Illustration by Alison Haas
The continued—and heartbreaking—search for the missing
“I hate nature.”
He said it as we sat in a college classroom, our desks pushed into a circle. I had just explained that our semester would focus on reading and writing about the natural world. Nature, he said, had killed someone he knew. He immediately dropped my class.
I would later learn that the person this student knew was 22-year-old Wesley Wamsganz, who on November 20, 2010, had left his job at a Lake Placid diner, walked—with just the clothes on his back—to the Adirondak Loj trailhead and continued into the mountains. That evening he was spotted near Avalanche Pass. Police found his Carhartt jacket, but Wamsganz was never seen again.
In this magazine we celebrate the Adirondack Park because it’s a place like no other, where we’re awed, recharged and challenged by a wild landscape. But for every stunning peak, every sublime lake, there’s the inverse—treacherous summits and tangled forests. People die on these mountains. They drown in these rivers. And some of them disappear without a trace.
That’s what happened to Colin Gillis on March 11, 2012. The 18-year-old Tupper Laker, home from college on winter break, left a party, alone and on foot. A motorist was the last to report seeing Gillis, walking west along the shoulder of Route 3, where the woods meet the pavement. Today a missing-person poster still hangs by the front door of the Tupper Lake post office.
A lean-to on the Indian Pass trail was where Tom Carleton was last seen on October 9, 1993. The 44-year-old from Skaneateles was on a hiking trip—a solo getaway from his job as a psychologist at a state prison. Carleton left behind a wife and a young daughter.
On April 12, 1976, 19-year-old Steve Thomas made a cup of Darjeeling tea at a lean-to on the trail to Mount Marcy, told his hiking party he was taking a walk, then vanished. Thomas’s brother, Bob, climbed Marcy hundreds of times looking for Steve. On one of those searches he helped discover the remains of Buddy Atkinson, who had disappeared in 1973. But he never found his brother.
Third-grader Douglas Legg, vacationing at Santanoni Great Camp with his family in July 1971, turned back during a hike to put on long pants. He was gone without a trace. Almost a half-century later one of Douglas’s cousins, among the last to see the boy, visited the Newcomb Historical Museum for an exhibit dedicated to Legg and the thousands who searched for him. The cousin, who had come with his son, told a museum assistant that the visit was an attempt at closure.
There are others still missing in the Adirondacks: George LaForest and Jack Coloney both disappeared in 2006. In April of that year LaForest’s truck was found by the Cedar River near Indian Lake, where he liked to fish. In June, Coloney signed the trail register at Wakely Dam, then hiked into the Moose River Plains. In 2007, only Irene Horne’s abandoned campsite was found in the West Canada Lakes—her whereabouts are unknown. And on November 12, 2015, 82-year-old Tom Messick was hunting in the Lake George Wild Forest when he vanished.
Did they get lost or hurt? Were they swallowed by unforgiving conditions? Did they want to disappear? Was there foul play?
There’s agony in not knowing. Even writing about these people feels wrong, another emotional blow to those who must wait and wonder. But New York State Police’s Jennifer Fleishman, Public Information Officer, Troop B, says that keeping the names, dates and circumstances of the missing in the public eye could trigger a reader’s memory, maybe even shake loose a clue. “All of these unsolved cases remain open,” she says, “and we’re continually following up on leads and tips. We ask that anyone with information about these cases contact us at (518) 873-2750.”
Back in that college classroom, in another ring of desks with another group of students, a hometown friend of Colin Gillis’s did not drop my class. But throughout the semester his essays explored the loneliness of the dark woods, the tragedy of unseen sunrises and sunsets, and the heartbreak of words left unsaid.