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Trail patrol: A day in the life of a forest ranger

August 29, 2011
MARGARET MORAN, News Staff Writer
LAKE PLACID — A big green New York state forest ranger truck pulls up along side me in the Subway parking lot on Saturday, Aug. 20 at 8 a.m., and inside is Joe LaPierre, whom I was shadowing to learn a bit about what forest rangers do on a daily basis.

The first thing we do is a quick sweep of the state’s boat launch at the Lake Placid Marina, looking for cars that have either been parked overnight or are parked in the boat launch area. Not spotting any violators, we pull out of the parking lot.

Had he found any violators, he could have issued tickets.

“We are police, so we enforce all state laws, but our emphasis is on state land,” LaPierre said.

He explained that the entire state is within his Department of Environmental Conservation jurisdiction, but it’s broken up into regions. Clinton, Franklin, Essex, Hamilton, Warren, Washington, Saratoga and Fulton counties make up Region 5. Regions are further broken down into zones. We are in the High Peaks zone, which has been particularly busy this summer, according to LaPierre.

“July was a record high for people using the High Peaks Wilderness,” he says. “Looks like August is following suit. It has been very busy.”

En route to the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks trailhead, located at the end of Adirondack Loj Road, LaPierre turns down Meadows Lane, a fairly narrow, dirt and gravel road that by 8:30 a.m. is already lined with cars and a few people milling about them.

The first thing LaPierre tells me when we pull onto the road is that the trees along each side of the road are part of the state Forest Preserve. They are spread out enough, allowing me to catch glimpses of camping tents here and there.

While looking out the truck’s windows, LaPierre tells me that he’s checking to make sure people are camping in the designated campsites and don’t have any campfires, since those are prohibited in the area.

He doesn’t see any violators, so we turn around at the end of the road and drive up the way we came.

“The eastern High Peaks Wilderness area is the most highly used state land and the most highly regulated because of use and mostly for resource protection,” LaPierre informed me.

The Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks Information Center

“The big thing is being here in the morning because they get flooded with information and questions here,” LaPierre says.

He says someone from the DEC is usually there to answer people’s questions, help them with trip planning and inform them about the rules and regulations of the area.

Inside the center, he does just that.

He informs a couple that is planning on hiking Mount Marcy that it’s a 15-mile round-trip, that there’s a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon and that they need to bring a compass, a map, layers, plenty of water, food and a headlamp or flashlight.

After LaPierre is done helping the couple, a woman with short hair approaches and thanks him for responding to her group’s emergency call from the other week.

LaPierre tells me afterward that someone in her group had suffered a heart attack.

He said being thanked for what he does is a rewarding part of his job.

While in the information center, LaPierre helps a few more people before going back to the truck that’s parked outside to gear up for a foot patrol in the woods.

Foot patrol

“We can’t go to far in because if you get a call, you have to remain available,” LaPierre tells me.

We start on the Old Marcy Dam Trail, and we don’t encounter anyone else along the way. It’s just trees, plants, dirt, rocks and logs.

Early on, LaPierre checks the trail registry to see how many people have signed in so far. Some of the information a person needs to provide for the registry is his or her name, address, phone number, group size, destination and length of stay.

LaPierre says the registry is helpful when they get a call for help.

“You name it, we respond to it,” he says.

Some of the calls forest rangers respond to are domestic issues at campsites, slips and falls, broken bones, rock climbing accidents and missing people.

“Search and rescue is a big part of our mission in the High Peaks,” LaPierre says.

Later, he adds, “We encourage everyone to prepare and plan ahead because it’s pretty rugged out there. Emergency help isn’t a two-minute drive away, so they have to be somewhat self-sufficient.”

After walking for awhile, we turn onto a new trail. LaPierre informs me that it is called the Van Hoevenberg Trail and is quite popular.

On that trail, we encounter several people.

He lets most people pass by us without saying much more than a “hello” or a “good morning,” but he does stop some people, like a man and woman to approve that they are carrying a bear canister in their packs and a group of three young women with a dog to make sure they are prepared for their trip.

While walking along the trail, he also spots a group of people accompanied by a large black poodle not on a leash.

“Who’s the owner of this dog?” he asks the group.

A women in the group tells him that it’s her dog.

“The dog needs to be on a leash at all times while on the trail,” LaPierre informs her. “Do you have a leash for the dog?”

The woman says she does.

“Were you told that your dog needs to be on a leash before you set out on the trail?” he asks her.

“No,” the woman says.

LaPierre tells her that all dogs need to be on a leash, and she complies. Soon afterward, the group continues on their way, and we do the same.

When we reach the end of the trail, LaPierre checks the registry for the Van Hoevenberg Trail, counting that 280 signed in that day before 10:30 a.m.

Soon afterwards, he gets a call from the state police that forest rangers are needed to assist with a possible suicide in Saranac Lake, which ends up cutting my day with him short.

“I would have never guessed I’d be running to Saranac Lake right now,” he said.

The rest of the day

In a phone conversation on Tuesday, Aug. 23, LaPierre fills me in on what else he did on Saturday.

LaPierre said that in Saranac Lake he assisted with the evacuation of an individual, since the body had been found before he got there.

Next he did a patrol on the waters of Lake Placid with another ranger. Some of the things he and the other rangers checked for was whether people were following the life jacket law, that boat registrations were current and that water skiers were in compliance with the laws, such as having a spotter.

“I’m just checking that everyone is operating safely,” he said. “It gets busy out there.”

Afterward, there was an illegal campfire at Marcy Dam, a severely dehydrated person had to be evacuated from Mount Marcy, there was another violation on Marcy Dam, and a person with a knee injury on Mount Marcy had to be evacuated.

LaPierre said one of the challenges of the job is responding to emergency calls at all hours of the day or night, in all kinds of weather.

“It gets to be very demanding,” LaPierre said.

He didn’t get home until 11 p.m.

“That was a pretty typical summer weekend,” he said. “It gets pretty busy in the High Peaks.”

Article Photos

New York state Forest Ranger Joe LaPierre speaks with a woman on the Van Hoevenberg Trail Saturday, Aug. 20.

Photo/Margaret Moran/Lake Placid News



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