Monday, April 29, 2024

Meet a Retired Ranger in Wanakena who wears many hats

Adirondack Almanack contributor, Susan Sweeney Smith, who has written stories about Cranberry Lake, has shared a series of profiles highlighting Cranberry Lake community leaders who dedicate much of their time and energy to volunteer work. These profiles were originally published on the Cranberry Blog. Check out the Cranberry Blog here, and please enjoy Susan’s third submission, a profile on Bernie Siskavich below.

What brought you to Cranberry Lake? When?

New York State Forest Ranger – was working in Region 3 (Southern NY) and this position came open. I’m a North Country boy – wanted to get back into the Adirondacks. I was a Ranger School grad, so it made sense.

We came to Wanakena in 1976 – so much work going on with the mills and mines there wasn’t a place in Star Lake, Newton Falls to rent. So we found a place in Wanakena and rented it – lived there one year and then bought across the street next to Otto’s Abode – still there since 77.

When you first came, did you think you’d end up staying here?

We weren’t sure. We were looking at moving towards Lake Clear but after we bought the house and we were there a few years we said this is the place, we want to stay.

What was your first job? Have you had other jobs while living here?

I worked construction after college. Graduated from Ranger School in ’71 and then took the state test and hired in 74 – in the Catskills for two years.

First job here was a Ranger – back then it meant being out there enforcing the laws on state land, fires, fire prevention, search and rescue.

Changed quite a bit over the ears. Technology makes things easier/better. More and more law enforcement – more people breaking the state laws. There was an increase in outdoor activity and many of them didn’t know the laws. Basically search and rescue was number one priority followed by fires – still the same.

Retired as a forest ranger. Total service 33 1/2 years – 31 right here in Cranberry.

Forest Rangers holding bear cubs.

Just a part of the job…Rangers holding bear cubs. (Bernie is on the left)

What are some stories you remember?

Searches – one was two snowmobilers in March of ’93.. Heck of a snow storm. Two snowmobilers had gone to Dumas’s (now Thirsty Moose) and were headed back to Cranberry. They didn’t make it home. Snow conditions were terrible,. After the second day, the temperature dropped to 25 below zero. We had the helicopter and they buried the sled and we saw the windshield. The guys were in pretty bad shape and we saved them.

In 2001 we did a search for a gentleman after the 95 blowdown, he went to High Falls and got lost. He was out there five days in June, it was hot, terrible deer flies. They couldn’t use a lot of volunteer help because of the ’95 blow down so we had to use only rangers and state police and conservation officers. On the fifth day, Father’s Day – we picked him up and he wasn’t in bad shape amazingly enough. Picked him up with the helicopter. Other than bit up pretty bad by the flies, he was in good shape….

Forest ranger working on a fire

Forest Ranger Bernie Siskavich on the ground during a forest fire.

What would you say is the best part about being a ranger?

I guess getting to know all the people. Being part of the community – one of the best things about my job. Knowing that there was people helping people during the blowdown – we flew 37 stranded people out of Five Ponds. I was the incident commander on that. I value our good relationship with the state police and DEC.

What was your first volunteer activity?

My first was the Clifton Fine Minor Hockey — my kids were playing.

School Board for six years. The struggle was trying to keep advanced programs along with programs for kids that need extra help. It’s a battle for dollars — I always felt that the kids who were advanced should get programs that helped them.

Knights of Columbus since ’79. We do charitable work – raffles and bingo for scholarships, and helping other organizations. Sadly, the council is made up of older folks and now we struggle to keep functioning. We still help with food pantry. We help with the free meal.

I’m on a board of the Wanakena Water Company. Dave Ziemba is a godsend in all ways and I like doing that. We have volunteers that take water quality and usage readings every day – week at a time. At least a half a dozen of us check the water.

I was involved in the footbridge restoration – was the auctioneer for some fundraising and someone paid $6,000 for a decoy made out of the wood from the original bridge.

Worked on the Wanakena Historical Association board with my wife, Blanche.

I was on the Ranger School Board.

Why do you volunteer here?

That is part of being in the community. We are part of the community. Blanche was a nurse for 30 years —we knew what needed doing. Kids were in school and out of school and we wanted to be involved in their lives. A lot of us are getting older and the community dynamics have changed. When you lose all those employers, it’s hard to keep things going. We kept busy because there is always some good you can do.

