Bill had been driving all over the Adirondacks since early Friday morning. I was in my car heading north to meet him. I’d get occasional calls from him about the wintry conditions and iced-over lakes that he found. Ice-out was late this year, so our original plan to canoe into the St. Regis Wilderness Area for a few days was scrapped. Bill kept driving south and lower in elevation until he found open water. We finally decided to fish Rock Pond, which is in the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness Area. Bill had been wanting to fish the pond for years, and he was sure that we had a chance to get some big brook trout. We met around 11:00am and headed to the boat launch for Putnam Pond. From there, we’d paddle about two miles to the canoe carry trail on the opposite end of the lake, and hike about three quarters of a mile to Rock Pond.
Since we were traveling by canoe, we had a good amount of stuff—more than we needed for three days. We loaded up the canoe, then split up the hike to Rock Pond, carrying the heavy packs first, then returning to get the canoe, paddles, and the lighter pack. The weather was pleasant. It had been raining all morning, but it was clearing up just as we were heading out. As we arrived at the shallow cove on the far end of Rock Pond, I noticed a few ice patches in some of the shady spots.
We were pleased to find the Rock Pond Lean-to unoccupied, since it was the only real shelter on the lake. The rustic, three-sided log shelter is much appreciated when the fickle Adirondack weather changes for the worst. It looked like it was in pretty good shape, and it had a newer roof on it.
It was around 2:00 in the afternoon. We had some time to get our stuff situated, eat some food, and then go out fishing in the early evening. I noticed that we didn’t get cellphone service, so I set my phone to airplane mode and put it in the front pocket of my backpack. It can still serve as my camera, and I downloaded the google maps data for the northeast US, so it wouldn’t be totally useless during the trip. I had already let my wife know where we were camping and that there might not be service in the area, so she won’t be expecting any calls from me.
Our gear was strewn all over the floor of the lean-to, and we were sorting through our fishing stuff when four hikers approached from the opposite direction of where we came from. Three of them stayed down on the main trail, and one of them came to talk to us. She was a confident hiker that looked like she might be in her late 50s or early 60s. She had a brace on each knee, and used her hiking poles as she walked up the slope to the shelter. She told us, in a loud enough voice that her three companions could hear, that they would “let us have the lean-to” and were planning to camp in the next site further down the trail. She informed us that they might come back to the shelter later that night if the storm coming through in the evening was bad. “Sounds like a plan,” Bill replied.
They were on a short backpacking trip, hiking in from one of the many trails in the wilderness area. She asked us which way we came in from. Bill, still focused on sorting through his gear, pointed northeast to the trail near the pond and told her that we came in from Putnam Pond. She pointed to the hill behind the lean-to and informed us—still loud enough for her group to hear—that Putnam Pond was southeast, not northeast. She was right, but it would be quite a challenge to carry the canoe up over that hill. We didn’t argue, and continued to sort through our gear as she finished talking to us. They left, and I saw them as they passed by the back of the lean-to, picking their way down the trail on their way to the next campsite along the lake.
It was a strange encounter. Bill and I talked about it after they were out of earshot. It was 2:00; it seemed early to set up camp if you’re on a hiking trip. What do you do for the rest of the day? It was May and the days were plenty long enough to get more hiking in. They could have easily hiked back to their car in that amount of time. Why did she correct us about our directions? Why were the other three women in the group letting her do all the talking while they stayed on the trail? We hoped they decided to continue hiking, or cut their trip short if they were worried about the storm. We pictured the four of them and their soaking wet packs piling into the lean-to with us during a thunderstorm. Then, we thought of spending the rest of the night being quizzed and corrected on our direction-finding skills by the grey-haired lady with the knee braces. Sounds like fun.
We had a good day of fishing. I used my southern New England bass fishing tactics and caught 5 or so brook trout on a black rubber grub, casting toward the submerged limbs and branches along the shore. Bill used his Adirondack brook trout fishing tactics and caught a similar number of trout on a “Lake Clear Wobbler” and a worm. We kept a couple trout for dinner or maybe breakfast the next morning. The lake water was still in the mid 30s so we left the cleaned trout on a stringer in the water knowing that it would be more than cold enough to preserve them.
