RAY BROOK - State forest rangers are expanding the primary search area for an Australian soldier who was last seen here two weeks ago.
For the past three days, the effort to locate Paul John McKay has been focused along the railroad tracks in the Scarface Mountain area, not far from where he was last seen on Dec. 31. Teams of volunteers led by forest rangers conducted an exhaustive grid-by-grid search in that area through the weekend and Monday, Jan. 13.
Beginning today, rangers plan to expand the primary search area east to Old Military Road near Lake Placid and southeast to include Seymour Mountain.
A search and rescue volunteer makes her way through the woods in Ray Brook Monday, looking for signs of Paul McKay, who’s been missing for two weeks and was last seen near this location.
(Photo by Chris Knight)
"During the next week, DEC Forest Rangers will be searching trails, paths, drainages and locations in attempt to locate Mr. McKay or any clues, such as tracks, gear, garbage, etc. that may indicate Mr. McKay's whereabouts," state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman David Winchell wrote in an email. "Volunteers will not be needed for the search efforts planned during this period."
A person fitting McKay's description was last seen walking east on the railroad tracks near the federal prison in Ray Brook, carrying a large backpack and wearing a winter jacket and snow pants. That was around noon on New Year's Eve, two days after McKay flew to the U.S. from Australia and then took a bus to Saranac Lake. He was reported missing by his father on Jan. 3 after his son sent him an email saying he was leaving him all his possessions. His family didn't know he had traveled to the U.S.
Police have said the 31-year-old was on leave from the Australian Army at the time of his disappearance and that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even though McKay was last seen carrying a large backpack and wearing winter hiking gear, he may not have had the kind of cold-weather camping equipment needed to survive in the backcountry, forest ranger Lt. Gary Friedrich said Monday.
"The thing is, we can't put any winter camping gear in his pack," Friedrich said. "He did not have that available to him in Australia, and we're fairly certain in our investigation with Saranac Lake PD that he did not purchase that stuff in the United States. He has a large pack, but in the pictures that appear, the compression straps are not fully expanded so the pack is not chock-full of stuff. It's a large pack that's fairly empty."
Police have checked with local outfitters and store owners and haven't found any evidence that McKay stocked up on food or camping gear while he was in the area, Friedrich said.
Friedrich said the lack of any signs of McKay after roughly 10 days of effort has made this search very challenging.
Roughly 30 volunteers from several state-certified search-and-rescue teams have been involved since Saturday, including members of Search and Rescue of the Northern Adirondacks, Lower Adirondack Search and Rescue and the Central Adirondack Search and Rescue Team. The volunteers have been conducting a Type 3 or grid search on either side of the railroad tracks east of the federal prison.
"It's an intensive hand-in-hand search where we guide off string line in a pre-laid-out block, and we're basically walking through looking for any evidence of the subject," said forest ranger Glen Bronson, who led group of a dozen volunteers into the woods Monday.
The rough terrain doesn't make this kind of search easy. The volunteers have to push their way through a thick, hilly balsam fir forest, over ground that's covered in several inches of snow and ice.
"It's very dense," Bronson said. "It's basically 10 feet of visibility through most of it. We're shoulder to shoulder walking through there."
It's also time-consuming. Bronson said it took his group about an hour to sweep an area that's 40 to 50 yards wide for half a mile in one direction.
Still, the searchers aren't getting discouraged.
"These are all trained people," Bronson said. "They all know what they're coming for. Just because we don't find something doesn't mean it's not productive. We eliminate areas until we find them."
"This is what we do. This is our hobby," said Pat McGinn, who lives in the Lake George area and is a member of Lower Adirondack Search and Rescue. "We'd like to have closure for the family. That's who we work for."
While many of the volunteers involved in the search traveled here from across the Adirondacks or other parts of the region, some were local. Dan Groves lives in Ray Brook.
"I just wanted to help because I felt like it's the right thing to do," he said. "This guy's a veteran. He's done a lot for us. Being a father, too, I think that if my kid was in the same position, I'd want somebody else going out to look for him."
Outside of the primary search, Winchell said rangers checked the Pine Pond trail and a portion of the Northville-Placid Trail on Monday. Over the weekend, in addition to the grid search, rangers checked other trails and paths in and near the primary search area. An environmental conservation officer also checked empty buildings. Several rangers have been staffing an incident command center at the DEC Region 5 headquarters in Ray Brook.
Anyone with information about McKay's whereabouts is asked to call Saranac Lake police at 518-891-4428 or DEC dispatch at 518-897-1300.