By Tom Woodman
Think back on a favorite excursion in the Adirondack wilderness, and if you were lucky a forest ranger played a cameo role. Maybe you encountered him on the trail and he filled you in on the conditions farther on. Or maybe she was advising hikers at a busy trailhead on the right gear to stay safe.
If you were much less fortunate, and things went dangerously wrong with your outing, a ranger might have played a much larger role, leading a race to rescue you from life-threatening conditions. This was the case a number of times this winter, and in each one rangers saved lost hikers or skiers. In the process they put themselves in danger too. As Ranger Captain John Streiff describes common rescue conditions “We have to not succumb to the elements, and the dangers of falling off a cliff or into a drift are very real.”
This recent spate of search-and-rescues is a good opportunity to recognize the essential and sometimes heroic service the rangers provide—and to think about what their role has been and may become.
Founded in 1885, primarily to prevent and fight wildfires, the rangers have evolved into a cadre of backcountry experts who protect both the natural world and the people who are drawn to it. They can be low-key and unobtrusive, but in many ways the Adirondack experience relies on them.
A conversation with Lou Curth is a great way to understand more about the rangers. Lou spent thirty-eight years as a ranger, retiring as captain in 2003. And he wrote The Forest Rangers, a history of the service published in 1987.
As Lou describes the history, you see that two images of rangers walk side by side: the daring, resourceful rescuer and firefighter next to the interpreter and educator. And the one Lou ends up speaking most passionately about is the educator, the role model and neighbor who through example and teaching brings people to a deep and respectful understanding of the wild. And not coincidentally makes them less likely to need rescuing.
Rangering was never a line of work for clock-watchers or those looking to get rich quick. At the time Lou joined the force in 1964, rangers were expected to be on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and to work from their homes. The salary was $4,220 a year. This wasn’t enough, and after a couple of years, Lou quit, though he considered the work the best he could ever find. The resignation didn’t bring an end to his ranger career; he rejoined a year later when the state increased ranger pay. But it did mark the beginning of many years of tension between his dedication to rangering and his criticism of the work conditions that went with it.
One of the things that has most bothered him over the years has been what he sees as a growing distance between rangers and their communities. Part of that is physical, with rangers no longer being required to live in their districts.
“When I started in 1964 you were given an assigned ranger district. You were king of that district. Nobody interfered with you,” Lou says. “This made the rangers singular, being effective and relating to the community. When I went to Johnsburg I knew every single person who was there. I knew who you were going to depend on for a search at midnight.”
Part of the distancing was psychological as rangers gradually took on greater law-enforcement responsibilities. He worries that the changing role also changes the ranger’s relationship with hikers and neighbors.
“I don’t hear a lot of people saying they love cops. People always did love the rangers. They respected them. They were trying to give them coffee. Every time I tried to write a burning permit I had to have coffee. That’s how supporters saved the jobs [when drastic cuts were proposed] in 1984, because rangers had that magic and that connection to the general public.”
That rapport has not disappeared, but it’s not as pronounced as it was “in the good old days.”
“As soon as you got out of the truck they all wanted to talk to the ranger,” Lou says. “This was the good guy.”
The personal connection is what allows rangers to painlessly guide people about the values and responsibilities that go with entering a wilderness.
Despite the impression that a series of rescues creates, Lou doesn’t think today’s hikers are any less prepared for what they will encounter. In fact he remembers the seventies and its back-to-nature movement as a heyday for lost hikers. The striking difference now is the hiker’s ability to call for help.
“The cell phone is a huge change from when I was working. We never knew anything was wrong until the wife or the girlfriend called up and said he isn’t home. Now I get the feeling they’re calling up and saying, ‘I don’t know where I am so you better send someone to get me.’ I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s different. Somebody still has to go out and get these people, but they seem to be able to find them a little easier.”
In Lou’s view, the future of the Adirondack Park relies on attracting more people to discover the wonders and rewards of the outdoors: children from cities as well as rural areas and especially inner-city minority groups who will play increasingly influential roles in future public policy. And, of course, he assigns a central responsibility for this to the rangers-as-educators:
“My dream is we could make the rangers into role models. Get more black and Hispanic rangers, women rangers and have them interact with people. Out of that you would get kids who look at a black ranger and say, ‘I could be a black ranger.’
“Yes, we’re doing search-and-rescues and, yes, we’re fighting fires, but what we’re not doing is whatever it’s going to take to turn around this problem of children no longer being interested in nature. We are going to lose the Forest Preserve if we don’t get young people back. Yes, fire suppression is important. Search and rescue definitely is important. Yes, some law enforcement is important. But if we don’t get going on this we’ve lost it.”