook. Looking around, there were several other big balsams leaning toward the bridge. We’ll just have to hope they fall in a different direction.

Snow geese. Photo by Joe Poliquin.

The Evening Grosbeaks keep moving in from the north as I have now banded over eighty, [and I] just got eight yesterday [Sunday, December 4] and six more today [Monday, December 5]. I had over thirty on the platform at one time. With all those big beaks, you would think someone would have to move off. I did put up the net yesterday and caught several new Black-Capped Chickadees and a few return birds [dating] back to 2017. All the chickadees were newborn this year and probably just following mom or dad to the feeders. I did have some American Goldfinch and Pine Siskins under the feeders, but I didn’t catch any of them.


Once while I was out picking birds, I had 52 Brant fly over quite low and [they were] all talking about their flight plans. Then I walked out the driveway, picking little branches the wind had blown down, and a Crow and Raven went overhead chasing a Northern Goshawk. The hawk seemed undisturbed being bombed by these two as it flapped and glided ahead of them over the hill where the other two gave up the chase. Joe Poliquin from Saranac Lake was up to the north end of Lake Champlain and found big flocks of Snow Geese both on the water and in the air in the thousands…(you [can] count them in the picture.) Stacy Robinson from Port Henry found the Snow Geese, and then on her way home she found several Short-Eared Owls hunting in the Magic Triangle south of Essex.


It was about this day several years ago when the search for Charlie Mitchell started. It was Sunday, the last day of deer season, and Charlie and his hunting group decided to do a deer drive on Cascade Ridge north of Uncas Road. Charlie was the most northern hunter in the drive, and it was snowing very hard. He jumped a buck and shot at it, but missed. No one else even heard the shot, as it was snowing so hard and the wind [was] blowing. Charlie continued following this deer (hoping to get another shot,) and became lost on the backside of the ridge.


His tracks were quickly covered with the snow and he was reported missing that night. Forest Ranger Gary McChesney [searched] that night and the snow never stopped until late Monday into Tuesday morning, with now two feet of snow on the ground. Charlie was 21, carrying a 32 special with some ammo, wearing good heavy boots, wool pants, long johns, a wool cap, a hooded sweatshirt and gloves. Only a few weeks earlier, he had lost three fingers on both hands in a mill accident, so his hands were very tender. He was on the backside of the ridge near the beginning of Beaver Brook that flows into Raquette Lake. Sound shots were fired, but it was snowing so hard [that] no return shots were heard.

Gary Lee on Slim Pond bridge. Photo by Jamie Parslow.

After the snow stopped early Tuesday, the temperatures dropped down below zero Tuesday and Wednesday nights. [Throughout] Tuesday, Helicopter 600 flew around looking for tracks or a signal fire, as Charlie had matches. Late in the day, they found tracks which they thought were his on Shallow Lake to the east. Early the next day, State Trooper Hubert Boudreau from Tupper Lake [and I] walked into Shallow Lake to check out these tracks and they were deer. We decided to go up between Beaver Brook and the outlet of Queer Lake into Shallow Lake. It was rough going without snowshoes. We crossed Beaver Brook at one point and found tracks in the snow. They were only depressions that you had to look at in a certain light to see them. [However] when you dug them out, they were the tracks [of a] man.


Others were coming in from Cascade Lake to help us out, as we had traveled miles in that deep snow. We met after dark (still on the track) calling Charlie’s name and even fired guns…but never got any response. The tracks were still just a slight depression in the snow. We left the tracks, not knowing we were only about three hundred feet from Charlie under a log. I couldn’t sleep all night and early the next morning [in temperatures] ten below zero, I met Game Warden Frank Lamphear, and we went in on snowshoes to the last known point with a crew of three others following. When we got there, there were new tracks in the snow… not ours. I followed them back and found where Charlie was under a log and had a fire. We alerted others, and the helicopter was overhead.


Charlie started backtracking us from the day before and the helicopter spotted him sitting against a big pine tree not too far ahead of us. When we reached him, he was frozen to the knees and he had about four inches of snow and ice frozen on the bottom of his boots, his tender hands under his armpits. Where he had started the fire under the log, he had burned the knees out of his wool pants, so he put out the fire. I gave him my big Air Force mittens for his tender hands, and we wrapped him in space blankets. The helicopter found a beaver pond not too far away and they dropped down a litter. The rest of the crew arrived, and we carried him to the beaver pond. The pond had only just frozen, so Frank got on one side and I [was] on the other, and we dragged the litter out to the beaver house where they lifted Charlie out.


They called and said they would come back and pick us up there. We threw our snowshoes back to shore, and one-by-one everyone got on the beaver house. The chopper came back and picked us up one-by-one in a harness and flew all of us out to Camp Gorham. A week later, we learned that Charlie had lost both feet at the ankle from the freezing. Not a good story so close to Christmas, but these things do happen out in our big north woods.


Spreading some Christmas cheer with Karen’s fruitcake, but that’s another story. See ya.


Photo at top: Short Eared Owl. Photo by Stacy Robinson.

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Gary lives with his wife, Karen, at Eight Acre Wood in Inlet where he was the Forest Ranger for 35 years, working in the Moose River Wild Forest Recreation Area and West Canada Lakes Wilderness Area. Now retired, Gary works summers for the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, observing, catching and banding loons. The author of a column Daybreak to Twilight in local papers from 1986 to 2019, he now writes his Outdoor Adventures a weekly blog. In 2008, Gary coauthored a book with John M.C. “Mike” Peterson, "Adirondack Birding- 60 Great Places to Find Birds."

3 Responses

  1. Al West says:

    Great story, sad ending. Charlie is lucky to be alive. Thank God for the Forest Rangers.

    • Boreas says:

      Indeed! Can’t praise Rangers enough.

      We never know when things are going to go south when we head into the woods. Weather, sickness, accidents, and very commonly, just getting turned around and lost when we THINK we know where we are. Woodcraft and frequent checks with a map/compass can help, but get in a flat, marshy, swampy area in heavy snow with no landmarks or topography and the best woodmen/women can be challenged. Then you depend on your clothing and emergency gear and knowledge.

  2. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Nothing like a good old back-country story, Adirondack or other, to remind us how vulnerable we all are and how harsh nature can be! There are a million of them surely! Good story! Not so bad ending also, which all of them aren’t.

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