We were tired in the evening. It was a long day of traveling, paddling, hiking, and fishing, so we saved the trout for breakfast. We had plenty of food with us anyway, so we ate our mac and cheese with sausage for dinner. We built a nice fire in the pit in front of the lean-to, and drank some of the beers we brought. I brought a few beers from Connecticut, and Bill brought some from Vermont.
The sun was getting lower in the sky when the wind started to blow a little more. It was annoying, blowing smoke and embers into the lean-to. I reminisced about our fishing trip to Pharaoh Lake some years ago. There, I spent most of a day with a migraine caused by wind blowing wood smoke into the lean-to during the night.
We prepared the campsite for the night, stowing our gear in the lean-to, out of the wind. It looked and felt like rain was coming. I walked up the hill and looked for a tree to hang the bear rope on. It was a rocky hill with little pockets of soil here and there. Vegetation was sparse—mostly mosses and various sizes of pine trees. There was no shortage of dead wood and fallen trees on the hillside. I picked a tree about 20 or 30 yards from the privy on top of the hill, figuring that we could follow the trail to the privy, then veer off to the left near a large rock and tree. I took a good mental note of the landmarks, knowing that it would be dark when we returned to hang the food for the night.
We got out the headlamps and lights for the lean-to. I set up my solar lantern—a lightweight, inflatable plastic cylinder that looks plain and simple but is surprisingly useful. Bill’s headlamp wasn’t working right, and he had to either use a little pocket lantern, or borrow my headlamp instead. My headlamp is an LED flashlight powered by two AA batteries. It slips through an elastic band onto a Velcro strap that I like to wear over a knit cap.
Around 7:45-8:00, the winds really picked up. It was getting dark, but there was still plenty of ambient light. I sat on the edge of the lean-to and watched the taller pines as they swayed in the wind. It was somewhat comforting that there weren’t any large trees in front of the lean-to, which faced the rocky hillside. There were some large trees between the back of the shelter and the pond, but they looked healthy and sturdy. We had a lot of pine trees on our property where I grew up in Connecticut, and I remember some of them breaking unpredictably during storms. It always made me nervous to camp in a pine forest, but, since Rock Pond is surrounded by pine forest, this lean-to was probably the best place to be in the area. It reassured me a bit to see carvings in the logs that dated back to the early 1970s. This shelter has seen some weather.
A heavy rainstorm blew through, extinguishing our fire. We had built up the fire, hoping it would be hot enough to withstand the rain, but it was too much water. Bill managed to restart it later, and the wet smoke filled the lean-to.
One of the tall pines on the hill fell over during a big gust. By this time, it was almost dark, and I could see the shadow of it as it fell up the slope of the hill. Later, when we hung our food from the bear rope, we discovered that the tree had fallen on our privy. It was difficult to find the bear rope after the tree had fallen—the trail looked much different. The wind was a lot stronger on the hillside than it was near the lean-to, and we quickly made our way back to the shelter after hanging the food. Why was the weather always bad when we camped together? A bit nervously, we joked around about it as we picked our way back down the hill.
It was around 10:00. The darkness of the Adirondack wilderness made it so you couldn’t see what the pine trees were doing anymore. It was still windy—just as we thought it might die down a bit, a big gust would come though, snapping some pine tree off in the distance. I tried to guess what the sounds meant. A broken limb would make a higher pitched snap. An uprooted tree wouldn’t snap—just a dull thud when it hit the ground. A larger tree that cracked somewhere above the stump would make a deeper cracking sound, followed by a thud when it hit the wet ground. I wondered which way to run if we heard a snap from behind the shelter, and, after some thought, I decided that it would be better to stay in the shelter.
It was quite a storm. The last forecast I looked at called for 30-something mph gusts. This felt much worse than the forecast. We talked about the group of four hikers that we saw earlier. They must have decided to hike out after all, since they didn’t come back here to get out of the storm. We hoped they hiked out—it was a bad storm, and the campsite that they were heading to when they left us was surrounded by large pine trees. That lady seemed knowledgeable, so there was no way she would want to sleep in the pines during this storm. We relaxed a little after concluding that we were the only ones crazy enough to be out here in this weather.
