Always on the Lookout

by Mason Smith | From the Archives

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1983, Mason Smith tagged along with Forest Ranger Pete Fish on his rounds in the High Peaks. It was the first—but not last—time the legendary character, known for lecturing unprepared hikers on wilderness safety, appeared in the magazine’s pages.

You are a college student from Albany,
or a doctor from Montreal, or the mother of an athlete playing in a hockey tournament in Lake Placid, and with a friend or relative or two you have decided to climb a moun­tain in November. You’ve driven to Adirondak Loj, piled out of your vehicle into brisk morning air. Your boots have barely touched the snow and gravel of the parking lot; you’re hauling out your pack. You’re aware of an approach: you hear a “Good morning!” and you turn to answer a lean figure of medium height in a forest green wool jacket, olive pants, and climbing boots almost black with use and care. He has stopped at a po­lite 10 feet. Observant blue eyes scan your group from under a dark green cap or balaclava. “May I be in­quisitive?” he asks. “Where are you planning to go today?”

“Marcy,” you say, or “Algonquin,” or “Colden.”

“May I ask if you’re carrying cram­pons.”

You don’t own such things. There’s bare ground all around. It’s warm for the season and the peaks looked newly dusted with white as you came along the Loj road.

“In that case I’d like to make a sug­gestion. Do something else.”

There’s a name-tag over his breast pocket.

“ls it icy?”

“I’m going to say it’s extremely icy. There’s a lot of bare rock on the top. The water runs down the rock into the trail and freezes. You won’t be able to walk on the trails with anything less than instep crampons.”

You doubt this but you say, “We’ll just go as far as we can.”

“I’m not saying you can’t make it to the top. You probably can. I know what I’d do in your situation. I’ve come all this way and I want to bag a peak. I’d be sorely tempted to walk on the vegetation just off the trail. But up on the tops of the higher peaks we’ve got a very fragile, very rare arctic al­pine vegetation. There’s only about 40 acres of it left in New York state. It’s disappearing from New Hamp­shire. It’s disappearing from Vermont. If you step in it, you’re going to dam­age it, and you’re going to contribute to widening the trail. You will be has­tening the demise of a thing we con­sider precious.”

You assure this man again that when you come to the ice you will turn back. You hoist your pack and settle the straps. You’re ready to walk.

“Now if I can put a bug in your ear,” he says, “l notice you’re wearing cot­ton jeans.” By gosh, so you are. You always do. Is there something wrong with that?

“We have lots of things to say against cotton clothing in the wilderness. Mainly, it gets wet easily, has no warmth when wet, and is hard to dry. I’d recommend next time you wear wool, wool socks, wool pants, wool shirts. Now you’ll notice I’m not wear­ing wool pants myself. These are drip­dry cotton polyester, not bad for mild weather. I have soaked them and walked them dry from the pockets down in half an hour.”

You nod, convinced, and he steps back saying, “Have a good day. Stay alive.” You start to go. But inside Pete Fish, a state forest ranger with special responsibility for hikers in the High Peaks Wilderness, there are a lot of points queued up under the heading “Stay alive,” and depending—but not too much—on your antsiness, you get at least one more. “Remember, on the way down is where more accidents happen.” Right, careful’s the word. “So have a good day, stay healthy. And if I might mention just one more thing? Carry out what you carry in. If your bootheels aren’t digging in as much as you want them to on your way down, pick up some litter … ”

Ah, wilderness!

Even after all that, though, Pete Fish probably walks away from the conversation dissatisfied. He didn’t mention sanitary precautions. He didn’t warn you about Giardia lam­bila in the waters. He’ll mention those things to the next group he talks to. And, as he tells me—for l have just met him at Adirondak Loj, been up­braided for my Levis and my lack of instep crampons, and taken notes on his conversation with a group of hik­ers just stretching their legs from a drive—he’s “painfully aware” that you can climb Algonquin anyway, even if you’re wearing running shoes and tennis shorts. “And will.”

But this is Pete Fish’s job and his obsession, the education of wilderness users, to the ends of their safety, the quality of their experience, and the preservation of the resource. In his green aspect, close-cut fair hair and neatness, he might be a Marine. In summer it may be that his ranger’s hat shades his face; today it’s pale and his ears and nose are reddened by the chill. He is dressed to hike rather than stand around, and he’s carrying on with a slight occupational cold. He speaks at good volume in an unreso­nant voice, in grammatical sentences that might be written out and pub­lished. I’d heard he could be sarcastic.

