Hiker expresses gratitude for the retired ranger who saved him
By Gwendolyn Craig
It was 14 years ago that Peter Buccinna almost died on Saddleback Mountain.
The experienced hiker was out climbing with friends on Jan. 16, 2007, when a misstep sent him sliding 400 feet down an open rock face. Buccinna broke his leg and pelvis.
His rescue is one that gets recounted by rescuers and locals. It was one of the worst accidents in recent memory.
“I don’t talk about this very often,” Buccinna said in an interview. He choked up. “I almost feel as if I went through some of those stories that don’t have a good outcome, but I’m still here to talk about it.”
One of the many people responsible for Buccinna’s survival that day was Julie Harjung, a state Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger who retired this spring. There were dozens of rescuers who helped Buccinna that night, but when Harjung reached him on the side of the mountain, she was his companion for the nine or more hours in minus-23-degree temperatures until a helicopter could come.
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They talked. They talked more. Harjung kept Buccinna awake and, as much as possible, his mind off of the pain and the cold and darkness. She prompted him to speak of things like jobs, family and life away from Saddleback Mountain.
“Nobody ever really gets that experience in life, let alone it was potentially the end of my life,” Buccinna said. “She knew all of that and was still able to make it about something different.”
It was the next day that a helicopter could finally fly in and carry Buccinna off to Saranac Lake’s trauma center. Though his rescue had a happy ending, it took Buccinna about a decade before he would or could talk about it to reporters. He spoke with Dave Kraus for Adirondack Sports in 2016, recounting the experience. When he learned that Harjung was retiring, he reached out to the Adirondack Explorer to thank her.
A ground-breaking ranger
Read about Julie Harjung’s career with NYS DEC
Harjung had spoken with the Explorer earlier this year about her forest ranger career and retirement. She is the first female forest ranger in New York to retire with 25 years of service, and the first female lieutenant. Her work getting rangers wilderness medical training was a particular highlight in her career, and in some ways that sprung from Buccinna’s rescue. She had called that incident “the most grueling one.”
“It was one of those ones where you look back and say yes, that was a life saved for sure,” Harjung said.
Harjung and Buccinna talked on the phone this January on the 14th anniversary of the rescue. Harjung said she was touched by the fact that he still remembered her, and by how thankful he was. She was surprised to hear from him. Buccinna said he learned even more about that day from Harjung.
Looking back, Buccinna remembers thinking that he was going to die, and being OK with it. He remembers being disappointed, but also reasoning that life to that point had been a blast. Today, he is angry that he ever thought such things.
In the last 14 years, Buccinna has started a nonprofit that helps feed children in Mongolia, called Gobi Connections. He has a son, Jack, who is turning 12 this year. He has traveled all over the country and world.
Those experiences have taught him to value life more, he said. “It becomes even more important if you’re going through an experience like that.”
Buccinna is doing well physically, too, and has cycled, skied and hiked more than ever. He’s even accompanying his son on a quest to hike the Adirondack Park’s 46 High Peaks. They haven’t tried Saddleback just yet, but there will be a story to tell when they do.
Buccinna is ever-grateful to Harjung and others for making sure of it.
Harjung had told him on the phone that rescues like his are what she signed up to do. He still cannot believe there are people out there who choose to be forest rangers.
“To have a direct role in peoples’, individuals’ survival, I mean, how do I ever in the rest of my life show gratitude?” Buccinna said. “I think it’s a testament to the rangers as a whole. This is what they do.”