We turned off the lanterns around 11:00, and got into our sleeping bags. I knew I wouldn’t sleep much—I never do on my first night in an unfamiliar place, and this storm made me nervous. In my younger days, I might have just drunk enough beer until I didn’t care about the wind anymore. Nowadays, I prefer to stay alert, sober, and fully functional during questionable situations. I’m glad I did.
I was sitting upright in my sleeping bag when we were startled by a beam of light bouncing off the trees in front of the lean-to. Someone was approaching from the trail behind the shelter. A ranger? Someone is lost? Who would be walking around now? A female voice asked if anyone was in the lean-to. “We need help. A tree has fallen on one of the people in our group. She’s pinned and she can’t move.”
The group of four hikers were still out here. I climbed out of my bag, sat on the edge of the lean-to, and laced up my hiking boots. I grabbed my rain jacket and headlamp and followed the woman down the trail. “I’m surprised that I could find you guys.” She seemed calm. It must be a small tree, and they just need our help to lift it off. Our lights reflected off the wet rocks and bushes as we made our way to their campsite.
It was a mess of tree limbs and sticks. In the darkness, it was hard to tell that it was a campsite at all. We came up from behind, and I had to peer over the tree to see her. It was the grey-haired lady that we talked to, the leader of the group. There was no way we were going to budge this tree, it was huge. I tried anyway. It was hard to orient anything in the darkness. All I could see was a mass of tree, branches, tent, a broken tent pole, and part of a person under all of it. I stepped on her foot by accident as I was trying to climb over the tree. “Someone is stepping on my foot.” I apologized a few times, and went back to talk to Bill. We had to get help—there was nothing else we could do.
I met him on the way back to our lean-to. I told him I thought we needed to get to a place where we could find cellphone service. I think my voice was shaky when I was talking to him. He wanted to see if we could move the tree. He had a length of paracord, a small folding backpacking saw, and a poop shovel. Once he saw the situation, he came to the same conclusion as me. Bill gave the saw and shovel to one of the hikers and she started to dig around the lady. “I’m so scared,” the lady under the tree said. Two of the campers were kneeling in front of her—one was digging with the poop shovel, the other was trying to comfort the grey-haired lady.
We had to make some sort of plan. They weren’t going to go for help in this storm—like it or not, it had to be us. We could hike a little over 1.5 miles to the state campground, but following the trail would leave us far from our vehicle, and no one was in the campground this time of year. We needed to take the canoe. I got back to our lean-to and grabbed my phone, my car keys, and some extra AA batteries. The canoe was down the trail close to the shore. Bill put the canoe over his shoulders and I grabbed the paddles. He used my headlamp and I took the inflatable solar lamp and walked in front.
We had to walk by their campsite on our way back to Putnam Pond. We saw the lights from their headlamps bouncing off the trees. We yelled over that we were going for help. Someone responded, saying that it was a good idea. The pinned lady was shouting directions to us as we walked by.
The trail looked so much different at night. We switched jobs near the top of the first hill—Bill put the stern of the canoe down, and held the middle of it up while I climbed under, resting the yoke on my shoulders. The trail was a muddy mess. I slipped and fell a few times, but managed to keep the canoe from hitting the ground. I saw a little drainage channel made of rocks that I didn’t remember seeing on the hike in. I had a feeling that we were walking the wrong way, but we didn’t see any other trails, so we kept going. The trail opened to a wider triangular shape, and our light stopped reflecting off the trees. We had found Putnam Pond.
Bill’s Kevlar canoe is great for backcountry trips. It’s large, holds a lot of gear, and weighs about 40 lbs. In a storm with gusts that felt like 30-40mph, the light weight works against you. It acts like a sail, and wants to turn broadside to the wind. I was in the bow with the AA headlamp, and, during the gusts, had to paddle outwards away from the side of the canoe to keep the bow in the wind.
You could see the outline of the shore, but only when you were very close to it. It was still cloudy, so there was no moon or stars to help us. We made note of the direction of the waves and used that to figure out our direction. Once we found the opposite shore, we had to paddle into the waves until we reached the end of an island, when the shore disappeared from sight. We rounded the island and paddled hard, broadside to the wind—fighting to keep the canoe from blowing ashore. Once we reached the point, we aimed back into the waves and made for the opposite shore. Then, we spun the canoe so the wind was behind us, and blew down the lake until we spotted the stone wall near the boat launch. Bill pulled the canoe ashore while I ran to the parking area to get my car. I felt relieved that the hard part was over—we just had to make a call.