Another vehicle drives in past the Adirondack Mountain Club’s gate­house and comfort building. “People are starting to roll in,” Pete says. There are about eight cars in the park­ing lot, some with bare ground under them indicating they have stood here overnight. This one’s a Toyota 4WD with cap. “Look at the circus act get­ting out of that truck.” He walks over, stands off the fringe of a group of nine. youthful, males and females. “Where you folks from?”

They’re Skidmore college students. They contemplate Algonquin. They have no crampons. Pete can’t recom­mend it. He says, “If you want to bag a peak, I know one you can make—­Coldcn. Go up from Lake Arnold. It’s often a soggy trail but I think it may be firm today.” He advises the group not to stop at the first peak­—Colden has two—but to go on to the second, higher, for the best view. Then he says, “Let me make a com­ment or two on equipment here. Most of you are pretty well put together from the waist up … ” A North Coun­try Community College alumnus seizes on the compliment: “At NCC they teach us well.” Pete says, “If they teach you well, why are you wearing running shoes?” The big, otherwise well-clothed young man looks down, laughing. He tilts his head toward one of the women, wearing sneakers. “She didn’t have anything else, so … ” But Pete Fish is not charmed. “They’re the most dangerous shoe.” He goes into a detailed and obvious discus­sion of ankles, vulnerability of same, lack of support of same by running shoes. “Frankly, they don’t belong here at all. I only hope there’s enough people wearing boots to carry out those that don’t.”

Fish has to have faith int he osmotic distribution of his teachings. Most every group gets the cotton spiel—as this group does. (One female member tries to stem the tide by interjecting, “We’re not going overnight;” to which Ranger instantly responds, “I can see that you don’t plan to.”) But he has to parcel out the other bits and trust they get around. On counting upon rescue: “We’ll try to keep you alive if you’re alive when we get to you. But mobilization takes a long time.” On counting on the weather forecast: “The weather forecast is for where most people live. You come here to be where most people don’t.” On Giardia lambila: “Boil your water. A timed rolling boil of three minutes will kill anything.”

When Fish gets time to go into this subject at length, with another party that has just rolled in, he’s himself a stream of unpleasant information which, as he is aware, can rather downgrade the refreshment of a hike into the wilderness. He tells these pa­tient listeners that giardia is a single-cell parasite sown by human excrement, transported in water, and sometimes perpetuated there by beaver. Ingested, and after a 14-day incubation period, it rewards the nature lover with a vio­lently explosive diarrhea and nausea which require strong prescription antibiotics to cure. Pete Fish tells the hikers to assume the water is polluted. “There are lean-tos around Lake Colden, so you wouldn’t drink from the lake, but you might be tempted to drink from Cold Brook. But Cold Brook descends from Algonquin, and people have camped illegally all the way to the top. Lake Tear of the Clouds is supposedly the highest source of the Hudson. Actually it isn’t. Just above it there’s a beautiful little spring, surrounded by moss-covered stones. It’s one of the most beautiful and remote places I know, and l have seen excrement and toilet paper right there. It’s getting worthwhile to be paranoid. Purification tablets don’t get everything. Chlorine, you’d have to use so much of that it would be like drinking from a swimming pool. Boil­ing’s the only answer. A timed boil of three minutes’ll kill everything. Have a good trip. Stay healthy. Needless to say, when you have to answer the call, do it far from any stream, or slope toward a stream. Bury it. And if I may just add one thing … ”

At 10 o’clock cars were still arriv­ing. By then I’d heard so much about ice that I drove back into Placid to buy crampons. While I was at it I bought wool pants, paying through the nose. “Pete Fish is good for busi­ness,” said the clerk. When I got back, Pete had his pack on. We signed the trailhead register (last year, of 56,000 users who recorded their visits in the High Peaks area, 50 percent left their names in this same register) and started in ourselves.

Pete Fish usually climbs a mountain some time every weekend. “I think it helps our credibility for people to see someone in green up on a mountain carrying a backpack the same as they are. It shows we care and it encourages the suspicion that we might know what we’re talking about when we make a suggestion.” As we walked Pete gave me an account of the history of his unique assignment. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, as he tells it, there occurred a great back-to-the-land, get-away-­from-it-all, nature-will-embrace-you movement, unfortunately sometimes drug-related, in the course of which inexperienced people flocked to the wilderness in record numbers, since considerably reduced. There were suddenly swarms of hikers, in the High Peaks area especially. The traffic was degrading the trails and campsites. Camping regulations were being tram­pled too. And people were often get­ting into trouble.

