Book review: True tales recount close calls, tragedies in Adirondacks

A new book, "At the Mercy of the Mountains," contains essays of misadventures in the Adirondacks, co

What do John Cheney and Carl Skalak have in common — aside from a deep love of the Adirondacks?

Cheney was one of the first celebrity Adirondack mountain guides in the 19th century. Skalak, a hunter and hiker armed with the latest high tech gear, has regularly visited the region during the first years of the 21st century.

Although nearly 200 years and technology separate Cheney and Skalak, both experienced misadventures while exploring the mountains they love.

In “At the Mercy of the Mountains,” the two men bookend chapters on 20 incidents in the Adirondacks or on nearby Lake Champlain. As Peter Bronski says in the opening, “For as long as people have ventured into the Adirondack wilds, they’ve gotten lost, injured or . . . in some calamity. Adventure was readily at their doorstep and misadventure no more than a step away. It wasn’t a matter of if something would go wrong, but rather when, for it inevitably would.”

’At the Mercy of the Mountains: True Stories of Survival and Tregedy in New York’s Adirondacks’

AUTHOR: Peter Bronski

PUBLISHER: The Lyons Press, 321 pages, ISBN 978-59921-304-0

HOW MUCH: $17.95

Cheney had near misses with wolves, bears, panthers and angry bull moose. Skalak became lost while exploring the remote northwest corner of the Adirondacks. He was one of the first Adirondack explorers to be rescued after activating a Personal Locator Beacon, a device using satellite and communications systems.

Informative opening

Like many books about the Adirondacks, this one book opens with an informative, well-written overview of their human and natural history. Bronski’s is one the best that I have read in quite some time.

Although he lives in Colorado, Bronski is a former Capital Region resident, having lived in Guilderland Center, Saratoga County and the southern Adirondacks. He was a founding member of Lower Adirondack Search and Rescue and is New York State-certified in wild lands search and rescue. He has hiked, climbed, skied and canoed many of the places described in the book.

The misadventures he recounts range from boating and aircraft accidents to hiking and ice climbing incidents. Bronski thoroughly describes how wilderness rescue works, information gathered from his own experience and thorough research of the subject.

An epilogue titled “Lessons Learned from the Backcountry” summarizes the common threads in the incidents and offers advice to future outdoor adventurers visiting the Adirondacks — or other wild regions.

Generally, the writing is clear and to the point. The first essay, about fishermen stranded on an ice floe in Lake Champlain, rambles at first but moves at a more satisfying pace once Bronski gets into the story.

Using the index and specific stories, it is possible to find specific information about the hazards connected to a particular sport. Or the book can be read cover to cover.

Many of those in the stories survive, while and others do not, but their experiences are often harrowing. Although Bronski is a skilled writer, reading several accounts in a row may be emotionally exhausting.

Tales of survival

Bronski explains how people survive difficult situations with skill and luck. For example, he tells two stories about Adirondack plane crashes. After reading them, you will better understand how to land a plane in the woods or survive after a crash. A chapter on hikers who were hit by lightning explains how lightning works and how to avoid being struck or minimize the damage.

Modern life is full of stories about greed and apathy, about how hard it can be to get help when in trouble. In the Adirondacks, people work hard to find people who are often strangers. Bronski names many New York State Department of Environmental Conservation rangers and local volunteers who go selflessly and tirelessly into the woods whenever someone is in peril.

Many of the accounts make clear that people get into trouble because they ignore an obvious problem. Many do not understand how early winter arrives and how late it stays.

Yet some mishaps surprise even the most experienced adventurers. In 1998, Chris Baldyga, Matt Baker, James McCaughey and Ian Thomas went winter camping in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. They were well-equipped and cautious.

Within hours, they were imperiled by a freak flood and ice storm. Their base camp was a lean-to on the south shore of the Opalescent River. When the weather changed, the river rose abruptly. Baker, McCaughey and Thomas got out quickly but the flood cut off Baldyga.

He was caught in the lean-to, with 50 feet of water between him and his friends. He scrambled to the lean-to roof and hunkered down. When his friends went for help, they were nearly swept away by the river; the surging current ripped McCaughey’s boots off when he fell in. Happily, they all survived.

Trapped on ledge

In 1939, Maria Gersen, an 18-year-old nursemaid for a Keene Valley family, went hiking in the High Peaks and got lost. She ended up on a rock ledge hundreds of feet above Chapel Pond. Men from Keene Valley rescued her by lowering Alan Slater via rope to the other end of the ledge, a thousand feet away. When Slater reached Gersen, he tied her with the rope and his colleagues brought first her and then him up from the ledge.

Slater’s skill and Gersen’s calm are remarkable. But what I found even more amazing was how Gersen was discovered. She could see Route 73, which was then a dirt road, from the ledge. She called to cars driving along. Finally a driver heard her calling down, from a hundred or so feet across the pond!

If you like the Adirondacks or adventure writing, you will find “At the Mercy of the Mountains” compelling and highly readable.

Categories: Life and Arts

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