It was just before midnight when I turned the lights on after starting my car. I picked up Bill and drove as fast as I could down the road. I had to slow down often to maneuver around fallen sticks and limbs. Our plan was to head towards Ticonderoga and drive until we either get cellphone service or see a house with a light on. It wasn’t far after we passed the Putnam Pond Campground gate when we saw a house with the lights on inside.
It was 12:03 AM. Bill knocked on the door, keeping his hands out and away from his sides so the homeowner could tell he was unarmed. An older lady answered the door, and after Bill asked her to use the phone, she asked him why his hands were up. He said he was worried about knocking on doors that late at night, and that everyone around here probably has a gun in the house. The lady laughed—she had a gun too.
She invited us in, dialed 911, and handed me the phone. She grabbed the remote, shut off the television, and listened to Bill tell her the story as I waited for the dispatcher to answer.
The 911 dispatcher kept asking me for a street address when I told her that it was a backcountry accident at Rock Pond. We went back and forth. “Putts Pond?” “No, Putnam Pond.” “Putts Pond Rd?” “No, the lady is out in the woods, you have to take a boat or hike to get to her.” “But it’s Putts Pond Rd?” The old lady was standing in the middle of her living room yelling “Putts Pond! It’s Putts Pond!” Eventually the dispatcher said she would send crews to the boat launch at Putnam Pond.
The old lady recommended that we drive down to the intersection of the main road to flag down the rescue crew. We met them shortly, and drove back to the boat launch.
Pickup trucks and emergency vehicles soon cluttered the boat launch. One truck had in it an old boat with no outboard. Flashing lights, diesel fumes, and engine noise replaced the noise of the wind and the waves. We talked with a police officer and some firefighters, and offered to use our canoe to take a young firefighter and his chainsaw to Rock Pond. We saw a paramedic come and quickly leave the area, and later learn that she and a firefighter are hiking in on one the trail from the campground.
We load the canoe with the firefighter. He tries to sit on one of the thwarts, and we tell him to sit on the bottom to make the boat more stable. He reluctantly agrees, and kneels in the water that collected in the canoe. We begin crossing the pond, and are close to rounding the first point when we hear a voice on his radio. They want him to come back—they have a boat on the way from Ticonderoga, and they want us to ride out on the boat.
It’s about 12:45 after we returned to shore, and I’m sitting on a dock that hasn’t yet been put in the lake for the summer season. Bill is talking to the police officer and the fire chief, trying to explain the need to move all the vehicles from the boat launch if a boat is coming to be launched. He eventually succeeds, and the trucks and ambulances are moved—but not far enough—and they needed to be moved further once the boat arrives.
The boat is launched. It’s a 23-foot boat powered by a 115-hp outboard motor. It has a top speed of 45mph. It has an open deck similar to a pontoon boat, and an overhead bar with flood lights mounted to it. After some difficulty with the trailer, the firefighters launch the boat, spin it parallel to the dock, and we hop in and wait. What are we waiting for? “Chainsaws.” I jump off the boat and run up to a man fixing a chainsaw. He points to a young firefighter behind me who jogs up to me, smiling, and hands me two chainsaws. I jump on board–“All right, let’s go!” No, not yet, we’re waiting for some other guy. Bill and I sit together in the seat across from the operator and stare at the ground as we wait for something to happen. It was taking too long. Maybe we feel different about it because we saw her out there, but these guys just weren’t moving fast enough.
After what seemed like an eternity, we’re finally ready to go. With a crowd of people and equipment on board, the propeller is stuck in the mud. The operator—a heavy, aging man in jeans and Velcro shoes—fumbles with the controls of the boat. He finally finds the trim control, raises the motor, and frees us from the mud.
“Be patient guys, it’s going to be a long, slow ride. I don’t know this lake.” We putter away from the dock, motor idling, as the wind and waves buffet the boat. Bill and I look at each other. We’re not just going slow, we’re not even going fast enough to keep the boat straight. The deck lights lit up the inside of the boat, making it impossible to see anything past. I asked the operator to turn the lights off and was ignored.