“Most forest rangers were what you might call truck rangers,” Fish says. “We were most effective, most of the time, working out of our vehicles, along and near the roads, in places where the bulk of the people are and the environmental problems and work that goes with them. There was a sort of vacuum in the backcountry, where there was also a lot of action.” DEC’s “somewhat belated” response was to set up, in 1975, an “interior” or “wilderness” ranger program whereby one full-time ranger would be as­signed to each of the 15 areas classed as “Wilderness” in the State Land Master Plan. These interior rangers were to patrol the backcountry as well as the trailhcads, make contact with users, help them to cope with wilder­ness conditions, educate them in safety and responsibility, deal with emer­gencies, and enforce the law.

Fish, then on duty in the Catskills, was one of the first four such interior rangers to be assigned. Whereas most forest rangers get into their profes­sion by way of interests in hunting, fishing, and trapping, Fish came via mountaineering. He had grown up valley-bound along the lower Hudson, at Claverack and Hudson. While an in­different student at Trinity College he discovered New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock and avidly climbed many of the major peaks in the White Mountains. After four years of Trin­ity, without a degree, he returned to his home. The Catskills looked paltry after the Whites, but while working for the Boy Scouts and as a carpenter and in a factory during the next few years, he climbed all 34 Catskill mountains over 3,500 feet and many of the Adirondack 46 before deciding, at age 32, to attend the ranger school at Wanakena. Today he’s the only DEC forest ranger who is both a 35-er and a 46-er, if not the only one who is either.

Most of the interior rangers used up their enthusiasm after a year or two of backpacking and saying the same things over and over to hikers. But not Pete. At last he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, where he wanted to do it. And while else­where the program has been scrapped as a bad idea (Bob Nason, who as as­sistant District Ranger at Ray Brook is one of Fish’s supervisors, says, “Woods do not give you a problem. People do. And there arc some wild­erness areas with very few people in them”), in the High Peaks Pete Fish seems to have found his niche.

The High Peaks in season can use more than one man. The Adirondack Mountain Club a few years ago responded to this need with its own pro­gram of Ridge-Runners, young back­country enthusiasts whose job was to hike the trails, maintaining them, meeting their users and helping them out with tips on everything from sur­vival to dishwashing. As we hiked in toward Marcy Dam, Fish told me, “They came in two kinds. One tried to look as civilian as possible, even to the point of wearing hacked off jeans, red suspenders and running shoes. The other dressed all in khaki and tended to wear broad-brimmed felt hats like rangers. I watched both with interest. One thing they had in common was enthusiasm. The best of them were very effective and well accepted. They didn’t have any legal authority to en­force regulations, but on the other hand, they weren’t permanent and they didn’t lose interest: after one or two years, they left and you got a fresh batch.

“I mentioned this to Berle [Peter A. Berle, then DEC commissioner] one day when we hiked up Gothics to­gether. I might have taken unfair advantage of the fact that I had a cap­tive audience. I saw a possibility of combining the Ridge-Runners’ enthu­siasm and environmental concern and backpacking capabilities with a uni­form and a title and some authority. I don’t know if I had any effect, but the next year we had a seasonal wilderness ranger program.” Fish selects the wilderness rangers’ equipment, helps train them, and coordinates their work so that within the first five weeks each summer these temporary rangers­c—college students mostly, out of envi­ronmental programs—learn substan­tially the whole network of High Peaks trails and campsites.

We come upon deadfall across the trail. Pete sheds his green frameless pack, tautly stuffed with carefully organized survival and rescue equip­ment (deliberately redundant in flash­lights and batteries), and unsnaps the sheath on his bowsaw. He’ll leave an­other small indication that someone is here, in his belief that care engenders care. He figures that now, with full­-time summer manning of the Adiron­dak Loj trailhead, the wilderness rangers, and backcountry caretakers stationed at Lake Colden, Marcy Dam and John’s Brook, DEC makes contact with as many as 75 percent of wilderness users. In recent years, pre­sumably as a result, only a few rescues a year have been necessary, where five years ago there were sometimes that many in a day. He’s frankly more con­cerned with an effective program of user education than with the maxi­mum number of permanent jobs for full-time rangers, and says, “l hang my hat firmly on this program.”

