By Gwendolyn Craig
A Saratoga County man admitted to painting the mysterious orange blazes on the Cascade Mountain trail in the fall of 2019, so he could find his way back down the mountain.
A summit steward had alerted a DEC forest ranger at that time that 20 painted markings were on trees and rocks.
Records show Thomas Prusinowksi of Malta was issued a notice of violation for the illegal markings he painted. Prusinowski is also responsible for similar ones painted on a mountain trail in the Catskills. A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said as part of an administrative settlement decided this month, Prusinowski will pay a $500 civil penalty.
In a voluntary statement, Prusinowski wrote that “as a military vet of 30 years, I mistakenly marked the trail to aid me getting down. I am very sorry for my mistake and will never do it again.”
Scott van Laer, a forest ranger and union leader with the Police Benevolent Association of New York, said the incidents are an example that more beginner hiker education is needed. Prusinowski was hiking alone, van Laer said, and was worried about getting lost. Though the Cascade Mountain trail is an obvious one for experienced hikers, van Laer said, it might not be for those who have never hiked in the wilderness.
Subscribe to our weekly outdoor recreation email newsletter
Forest rangers were convinced this was the case for Prusinowski, as the paint marks he made on the trail were in strategic locations where a less experienced hiker may get confused.
“In his mind he was helping the public,” van Laer said. “That goes to the mindset, the educational level, Leave No Trace of newer hikers and the lack of a collective educational program for beginners.”
A DEC spokesperson said the agency “strongly discourages hikers from marking or maintaining trails on the Forest Preserve, but rather contact the local DEC Office to report areas that require trail maintenance.”
Van Laer also talked about the investigation process for the case. Forest rangers were able to zero-in on a time window of when the blazes were made via the summit steward’s report of when they had seen the markings. Forest rangers then contacted a number of people signed in on the trail register to further narrow the timeframe and find out if anyone had seen the painter.
Prusinowski did not sign in at the Cascade Mountain trail register.
Rangers eventually did get in contact with a hiker, who had signed in at the register and had seen a man with a spray paint can. That hiker provided a description of the person. Another registered hiker, whom rangers contacted, said he had met a man on the summit, who fit the description rangers were given. They had taken a photo together, but the hiker did not have a name.
Prusinowski was wearing a hat with details about his branch of military service in the photo.
Van Laer said he used social media sites, especially Facebook, to narrow the search. Van Laer went on a Facebook page specifically for that military branch and posted the photo. Within 30 seconds, van Laer said, someone from the group identified Prusinowski.
Meanwhile, Catskill forest rangers were also conducting a search for someone who had posted blaze orange on a mountain trail. Both Adirondack and Catskill rangers conferred and found the markings were similar, were the same paint, and were made at about the same height from the ground.
Rangers contacted Prusinowski, and he admitted to making the markings. Van Laer said he believes the incidents could have been prevented if there were more forest rangers, more stewards at trailheads and more educational programming for new hikers.