Dissecting the data of NYS Forest Ranger missions
By Emilie Munson, Times Union
For a moment, NYS Forest Ranger Pete Evans watched the stream of backpack-laden hikers amble through the Adirondack Loj trailhead on a sunny Friday morning.
Then, Evans sprang into action. Evans, with help from a local volunteer, stopped every hiking party for a quick assessment: a friendly “where are you headed today?” initiated a short interview examining each group’s plans, experience and preparedness.
Education is a big part of the job, Evans later explained, and a simple step that can ward off disaster later on. In a just a few hours, when the afternoon sun illuminates the highest peaks in New York, Evans’ radio will begin to chirp with calls — calls for help, calls for rescue. In these parts, the rangers call it “the witching hour.”
More than 5,400 people rescued
From 2012 to 2022, state rangers found and rescued more than 5,400 people around New York, according to state data on ranger missions analyzed by the Times Union. Rangers perform more than 300 search and rescue missions a year in the state.
That’s far more missions than the number performed on average by the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game. New Hampshire, home to the White Mountains another popular hiking destination in the Northeast, averages 190 missions per year, according to Major Dave Walsh with the Department. New Hampshire is a smaller state than New York.
Missions spiked during the pandemic
In New York, rangers did many more missions than usual during 2020 and 2021 when the COVID-19 pandemic brought more hikers out. In both those years, rangers performed three or four missions per day on some Saturdays in the Adirondacks, as more people, some of them inexperienced, hit the hiking trails for social distanced recreation.
“We scrambled and we worked 24/7 to stay up on it,” said Capt. Kevin Burns, who oversees rangers in the High Peaks area.
In 2022, the number of missions returned to pre-pandemic levels. Rescues are most common in July and August when more recreationalists hit the woods and waterways.
More people rescued in the High Peaks Wilderness than anywhere else
State forest rangers have rescued or found more people from the Adirondacks High Peaks Wilderness than any other area in New York over the last decade. That area is home to the highest mountains in the state and numerous hiking trails.
More than twice the number of people have been rescued from the High Peaks than any other state land area in New York over the last 10 years, data shows.
Kaaterskill Wild Forest
After the High Peaks, rangers rescued or found the most people in the Kaaterskill Wild Forest Area in the Catskills. Multiple trails traverse the area and Kaaterskill Falls, a two-stage waterfall that is one of the tallest in the Eastern United States, flows here.
The Lake George area is third for most people found or rescue by rangers in the last decade. Hikers and boaters are fond of this area for recreation. State rangers have a boat used for rescued missions on the water here, Burns said, or to access hikers on some remote spots near the lake.
The trails with the most rescues
Over the years, more people have been found or rescued on the trail to Mount Marcy via Van Hoevenberg than any other trail in New York, state data shows. The 16.2 mile trail leads to the tallest peak in New York and intersects with trails to other peaks.
A close second is the trail to Mount Colden via Avalanche Pass, which is another nearby excursion. Mount Colden includes a rock slide that is popular for hikers to summit and sometimes search and rescue missions occur there. Although rangers record the coordinates of the location they find each person, they noted the data may occasionally include errors.
One hiker’s harrowing tale
Dmytri Gutch was stranded in waist deep snow at the top of Algonquin Peak in the middle of the night. In late November, the 19-year-old from Schenectady was separated from his hiking partner on a winter hiking trip. After hours in the elements, Dmytri eventually called 911 and connected with rangers by phone.
A ranger stayed on the phone with him, yelling to keep the man from losing consciousness. At 4:22 a.m, rangers reached the hypothermic man, administered care and assisted him to the trailhead where he was loaded into an ambulance.
“In the winter, it’s not a matter of how much energy you have or how much distance you can cover,” Gutch told state officials in a video interview shared by DEC on Facebook. “It’s a matter of a clock, a timer, and your body is going to fail at the end of the timer.”
Winter rescues are often dangerous
While more people are rescued in the summer than winter in the Adirondacks, some of the most intense rescue missions have unfolded in the snow and ice of the High Peaks.
Burns recalls when a man slipped down a rock slide on Gothics Mountain and collided with a boulder at the bottom of his fall. When rangers arrived, they found the man had likely shattered his hip and it would be risky to transport him off the mountain on foot.
Seven rangers stayed through the night in the snow and temperatures 21 degrees below zero as they waited for a helicopter to arrive to airlift the man out the next morning, Burns said. They huddled around two fires that sputtered to burn icy branches and stood back to back for warmth.
“Thank god the helicopter came the next morning, extracted the person from that site, took him to the hospital and then we hiked out,” Burns said. “It was brutal.”
A helicopter lifts off after dropping off members of a rescue team. Video provided by Kevin MacKenzie, who participated in the July 31, 2021, rescue at the Mount Colden Trap Dike.
Sometimes helicopters, ATVs or boats are involved
Most people found or rescued can exit the wilderness on their own feet or with some assistance. In other cases, vehicles or boats are involved in the evacuation, state data shows. There are only a few areas in the High Peaks where ATVs can be used, Burns said. For water rescues, dive teams were employed to rescue 38 people.
Aircraft have been called in to evacuate 190 people in a decade of rescues. Sometimes rangers must use heavy backpack litter systems to carry a person suspended between their bodies down a trail. Use of a rescue helicopter can be risky, however, Burns and Evans said, so aircraft are only used for some serious injuries and in certain weather conditions.
“Quite a few times now, I’ll be talking to somebody on the phone and they’ll say ‘Just send the helicopter,’ ” Evans said. “That’s not the way it works. I’ve had people crying in the middle of the night saying they were going to call the governor because we weren’t sending a helicopter to pick them up in the middle of the night, and that’s purely because of the press those aviation missions get. It’s become an expectation.”
Where boaters are saved
With 144 bodies of water, including Saranac Lake, the Raquette River and Lake Flower, the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest has many places to boat and paddle. Eighty-two boaters have been found, rescued or recovered from this area from 2012 to 2022 — four times the number in any other forest region, state data shows.
White caps on the large Middle Saranac Lake sometimes cause boats to overturn and people may struggle to right them, a dangerous prospect especially in cold water, Burns said.
In May 2022, forest rangers were called in to rescue an exhausted kayaker on the Raquette River at 8:30 p.m. The 42-year-old New Yorker made it to the shore, but he was 2 miles from the road, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. Rangers responded and the kayaker was airlifted off the riverbank and brought to the hospital.
More missions, more rangers
The state employs 159 rangers, more than ever before in the last 10 years. The rangers are stationed in various regions throughout the state. For some missions, rangers call on the help of volunteers to supplement their manpower.
Groups like Search and Rescue of the Northern Adirondacks train volunteers on how to help in these wilderness missions and assist rangers’ efforts.
“We go out in very difficult conditions, rain and cold,” said Elena Lumby, training coordinator for SARNAK. “We’re on extremely difficult and treacherous trails … searches are long. They’re buggy. You’re on awful terrain. You’re going through Balsam thickets. So all of our training is designed to bring teammates closer to one another, to build trust and to build fun.”