There could hardly be a more dedi­cated educator than Pete Fish himself, but if anything is central to his teaching it is that the High Peaks is wilderness, and the responsibility for backcoun­try enjoyment and survival is the user’s own. “They shouldn’t count on us leaping out from behind a tree to help them when things get tough. I often feel quite unfriendly to that person I find halfway up Marcy in just a tee­-shirt, shorts and sneakers, with a camera and a canteen. People fre­quently come into the High Peaks just that well equipped, and they’ve all heard of Marcy and think they want to climb it. Just this summer a woman came to register at the Loj with three kids, a picnic basket, and sandals. She wanted to go up Marcy, or thought she did. Well, with a ranger in the parking lot you can ask her, ‘What do you really want to do?’ and you can help her realize she wants to have a nice easy walk and a picnic with a good view, and you can tell her about Mount Jo and sic her on that. She’ll go do it, and invariably be pleased, and she’ll get out all right, and you don’t have a search.”

We met some hikers. Pete found out where they were going and sug­gested they assume the water was pol­luted. At a junction he pointed out a trailmarker that had been wantonly torn down and broken. He tacked it back up, high as he could reach. It would have to be replaced later. The only way to save the trail signs is to come in the winter on two feet of snow and hang them that much higher, or they tend to become souvenirs. The trail grew steep and Pete pointed out a place where its course had been changed to avoid a sharp turn and a boulder. “That was done by one of our men who couldn’t turn too well on skis.” Nowadays 75 percent of winter users are cross-country skiers. Most of the rest are snowshoers. Then there are hikers who come in on deep snow with neither skis nor snowshoes, walk­ing on trails they couldn’t walk if it hadn’t been for the skis and snow­shoes packing them, and punch them full of bootholes that make the going hazardous for everyone else. “Para­sites,” Pete calls them.

He doesn’t like to say it, but more often than you’d think the heedless user is a “local.” Natives who grew up in the mountains got their attitudes from their fathers who considered the country theirs, and plentiful and in­destructible. They didn’t have expo­sure to the carry in/carry out ethic outsiders more and more have picked up. Hunters and fishermen were the worst litterers, and they simply were not register signers. The ranger feels strongly that the first step in users’ responsibility and consideration is to log in. He goes to considerable trouble to keep the registers looking “viable” so that people will sign in and read the posted regulations, suggestions, and condition reports.

On Marcy Dam, Pete talks two hikers from Utica out of attempting Marcy in the remaining afternoon (in cotton pants, without crampons). A yellow cat runs leaning sideways in the wind back and forth across the dam. Then, a startling apparition—a long-legged, skinny, hatless fellow, stumbling headlong down the further trail in bellbottom jeans wet to the knees and torn into shreds from the calves down, his face pale, mouth open, can, red, and nose running­—veers over to the group. looking as though he had just passed through horrors, and says, “You aren’t taking that cat up Marcy.” Pete keeps on talk­ing to the others and does not acknowl­edge him: and the man walks dis­jointedly rapidly on down the trail, wet, visibly shaken, in battered, un­insulated rubber boots, a sagging red sack bouncing on his back.

We went on to climb Phelps Moun­tain. I was still thinking about the zombie at the dam while Pete compul­sively harangued a well-equipped father-daughter party from Montreal, who’d turned back from a hike when the young woman tired. “How are the new boots?” he asked her. “Did you bring moleskins? You get one set of blisters going up, another going down. Breaking them in on the level doesn’t begin to do it.” Et cetera, et cetera. How come he let the zombie slip away unlectured? He holds these people in conversation long after they’ve begun to shift their feet.

I notice this: the trails are almost perfectly clean. Only very occasionally does Fish spot and retrieve an almost hidden scrap of cellophane. The clean trail is typical and Fish attributes it to “a very good clientele. With our own resources we couldn’t begin to main­tain any kind of standard if we had an unfeeling public. I’m convinced a lot of messes are cleaned up by other hikers.” DEC is in a way itself more of an offender. We pass a lean-to and outhouse which violate the current camping regulations, no camping within 150 feet of a stream or spring or trail especially on a slope where sur­face water drains into a stream. There are sleeping bags and packs in the lean-to. The established site is inevita­bly a contributor to Giardia in the nearby brook for miles downstream.

