Policing the biggest, wildest town in New York State by foot, SUV, seaplane, boat, snowmobile and skis
Photograph by Nancie Battaglia
An early April afternoon last year, snow clinging to Old Forge’s Bald Mountain and the Fulton Chain still frozen, two men ate lunch at The Tavern, in Eagle Bay. They’d been at the restaurant a few times before. They mentioned that they were new to the area and working for a local contractor. But their behavior and the questions they asked were suspicious. Sensing something off, someone made a call to the Town of Webb’s police department. It turned out the men were wanted for felony robbery charges in California. After they finished their burgers they were escorted from The Tavern and taken into custody.That’s the way it is in the Adirondacks. For better or worse, you are known or you aren’t. But in the Town of Webb, in the central Adirondacks, watchful citizens are appreciated. Here, the police force includes six full-time and two part-time officers. A team that size might seem like a lot for a year-round population of 1,800, but at 466 square miles (that’s about 20 Manhattans), Webb, in Herkimer County, is the biggest town, in terms of acreage, in New York State. It has mountains, meadows, forests, lakes, ponds, rivers and a 6,700-acre reservoir. It encompasses seven hamlets, one inaccessible by road. There’s an abundance of wildlife, like black bears that break into camps and rummage through trash, and deer that graze in front yards and sprint across highways. Then there’s the seasonal swell of 40,000 or so vacationers.
“Some compare what we do to Alaska State Troopers,” says Town of Webb Police Chief Ronald Johnston, referring to the National Geographic show that follows the challenges of policing the last frontier. It’s not such a stretch. In the Adirondacks, Johnston and his team work by foot, SUV, ATV, boat, snowmobile, seaplane, helicopter and chairlift. (They’ve been called to McCauley Mountain Ski Area, in Old Forge.) As the eagle flies, the Town of Webb is 14 miles across and about 35 miles from north to south, but reaching people in peril isn’t always easy. Last summer it took an officer more than an hour—a total of 84 miles—to drive from police headquarters in Old Forge to the scene of an ATV accident on Bear Pond Road near the hamlet of Stillwater.
There’s also Beaver River, the town’s remote settlement on Stillwater Reservoir. Once connected to Big Moose by railroad, the trains no longer run. The four year-round residents and occupants of the hamlet’s 120 or so seasonal camps must boat, snowmobile, ski or fly in. Beaver River is along Webb’s hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails, making it a popular winter hub. A lot can go wrong with thousands of sleds on the trail. And it does.
The Town of Webb’s cramped police station in downtown Old Forge occupies half a double-wide trailer. (Two state troopers operate out of the other half, a satellite for the state police’s Remsen station.) Inside, a narrow hallway leads to Chief Johnston’s office, then, in back, a booking room with a couple of desks for the other officers.
On the wall in the chief’s office is a photograph of him with President Gerald Ford, from Johnston’s time as a police officer in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Another photograph shows him with President George H. W. Bush, taken during an event at Coopers-town’s National Baseball Hall of Fame. Until he was hired as Webb’s police chief in 2015, Johnston was deputy sheriff with the criminal division at Otsego County Sheriff’s Department, in Cooperstown, near where he grew up.
Just as he was connected to Otsego’s landscape, 47-year-old Johnston’s relationship with the Adirondacks runs deeper than his badge. He has a camp in Eagle Bay, where he’s spent summers and winter weekends since he was a kid. Today he lives in Old Forge with his family, including his wife, an anesthesiologist who works in Lowville. One daughter recently graduated from Old Forge’s high school, the other is in graduate school.
“I love it here,” says Johnston. He also loves his job. (The theme song to Hill Street Blues is the ring tone on his cell phone.) “I knew since grade school I would never cut it in an office environment.” In this line of work, “you thrive on adrenaline, stress, excitement and critical thinking. There can be three or four hours of boredom followed by 30 seconds of sheer terror.”
Behind the handlebars of a snowmobile, Stillwater Reservoir looks like a moonscape, a white spread that stretches in all directions. Algonquin, far away in the High Peaks, pokes into the sky. Along the shoreline, islands and coves emerge from the ice.
Today, as spring approaches, the snowpack melts from the train tracks connecting Big Moose Station and Beaver River. Few sleds are on the trail and Chief Johnston and Sergeant Brennan Riolo are relieved. They’re looking forward to at least a month of calm before summer season kicks in.
They ride to Norridgewock Lodge. Just a few snowmobiles are parked outside the tavern, down from the hundreds you’d find here in deep winter.
Scott Thompson, a fourth-generation Beaver River year-rounder, runs the latest iteration of the Norridgewock; the original hotel burned to the ground in 1914. Through the decades he’s seen it all, and is a trusted ally to the police, helping when accidents happen at this remote outpost. There’s no electricity at Beaver River; everything is powered by generator. Outside the Norridgewock is an old, battery-powered air siren. If there’s trouble, the switch is flipped, a siren blows and folks at Beaver River come to help. Police, though, must be reached on Thompson’s land line. Thompson has called. “I’m grateful for Chief Johnston,” he says. When something bad happens, “it’s good to know someone will come.”
Johnston and Riolo cruise across the reservoir and are joined by Webb Officer Michael Uhl for lunch at the Stillwater Hotel. The men eat steak sandwiches while they visit with the hotel’s owners, Marian and Joe Romano, as their Labradoodle snores nearby. Like Thompson, the Romanos, who have been here more than 30 years, do what they can as part of the community of volunteers—including firefighters—who the Town of Webb police rely on. “It’s a close-knit place where they all come out to help,” says Johnston.
