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Search-and-rescue work is appreciated

August 3, 2018
Editorial , Lake Placid News

We'd like to thank forest rangers, dispatchers, environmental conservation officers and others in the state Department of Environmental Conservation - as well as volunteers from organizations such as Search and Rescue of the Northern Adirondacks - who bring mountains of skill, diligence and compassion to bear in helping find lost an injured people in the Adirondack backcountry.

Forest rangers usually find the people they're looking for within a few hours, but every once in a while someone goes missing without a call for help or a report from a friend or family member. Sometimes a bigger search operation is required.

It's quite possible to disappear entirely in the vast Adirondack wilderness. There are people who have never been found. But the rangers and state police don't give up on them. These people's pictures hang on bulletin boards in DEC offices, and rangers still return to old sites to look for them. There are still some retired rangers who agonize over never finding 8-year-old Douglas Legg in 1971 at Camp Santanoni in Newcomb.

Last week, on a somewhat rainy weekday when there weren't too many hikers in the popular High Peaks, forest ranger Scott Van Laer got a solo assignment to follow up on a search for Bruce Waite, a 48-year-old man from Bangor in northern Franklin County who had been missing for five-and-a-half weeks. Three weeks in, the search moved to Paul Smiths and intensified when Waite's car was found on Slush Pond Road, just off state Route 30. But when eight days of thorough grid searching turned up nothing, the operation was reduced to what the DEC calls "limited continuous" status, which means rangers may follow up in their spare time.

Thankfully, we know from experience how seriously our local rangers take these missions. They pour over maps and obsess over the most likely places someone could be. At that point there was very little likelihood of finding Waite alive, but even so, the rangers were committed to solving the mystery and bringing him home.

Van Laer and forest ranger Lt. Julie Harjung had been looking at maps and agreed on one area worth checking out, beyond the grid search boundary. Drones had been used in the grid search, but on this day van Laer was going old-school. He started by hiking up a ridge of Jenkins Mountain and then zig-zagging down, scanning the forest below. He followed his instincts and his observations, and they led him to Bruce Waite's body, lying on a bog in a swamp.

When it is possible to find lost people alive, our local backcountry experts do so. When it is not, they dig deep into their skill sets to bring them home anyway.

These are heroic efforts of a very Adirondack kind, yet the state of New York does not fully appreciate the situation. We urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to heed the pleas of the DEC for increased staffing. His administration has bought huge land tracts to add to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, which the DEC manages, and his I Love New York promotion has increased tourism to the Adirondacks - with many of the newcomers being not fully prepared for the outdoor activities they try. This gives the DEC more work to do: Its foresters are buried in unit management plans, and its forest rangers struggle to patrol the increasing vastness of state land while also staying close enough to their vehicles to leap into action for a rescue elsewhere. And yet Cuomo has not increased the DEC staff.

If there were more rangers in the woods to talk to hikers and educate them before they make mistakes, fewer rescues would be needed.

It's great to know, though, that when someone does need help in the Adirondack backcountry, we have an excellent team to take care of them.



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