By MIKE LYNCH
A fifty-year-old hiker who drowned in the East Branch of the Ausable in late July was a military veteran who had struggled with post-traumatic-stress disorder but found outlets in horses and hiking.
Ralph “Skip” Baker, who served twenty-six years in the U.S. Air Force, died in the river after a strenuous hike in the Great Range on July 30. He was found after a two-day search.
Although what happened in the final moments of Baker’s life will likely never be known, Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said Baker may have suffered a medical episode that caused him to drown.
“We did identify some medical issues during the autopsy and those could have been the cause of his disorientation and not feeling well,” Whitelaw said. “And that could have precipitated him ending up in the water. He could have staggered into or stumbled into the water while walking by the river.”
An aspiring Adirondack Forty-Sixer from Webster, near Rochester, Baker had planned to hike up the Beaver Meadows Trail to Gothics, head to Armstrong and Upper Wolf Jaw, and descend by the Wedge Brook Trail, starting and ending the trek at the Ausable Club in St. Huberts. He had signed the register at the start of the Lake Road near the club. After he was reported missing about 6 a.m. the next day, a search involving forest rangers and a state police helicopter ensued. His body was found about 11 a.m. on August 1.
Paul Smith’s College student Mike Pratt was descending Gothics with his fiancée, Beth Devane, when he ran into Baker just before the Beaver Meadows Trail intersection. “He seemed a little confused about where he was,” Pratt said. “He was talking as if he was hiking toward Gothics when he was hiking toward Armstrong.”
Pratt said Baker asked if he could tag along on the way up Armstrong Mountain, but fell behind the Pratt and Devaney just minutes later. “He seemed like he was coherent,” Pratt said. “He was just slow.”
Whitelaw said a witness reported that “sometime during the hike, [Baker] was disoriented and actually one time had to lay down along the trail to rest.”
Whitelaw said Baker’s backpack and hiking poles were found alongside the river and appeared to have been placed there.
Baker left the Air Force in 2011 after suffering post-traumatic stress, according to an autobiographical article he penned for the EquiCenter, a horse ranch in Honeoye Falls that runs therapeutic programs for people with disabilities, at-risk youth, and veterans. Baker was enrolled in the Heroes and Horses program at Equicenter. Baker’s family provided the article when contacted by the Explorer for comment.
Baker wrote he was a part of many rewarding missions in the Air Force, such as “airdropping food to starving people and hay to starving animals. Or carrying used medical equipment to third world countries where they had none.” But there many other times he wanted to forget. “The things you see, stay with you long after the mission,” he wrote. These incidents apparently haunted, and he struggled after leaving the military.
“Over a two-year period, I squandered my life savings, gave away all my worldly possessions, and drove my vehicle through two telephone poles,” he wrote.
However, Baker found help through the Department of Veterans Affairs and eventually enrolled in the Heroes and Horses program through Equicenter. He wrote glowingly of the center and hoped to start a ranch of his own one day.
After Baker’s death, an online Go Fund Me campaign was launched to pay for his funeral. It raised $6,179, significantly more than its $5,000 goal. “Skip was retired Air Force and did more than his share to help the rest of us at home while he was out in dangerous territory,” stated the Go-Fund Me page. “Skip leaves behind loving family including his parents who he has been helping as they have had their own struggles recently, his son Justin and his granddaughter Bella. Skip didn’t have much in the way of finances but he had tons in the way of character!.”
Dave Gomlak, co-owner of Tmax and Topo’s Hostel in Lake Placid, helped share the Go Fund Me page and remembered Baker fondly on his Facebook page.
“He was kind and gracious, and the world will be a little cloudier without him. I am grateful that he knew the view from the top of Gothics before he left us,” Gomlak wrote.