Who inspires you here:

Phil Gardino – Phil’s always been involved in trying to improve things wherever he could. Always at bingo working every week. Always does what needs doing.

Paul Heller – minister at the Presbyterian Church, three kids our kids age. Great guy.

Dave Ziemba will always be inspiring. Hannah and Nolan are the next generation. The summer concert series is great. Takes money and a lot of time. We want to see things like this continue.

Forest Ranger Bernie Siskavich with Smokey Bear.

Forest Ranger Bernie Siskavich with Smokey the Bear.

What are the best memories you have of Cranberry?

You can recharge your batteries in the Wilderness.

My three kids growing up here. There is nothing like it.

Knowing that there are people here today that wouldn’t be if the Ranger Force hadn’t found them. There are times when you say, gee, we found that person and they are going to be okay. Can be emotional.

Knowing that we have been part of this community – it’s been a great.

Where is your favorite place to go?

If I need to recharge one of my favorite places is Hawk’s nest. Favorite hike is Cathedral Rock. Just walking around Wanakena – decompress around the people you care about.

Retired 16 years now and busier than ever.

What do you hope for the future here?

When we moved here out oldest child was three years old. When he started in Kindergarten, 20 kids picked up at Otto’s Abode on the porch. Now there are two kids who get picked up there now. Times have changed.

What I would hope for is that young people that are here look up to and see what has been done and they say we can’t lose this. Young people need to be like Hannah and Nolan. We need that next generation core of volunteers to see that we can’t lose anymore.

I hope that we can continue as a place for taking care of the wilderness and that the next generation takes care of it like we tried to take care of it.

What’s one thing to say to future visitors?

Don’t be afraid to investigate exactly how wonderful this place is. Check it out closely. Talk to people who live here. You’ll be very surprised about how great it is.

See what it’s like, and, if you do stay, see how you can make it better.

Photo at top: Bernie Siskavich. His t-shirt reads, “You can take the boy out of the mountain, but you can’t take the mountain out of the boy.” All photos provided by the author.

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Susan Sweeney Smith grew up in Peru, NY and is a 28 year resident of Cranberry Lake. She raised kids and donkeys and dogs and cats in the hamlet. During her professional career she worked in philanthropy and community relations for North Country Public Radio, SUNY Potsdam and supported a host of smaller nfp’s in the region with their philanthropic projects. Today, she’s a community volunteer who believes in Cranberry Lake magic. You can find her writing at

12 Responses

  1. william hill says:

    Great article- keep up the good work!

  2. Mary Manchio says:

    Such a great article. I am a native of Wanakena. I am happy to know Bernie and Blanche!

  3. Mary Ann Remele says:

    Bernie deserves a great deal of recognition for all he has done for the North Country and Wanakena. He’s loyal and a gentleman. Thanks in making a fine difference in where you live with your wonderful family. With Best Wishes…..

  4. These profiles are gold for this writer, who published my first ‘love letter’ to the area in the novel BROKEN in 2021 and who keeps writing about the strong sense of community that exists there. It’s a joy to read about the people who live in, with, and care for the wilderness. Thank you, Susan, for featuring Bernie and others like him.

  5. Susan, I will be in Wanakena June 7, 8, and 9, giving a book talk that Saturday at 3 p.m. outside Otto’s Abode. Maybe I’ll see you there!

  6. John Omohundro says:

    Happy retirement to Bernie; he taught my 1977 YCC youth how to do trail work and a couple years later he taught my Laurentian Chapter of ADK how to do search and rescue.

  7. Brandon Siskavich says:

    Uncle Bernardo – Bernie- has used all that he has been taught over the years to pass it down to the younger generations. All the ones who are listening of course. I can say, I was one of them. Enjoying the wilderness with him, learning about his experiences, one can say, you can never have to many questions. He most certainly is still a man with many “colorful” hats I’d say. I know those who know him and my Aunt Teko- Blanche- know what I’m talking about. I’ve been blessed to know them and have them as family. If you haven’t gotten the chance to talk with them, I’d highly recommend it. Congrats on the article!

    Love to you both!

  8. Brandon Siskavich says:

    I am related to Andrew. We never really talked much. We all have trials and go through tribulations, but I do understand what he has gone through. I pray for him seeing how we don’t talk.

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