Retiring lieutenant ranger Julie Harjung broke ground
By Gwendolyn Craig
When Julie Harjung arrived in the Adirondacks to help clear roads after the devastating 1998 ice storm, the Catskills-based forest ranger with the state Department of Environmental Conservation fell in love with the giant state park.
It was a good thing she did. Harjung’s medical expertise in her tenure at Region 5 in the Adirondacks has since helped save the lives of many hikers, whose injuries were some of the worst documented in recent memory.
But like her ranger colleague, Scott van Laer, Harjung is now retiring from her post. In her time with DEC Harjung, 60, has broken the corps’ glass ceiling. She is the first female forest ranger to retire with 25 years of service, and she said she is the first female lieutenant in the state.
“I will miss much about this job, that’s for sure,” Harjung said. “I will miss the field days, the fact that you can literally spend a whole day on snowmobiles, on skis, on snowshoes, on foot, in a boat, just exploring areas that you’ve never been before.
“I’m still finding them, even though I’ve been up here for years and years.”
The last patrol
Read about Julie Harjung’s colleague Scott van Laer, as he reflects on his time as DEC ranger and union leader.
Harjung and van Laer graduated from the ranger academy together and started their careers in 1996. Once she moved to Region 5, she worked most of her time in an area adjacent to the High Peaks, from Long Lake up to the Canadian border.
“I’m kind of sorry to give it up,” Harjung said. “But it is time to let somebody new step into my shoes and plan for me to pursue other passions.”
Harjung might do some traveling in a 2020 Sprinter van she’s turning into a camper, but she will stay in the Adirondacks and keep working as a paramedic for Saranac Lake’s rescue squad. It’s Harjung’s medical experience that colleagues mention and value—skills she has passed on to coworkers but also summit stewards, guides and rescue volunteers.
That was a goal of hers: to create standardized medical training for forest rangers across the state. In partnership with Wilderness Medical Associates International, rangers now get consistent training and every ranger is considered a wilderness first responder.
“That’s one of the things that’s helped us to kind of achieve the prestige that we have as forest rangers in our rescue work,” Harjung said. “I’m definitely proud of that.”
The DEC recognized Harjung back in 2018 for getting this training to rangers, and at that time noted she had taught more than 110 first-aid courses to more than 2,500 students.
A DEC spokesperson would not comment on Harjung’s retirement specifically, but did write that “DEC is grateful for the service of all DEC employees who choose to retire from state service.”
During the 2018 award ceremony, DEC also commented that Harjung’s “tireless dedication to this program (the wilderness medical training) translates to her having a helping hand in saving countless lives across all of New York State.”
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A couple of rescues stand out to Harjung, including one in 2007 when Pete Buccinna fell down a 400-foot slide on Saddleback Mountain in Keene. Buccina broke his pelvis and his leg. A few New York City firefighters were hiking nearby, and were able to get to Buccinna and get his leg wrapped.
Tyler Merriam was with Buccinna that day. Merriam’s father was also hiking with them, and had fallen, and suffered a concussion. Merriam and a friend rushed for help. He remembers Harjung coordinated the rescue.
Buccinna had to spend the night on the mountain. The weather was too bad to airlift him out that night, and Harjung stayed with him.
“He was just in excruciating pain, and it was a really tough rescue,” Harjung said.
In an interview with Adirondack Sports, Buccinna recounted how Harjung had stayed with him that night, the temperature -23 degrees Fahrenheit. She kept him awake and talking before a helicopter was eventually able to reach them for transport to Albany Medical Center.
“She performed magnificently in organizing everybody and making sure nothing worse happened to Peter,” Merriam said.
Merriam would later go to college for outdoor education and get trained in wilderness first aid, which he now teaches.
Van Laer recalled another difficult rescue during which Harjung was responsible for saving a life. In 2016, an ice climber from Connecticut fell 100 feet down the side of Pitchoff Mountain and broke his leg. When the climber’s friends called for help, van Laer remembered, he could hear screams in the background.
“He was all mangled up,” van Laer said. “He had a broken femur, significant bleeding.”
At this point in her career, Harjung was no longer a field ranger but a lieutenant whose duties generally would not involve going out into the backcountry. But van Laer said no other ranger could top her medical skills.
“’I’m going,’” van Laer recalled Harjung saying. It was a tough scramble to get to the climber, but van Laer said that once she did, Harjung had the situation under control.
“She was just so calm, and when you’re with her, to be with someone that calm in those kinds of situations, it’s really good because it passes it on to everyone else,” van Laer said.
It was not just medical calls that Harjung responded to over the years. She was the first forest ranger to assist during the Dannemora prison break in 2015, when killers Richard Matt and David Sweat tunneled out of Clinton Correctional Facility. She spent three weeks on the ultimately successful manhunt.
“Who knew as a forest ranger I’d ever get involved in a massive, massive search like that one?” Harjung said. “We set up incident command and helped to organize the whole search.”
When not on searches, Harjung worked on a number of service projects. She helped remove camps, built lean-tos and was always a familiar face at “The 90-Miler” Adirondack canoe race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake.
While van Laer has been the traditional spokesperson and advocate for forest rangers, Harjung shares his frustration about the state’s ranger hiring practices. Academies are six months long, Harjung said, and to have vacancies while those new rangers are training and gaining experience is “sometimes very hairy.”
The job has changed significantly, Harjung added. But that doesn’t bother her. It’s important to have a career that isn’t stagnant, she said, and rangers excel in whatever they face.
There are times when it can be too much for the staffing levels, though, she said. “I used to say to the kids training: Our job is to protect the woods from the people, and the people from the woods. We need that time to be able to do that.”
Harjung is proud that she has paved the way for more female rangers.
“Don’t be intimidated by the fact that it’s mostly a man’s field, it’s mostly men,” Harjung advised women considering the job. “That’s changing. It’s getting better. It’s improving.”