Well up the west side of Phelps Mountain we turned to watch the clouds driving in against the southwest slopes of Algonquin, whose peak was visible above them. The winds were blowing vapor over the top in a per­petual blizzard. It would have been exciting up there just then. Pete told me of a perfect, clockwork rescue on Algonquin almost exactly a year earlier—a hiker separated from his party on Saturday, caught in zero visi­bility, bivouacking in his collapsed tent and going hypothermic. On Sunday morning Pete went up on foot and searched in extreme winds and limited visibility. He did not find the hiker. On Monday morning, Pete and ranger Gary Hodgson went up in a helicopter, the sky broke clear, they spotted the hiker on the first pass around the mountain. Then the two rangers were lowered, the hiker was hauled aboard in good condition (though his tem­perature was in the low 90s), then his gear—all operations going by the script: very much the exception. Usu­ally rescue is slow; sometimes, nearly impossible. The life-and-death impli­cations of Fish’s work were visible in that weather tearing at Algonquin, and he wondered if the Skidmore party had heeded his advice.

Near the top of Phelps, while Pete was sawing up some small poles lodged across the trail, two older men played through. At a glance, Pete said, “Ah, you look as though you’re from New Hampshire. Your Limmers give you away.” Limmers, I learned, arc cus­tom-made boots from a small shop in Intervale, New Hampshire. One waits more than a year for one’s own pair to be built. We found these ADK mem­bers again at the lop and Pete got into a good mountain-climber’s equipment gab with them, all about boots and balaclavas. No need of reciting gos­pels here. These experienced hikers had changed their outerwear since we’d seen them working upward: they changed twice again on the rapid de­scent, before I reminded Pete that we had, after all, packed sandwiches. It was approaching 5 o’clock, and we two stopped to eat our lunch. Fish sometimes forgets to eat at all.

On the way out, still curious, I men­tioned the apparition we had seen at Marcy Dam. Pete now described him and every detail of his clothing, saying he was the kind of hiker most likely to disappear some day. “A loner, trou­bled, impoverished—I’m virtually cer­tain he wouldn’t have signed the reg­ister. Chances are no one knew where he was.” There would always be losers in the wilderness. Some things no amount of education would change. Then he added, “He wasn’t about to stop and I didn’t want to draw the others’ attention to the fact that he climbed Marcy dressed like that.”

In February 1982 a man had died, this close to the Adirondak Loj where his wife and two children awaited him. But he was of a different kind­—a strong, experienced cross-country skier in prime shape who in his confi­dence risked defying the basic rules of wilderness survival. Lightly clad for skiing, with ski-repair equipment but for survival only matches and a space blanket in his pack, too late in the day he ignored the Lake Colden ranger’s warning and essayed a return run over the top of Algonquin Mountain. He hadn’t signed the register; he didn’t tell the caretaker at Colden he was going by the high trail. The top of the mountain was glare ice. He took off his skis and side-whacked around, post-holing badly. (When he was found,”his socks were down and his knickers pushed up, and his legs were bloody in between.”) He was being overtaken by hypothermia, and when he tried to bivouac , he didn’t make himself a snow shelter. He just stuck his feet down in the snow and sat down. Later he got up, picked up an empty pack and one ski, and followed a stream bed down.

Retracing Robert Gilpin’s course to retrieve his gear and reconstruct his last night, Pete Fish and ranger Gary Hodgson saw where he’d ignited the bark of two birch trees, left the pack and ski, clawed at the dark moss on a boulder that may have looked to him like the entrance to a cave. He had sat down finally, a quarter of a mile from the Indian Pass trail he could have travelled safely out on in an hour. There he had died.

Dark fell as we descended to Marcy Dam, but by now Pete was phil­osophical, talking about the special­ness of the Adirondacks, how there are ruggeder mountains in the East but not in any such expansive wilder­ness, how his happiness in his job came down to the same attraction that brings so many hikers from so far away—from Ontario, Michigan and Virginia, but also from the West Coast, and even from Alaska—to climb here. “I just enjoy travelling over them and taking what the sea­sons bring.” Responsibility’s his theme to any listener he thinks might absorb a portion of it, and responsibil­ity is his own compulsive habit. In the dark we walked the long way back, around the shore of the impound­ment, to check the situation in the lean-tos there; empty-all but one, which was being used only for its fire­place—two Quebecois were feeding up a blaze and their tent was a gray dome below, at the water’s edge. Pete told them they would have to move it. They seemed to understand that something good could actually de­pend on such a finical observance and they did so willingly.

Once in a while the ranger has to get tough, run a bunch of campers out, some bunch doing everything wrong. The seasonal wilderness ranger might not know how to handle them; he’ll radio Fish, and Pete will go in and tell them that their destination’s changed. It’s easy to imagine why, confronted with the sterner aspect of Pete Fish, they also cooperate.

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