On the afternoon of Aug. 24, a Ballston Spa man hiking Pilot Knob Mountain near Lake George with his 8-year-old son and his son’s 9-year-old friend were looking for the remains of a plane wreck when they became disoriented amid a tangle of old roads and herd paths.
The man called 911 and was transferred to the state’s Ray Brook dispatch center, which fields calls from lost hikers, sometimes offering enough guidance to help the hikers back to safety on their own. The man’s GPS coordinates placed him just below the mountain summit, where he was asked to wait as dispatch called in the help of forest rangers.
Less than two hours later, at 3:25 p.m., a hiker making their way up Mount Marcy on the Van Hovenberg trail reported a hiking partner had sustained an ankle injury and was unable to continue on her own. With two rangers headed into the Lake George Wild Forest to assist the dad and two young hikers, two other rangers met up with a state police aviation unit at Lake Placid Airport to fly into the High Peaks wilderness to locate the injured hiker about a mile below the summit of the highest mountain in the state.
Over the course of less than four hours that August afternoon, the rangers dispatched crews into two separate locations in different parts of the park to help hikers stranded just below mountain summits as daylight ticked away. On Pilot Knob, two rangers located the dad and children and guided them back to the trailhead. On Mount Marcy, another ranger was lowered from the state police helicopter to the ground where the injured hiker waited for assistance. The ranger assessed her injury before loading her into a harness, lifting her to the helicopter to transfer her to a nearby hospital.
That summer Saturday was just another day in the Adirondacks, where increasing trail use and a flood of aspiring peak baggers have increased the strain of search and rescue operations on the state’s forest rangers tasked with responding to lost and injured hikers and other backcountry emergencies.
New York forest rangers responded to 337 search and rescue incidents across the state in 2019, according to a year-end tally. The latest annual count of incidents represents a slight decrease from the last few years but still remains well above the number of annual operations prior to 2015. From 2007 to 2010, the tally never topped 245; from 2011 to 2014, the number of operations ranged between 270 and 290; since 2015, the count has not dropped below 335 a year.
With the number of search and rescue incidents appearing to stabilize at a new, elevated level – the “new normal,” as rangers and others have put it – rangers devote less time to patrolling the backcountry and more time in the frontcountry preparing for an emergency call to come in, said Forest Ranger Scott van Laer, who is stationed in the High Peaks region.
“Because of that new normal we are in constant readiness, prepared to respond,” said van Laer, speaking in his role as a leader of the union representing frontline forest rangers. “We don’t have enough staff to do all the stuff we should be doing; the most important is life and safety, so we are preparing for that incident to occur.”
The largest number of search and rescue operations occurred in the High Peaks region, the heart of the Adirondacks and home to the park’s most challenging, popular and well-trod trails. Ranger region 5, which encompasses much of the eastern Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region, stretching to the Canada border, accounted for nearly 60 percent of the state’s search and rescue operations last year. The smaller ranger zone 5C, which covers the northern part of the High Peaks Wilderness Area, counted 75 search and rescue incidents in 2019, including 70 that occurred on state forest preserve land.
A review of summaries of the different 2019 operations shows a wide range of scenarios that draw the attention of forest rangers: from fatigued, dehydrated or injured hikers – tweaked knees and ankles are the most common – less than a half-mile from a trailhead to a hypothermic kayaker stranded at a backcountry lean-to. (A ranger went back the next day to retrieve the woman’s kayak and return it home.) Many operations are concluded within a few hours of the rangers receiving a call, while others involved overnight searches up the rugged trails of the state’s highest mountains and down the trailless drainage basins that lost hikers often funnel themselves into. The rangers' reports included rescuing a dog from a narrow crevice after falling off the side of a trail on Pitch Off Mountain and freeing a horse after it got trapped under a small bridge in Pharoah Lake Wilderness Area. On multiple occasions, the rangers helped find young summer campers who had wandered away from their groups or extracted those who had become ill in the wilderness.
Various groups working in the Adirondacks and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have mobilized to address the park’s increased demands on trail infrastructure, parking, other frontcountry facilities and personnel. The governor in recent months acknowledged the Adirondacks face challenges and announced the formation of a task force charged with developing recommendations to address them. Earlier this month, the governor’s budget proposal won praise from many advocates of the Adirondacks because of its focus on investments in environmental resiliency.
In a statement responding to questions about the search and rescue numbers, DEC pointed to forest ranger training academies held in recent years and the hiring and training of 56 new rangers in the last six years, including 14 new recruits in December. The statement said search and rescue was one of a ranger's “many job duties” and noted that local law enforcement agencies and others assist forest rangers and that temporary staffing is used to support rangers during peak months.
“Staffing levels at DEC are consistent with what they have been in years past, and at no time have ranger staffing levels put the hiking community or the natural resources at risk,” according to the statement.
The forest rangers and their supporters, though, continue to wage a campaign arguing at least one solution must be part of any plan moving forward: boost the overall number of ranger positions. They point to recent state land acquisitions, booming trailhead sign-ins and the search and rescue numbers as evidence of the need for more rangers.
“I feel that the job we do speaks for itself, and it’s clear there is a need for more forest rangers,” Van Laer said.
Researchers at St. Lawrence University in a recent study found a 54 percent increase in search and rescue incidents per ranger from 2007 to 2017. That came as the acreage patrolled by rangers increased just over 3,000 acres per ranger.
Over two years of search and rescue operations, 2015 and 2016, 42 percent of incidents involved lost hikers while 24 percent were for injuries, according to the study by Ethan Collins and Peter Pettengill, a then-student and a current assistant professor at St. Lawrence, respectively, and published in the Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies.
Medical care was sought in 42 percent of the studied operations, with 43 percent of those incidents being caused by a slip or fall, nearly 20 percent caused by illness from exceeding ability and nearly 10 percent the result of a previously-diagnosed condition.
Learn to be safe
The rangers have partly argued the increased search and rescue demands have diminished their ability to fulfill other duties, such as preventative education about hiker safety.
Outside groups hope they can step in to make the kinds of contacts with hikers – in the best case before they are hiking – that prevent people from making basic mistakes that put themselves and others at risk. Experts in backcountry safety say that even the most prepared can find themselves in need of a rescue, but that pre-trip planning Is key to minimizing the risk.
“It is really essential before going out on an adventure to properly plan and prepare,” said Seth Jones, the education director at the Adirondack Mountain Club, where he oversees backcountry safety courses, guided trips and the club’s summit stewards program.
Jones said before stepping outside people should check the weather forecast and pack accordingly, bring extra food and water and to notify someone of your plans and expected return.
He also detailed the 10 safety systems deemed critical when exploring the wilderness: navigation (map and compass); sun protection; insulation (extra clothing, dry layers); illumination (van Laer called out a hiker on Twitter this summer who needed help from rangers two nights in a row because they didn’t have a headlamp); first aid supplies; fire starting; repair kit and tools (to fix other equipment); nutrition (food); hydration (water); and, emergency shelter.
Safety protocol calls for people to prepare for the unexpected and to plan to spend a night outside – even if that’s not the plan. Groups like the mountain club are also taking the message directly to trailheads, where volunteers seek to communicate hiker safety with those heading up a trail.
“It’s not the silver bullet, but it could address a lot of issues if we have high-end education happening across the system; we are working together on consistent messaging,” Jones said.