Excuse Me, Sir … Your Socks Are on Fire

North Country Books, 2005 Softcover, 221 pages, $16.95
North Country Books, 2005
Softcover, 221 pages, $16.95

Larry Weill has been many things in his life: financial planner, technical writer, trainer, Naval officer. He’s also been a wilderness ranger in the Adirondacks, and that led to another item on his resume—storyteller.

Weill shares his experiences from his three years as a ranger in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness Area, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in two books published in the last three years (he is contemplating a third). Weill’s job in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness, one of the largest and least-visited wild tracts in the Adirondacks, was to greet, assist and sometimes take care of the hikers who passed through, many of them on the Northville-Placid Trail, and occasionally to protect the woods, lean-tos and waters from those same hikers. Living mostly out of his tent and in lean-tos, he spent his time tromping through the woods, conversing and making mental notes that he eventually turned into his two books.

A natural raconteur, Weill’s descriptions of the variety of humanity he encountered are amusing and often flat-out funny. Tenderfoot hikers and hapless fishermen are portrayed with a blend of dismay and sympathy as they try to make their way in the woods. We read of the self-styled Daniel Boone who boasts to Ranger Weill, a captive audience in the Pillsbury Mountain fire tower, about his bushwhacking prowess, only to get lost on his way down, necessitating a search. Weill’s account of the poor fellow’s reaction upon his discovery is iconic: “Once we found him, he suddenly seemed to know exactly where he was,” one of the searchers reported.

Once or twice, it is Weill who is lost. Ever ready to poke fun at his own shortcomings, he freely admits he was anything but a native-born woodsman and in fact expresses surprise that he was hired in the first place. Of course, he was never truly “lost”—just momentarily “turned around.” There was, for example, the time when he perilously forded a storm-swollen Jessup River, only to discover he was around the bend from a footbridge.

While the author makes gentle sport with several individuals, he also pays tribute to many others, including mentors such as renowned High Peaks ranger Peter Fish and the late John Remias, once the resident caretaker at the West Canada Lakes Ranger Station, whose removal by the state Weill regrets. Remias became a close friend and confidant, as did a few authentic natives of the region who really did know the territory like the backs of their hands. His affection and respect for these people is evident in both volumes.

The title story from the first book is one of Weill’s favorites. Four 20-something guys from Long Island, dressed in military camouflage, have planted their brand-new tent (big enough for three at the most) inside a roped-off perimeter 50 feet on a side. It comes out that this is their first time in the woods, and they’re trying to “outwoodsman” each other. This results in such inevitable rookie catastrophes as dinner being burned beyond recognition. And when they decide to dry their clothes (including blue jeans, of course) too close to the fire, you can imagine why Ranger Weill has to shout, “Excuse me, sir … your socks are on fire!” Keep reading and you’ll learn what weaponry they’d brought along to fend off the certain bear attacks and how they saved themselves from a lethal beaver with their arsenal at 2 a.m.

“My best memories of the West Canada Lakes revolve around the people I was able to help,” Weill says. “I’m a people person.” Get started on either of these quick and enjoyable reads, and before long one of the people you will recognize may be yourself.