It seemed like everyone on the boat was giving directions to the operator, but they were all different, and they always started or ended with things like “…when I was hunting out here, we went over there…’’ or “…but I haven’t been out here in years.” I felt my heart rate increasing. I knew I could get this boat there. Bill could get it there, too. People were fumbling with some spotlights, one of which wasn’t working at all. One would flash on and off constantly. After about 15-20 minutes of wallowing around—not even out of earshot of the vehicles at the boat launch—they decided that they couldn’t make it any further. The reasons were numerous—It was too windy, those other people are hiking there, that “they tried, they gave it their best shot.” I couldn’t take it anymore. “You didn’t try at all.” Some guy up front barked back at me “You’re not in charge of this operation.” And that was it. They turned the boat around, after traveling about half as far as we did when we tried to take the firefighter out with us in our canoe. I couldn’t get off that boat quick enough.
As some of the firefighters were trying to get their boat back on its trailer, Bill and I took our canoe and brought it back to his truck that was parked in the lot on the hill. “Hey, where are you guys going?” We turned around and saw a young, slightly out of shape firefighter chasing us up the hill. Bill told him that he was getting his canoe out of the way. “My Chief wanted to know where you guys were going. He didn’t want you to try to go back in there on your own.” I thought about how much sense that made—that we would carry our canoe away from the boat launch and up the hill into the woods to launch it into the pond.
By this time, I was sure that our biggest mistake had been calling 911 and getting these guys involved in the rescue. Would we have been better off paddling to the launch, driving to the 24-hour Walmart in Ticonderoga, buying a couple cheap chainsaws and shovels, and paddling back out there ourselves? Probably not, but the thought crossed my mind.
We put the canoe on Bill’s truck and stood in the dark parking lot, thinking about the lady still trapped under that tree while we were here, standing around, while people talked on radios and chatted with each other and went on boat rides and fixed chainsaws and drove their UTVs all over the campground. I thought about the sense of relief I had felt when we got to a phone and the naive thought that the people we called would be able to help us. I thought of the responsibility that we had taken to go find help. There were four people out in the woods waiting for us, and here we were leaning on a truck in the parking lot. Some wonderful job we did. I felt awful.
Around 2:45am, we heard the sound of one of the UTVs coming into the parking lot. Two men were in it. “The chief wants to speak with you.” We’ve given them detailed directions a few times already. What now? What else could they want? We climbed back into my car and followed the UTV through the campground to another trailhead. This must be the trail that the paramedic hiked in on. They started that hike hours ago when we were still waiting for the boat. Where did they go? It’s only a mile and a half from the trailhead.
The chief was sitting in his pickup truck with another firefighter, listening to his two-way radio. He complained about the radios, telling us that the department spent a fortune on them and they didn’t even work right. Were the rescuers there yet? No, they were lost. It sounded like there were multiple groups of rescuers wandering aimlessly in the woods. One group contacted the chief—they hiked to the wrong pond. The chief wanted to know if we had a map—they needed to know where Rock Pond was. We told him that the map and GPS that Bill brought was in the lean-to. I handed my phone to Bill and he used the crude map on google to show the chief where the rescue party took a wrong turn and hiked to a different pond. We stayed at the chief’s truck long enough to hear that a rescue party had reached the lady. It was well after 3:00 in the morning. Finally, after more than 3 hours of trying, the fire department finally found them. We excused ourselves and headed back to the parking lot where Bill’s truck was parked.
We were in the parking lot discussing what to do next when two New York forest ranger trucks pull up and park. They had just launched their boat, and were getting ready to help with the rescue. Bill explains where the campsite is located, and they tell us that they know which one it is. They even knew that there were a lot of large pine trees around the site. They finished preparing their gear, thanked us for the help, and walked down the hill to the boat launch.
It was almost first light, and these were the first people other than us that had any idea where the victim was. Why did it take so long for them to get here? Bill and I guessed that the firefighters hadn’t bothered to call them until hours after the rescue operation started.
Bill wanted to let his family know that he was in good health. They live in an area that gets news updates from Ticonderoga, so he didn’t want his family to think he was the one that was injured. We drove into Ticonderoga and sent a couple emails. It was about 4:15. There was an airport near the gas station, and a helicopter was running, preparing to take off. It flew away as we were discussing what to do next. There was no point in trying to sleep. We picked up some breakfast and drinks from the gas station and headed back to Putnam Pond.