That kind of support is critical, which was proven during the 2019 snowmobile season, when seven people died. That winter there was little snow on Tug Hill and other snowmobile destinations, but the Town of Webb got plenty. “It was the perfect storm,” says Johnston. “Everybody came here, overpopulating our trail system.” Winter 2020, Webb had similar snowfall, but it was spread throughout the North Country, distributing sled traffic. There was one fatality when a snowmobiler hit an ice heave on Stillwater Reservoir, launching him into the air.
Most snowmobile accidents involve alcohol and excessive speed. The Webb PD patrols the trails into the night. They set up snowmobile sobriety checkpoints, but some riders use social media to post how to get around them. While the speed limit for sleds is 55 miles per hour (20 on town roads), today’s models can do 160 out of the box—speeds meant for the open terrain in Idaho or Montana, not the rocky, forested Adirondacks. Riolo says he’s clocked riders doing triple digits across Fourth Lake (the town doesn’t recommend snowmobiling on any body of water). Policing all of this, says Johnston, “is daunting. We can’t be everywhere at once. In a perfect world, if money and budgets were never an issue, I’d like to have double the amount of manpower.”
Late-afternoon on Labor Day weekend, Sergeant Brennan Riolo begins his shift. Just as he’s about to turn his cruiser onto Route 28, a man drives by in a pickup, not wearing a seat belt, a phone pressed to his ear. Riolo throws on the lights and pulls him over by the Strand Theatre. The driver says he’s homeless, living in his truck. Riolo gives him a warning for the phone and a ticket for the seat belt—a lesser fine. Riolo drives on, braking for the crowds that stream back and forth across the street as they weave in and out of Old Forge’s shops, eateries and galleries.
At the community of Hollywood Hills, on First Lake, a woman flags down Riolo for advice about handling a stalker. Later, the driver of a van on the side of the road needs directions to Bald Mountain. On Route 28, an SUV swerves. The driver admits to drinking one cocktail. Riolo gives her a sobriety test; she passes and continues on her way.
The rest of his shift—a relatively uneventful one—brings him all over town. Riolo drives through YMCA Camp Gorham, in Eagle Bay, where the staff, finished for the season, sit around a campfire and wave. He passes through the security gate at the Adirondack League Club, a 50,000-acre enclave with private homes and lakes and members that include notables such as actor Kevin Bacon. Riolo drives through Thendara, Eagle Bay, to Big Moose. At one point he turns around in the parking lot of Daikers, a bar on Fourth Lake. Someone outside the bar gives him the finger. After midnight Riolo will be called back here to break up a fight.
Riolo executes his responsibilities with kindness, patience and professionalism. The 33-year-old has been with the Town of Webb PD since 2016. He grew up in Rome, where he worked for the Rome Police Department for 10 years. Like Johnston, he’s connected to the Adirondacks. When he was a kid his parents had a camp in Otter Lake, where he’d swim and fish. Today his favorite way to spend time off-duty is white-water kayaking. Riolo says the diversity of Webb’s terrain and his job—the parts that make it challenging—“are also what make it interesting.”
“Some people come here with a Wild West mentality,” says Johnston. “They think, I’m on vacation, and all rules go out the window.”
Police are often called to Old Forge Camping Resort, a 130-acre labyrinth with 60 cottages, 132 cabins and more than 800 sites for tents and RVs. Tempers flare over the volume of music; sometimes intoxicated campers start fights. Nearby, Enchanted Forest Water Safari is another frequent stop for police. At the attraction, which claims to be the largest water theme park in the state, long lines, heat and alcohol can fuel disagreements.
Police answer domestic disputes. There are boat accidents. Last September on Fourth Lake, a man driving a powerboat ran over a couple in a rowboat, causing serious injuries. There are property disputes, robberies, shootings and drownings. People set off illegal fireworks. The police assist EMTs and forest rangers who treat heart attacks, and twisted ankles that happen on hiking trails. People get lost. At private camps, security alarms go off—sometimes accidentally triggered by owners or raccoons. Bears must be shooed from trees or backyards. Animals collide with motor vehicles. Near Eagle Bay, Johnston himself almost hit a bull moose while riding his Enduro bike. People speed or drive while intoxicated. On Sundays—changeover day—arguments break out at gas pumps and parking lots. “We see the ugly side of the Adirondacks,” says Johnston.
The chief’s phone rings at all hours. Perhaps in his most exhausted moments, his ring tone reminds him why he chose this path. But the biggest thing that keeps Johnston awake at night, he says, is “wondering just how long it’ll take to get there.”
At press time most businesses across the state are shut down because of COVID-19. The last few months Chief Johnston has seen lights on at private camps in Big Moose, Stillwater and Okara Lakes—places usually shuttered until Memorial Day.
Enchanted Forest Water Safari says it’s opening, Old Forge Camping Resort, too. But what of the town’s shops, galleries, boat tours and hotels and resorts? Will the international workers who are vital seasonal employees be permitted to enter the country?
It’s an uncertain time.
Johnston worries about his community, about the future of its businesses, and the logistics of keeping people safe. All he can do, he says, is “take it day by day.”