It was a cool grey morning. It was still windy, but much calmer than the night before. We carried our canoe back down the hill past the Ticonderoga and Chilson Fire Department trucks idling at the boat launch. There was a medevac helicopter perched on the edge of the stone wall, its tail boom hanging out over the water. The pilot said he just got there, that he couldn’t fly from Burlington because there were 50-mph winds here last night. He wished us luck and told us not to drown as we paddled away. We rounded the point, headed toward the island, then rounded the island and followed the shore to the canoe carry trail. We could see the ranger’s green flat bottom boat at the carry. We slowed down and waited—we were far enough away that we couldn’t see much. A crowd of people carried an orange litter onto the boat and the boat slowly made its way back to the launch. It was after 5:00. The people in the boat waved as we paddled by. Once the trail entrance was clear, we brought our canoe to the trail. There were a couple tired looking young firefighters there and a ranger. They told us that she was in rough shape, that she looked ok when they first got there, then started turning white on their way down the hill.
The rest of her party passed us on the way up the trail. Two of them thanked us, one of them after giving Bill his saw back. One of them didn’t recognize us and told us “that lady would have loved to see you and your boat last night.” The firefighters that passed us didn’t make eye contact as they walked by.
It felt strange to be back at the lean-to. I don’t think either of us wanted to be there, but Bill was too exhausted to pack up and leave, and I wasn’t sure about anything. Maybe I was just tired, too. I slept for a few hours. The sun was out when I got up, and the lake was calm. It was a nice spring day—chilly in the shade, but warm and comfortable in the sun. I didn’t enjoy it at all. The last place I wanted to be was here, at this beautiful lake on a sunny day with loons calling to each other and spring peepers singing. I went for a walk and saw three or four trees that had fallen the night before. I fished for a while. Bill got up and we combed through the details of the night before. It was all we could think about. Why didn’t the hikers go home? Why didn’t they come to the lean-to? Why were the firefighters so unorganized? Why did it take so long for the rangers to get there? What did we do wrong? Why didn’t we have the rangers phone number and why didn’t we call them instead of 911? Why did we both feel so bad about the whole thing? The people she was with—they didn’t seem as upset as I thought they might be. What was their relation to each other? Were they friends? Relatives? We thought of everything, and it consumed us for the rest of the day.
A couple guys set up camp where the tree had fell the night before. They had no idea what happened there a few hours earlier. A bunch of other guys hiked over from a different pond and stopped to talk. They heard about the accident, and wanted to see where it happened. We reluctantly told them the story, and they headed down the trail to gawk at the campsite.
It was a beautiful evening. It was flat calm and the trout were making ripples all over the pond. They were picky eaters though and wouldn’t touch what we threw at them. We took in the rest of the evening, listening to the peepers and the loons. We paddled around the pond, stopped at an island to fly fish off a big rock point, and returned to the lean-to at dark. I spent the last night with a migraine headache, and we slowly made our way out of Rock Pond early the next morning.
I got home, and still couldn’t get the trip out of my thoughts. We found a few vague articles about the rescue, and eventually found one that identified and described the lady. She was a certified Adirondack guide. She must have been taking the other three hikers on a guided trip. She taught map reading and navigation courses, which explained a lot about our interactions. Maybe she “let us have the lean-to” to demonstrate trail etiquette to her clients. Maybe she was teaching them about orienteering by correcting our directions.
I wondered what went through her client’s heads during the whole ordeal. Were they angry with her or frustrated with her for staying out in those awful conditions? Were they in shock? Will they ever go backpacking again? I’m not sure, that’s not my story to tell. Maybe one of them will share their story someday.
Over the next few weeks Bill and I kept talking about what happened. We want to make something positive out of this experience. I’m not sure how, but maybe sharing our story will help. At the least, maybe we can educate hikers to prepare for the worst, and to think about how you can be rescued if something bad happens. When you’re out in the wilderness, be careful about who you call for help. It makes a big difference.
I wish this story had a happy ending. She died from her injuries on May 7, 2018. She was 60. I only talked to her for a matter of minutes, but I doubt I’ll ever forget her name.
Rest in Peace, Lynn