The following is the prologue of Andrew Vietze’s This Wild Land: Two Decades of Adventure as a Park Ranger in the Shadow of Katahdin, available for purchase now from AMC Books.
Justine looks like a diver in a Jacques Cousteau special, scrambling from one rock to the next above me, climbing into the cloud. Her headlamp refracts in the suspended water, making a bright cone in the gloom. It’s 12:30 a.m. and we’re on the Hunt Spur, a tangle of boulders high on the side of Katahdin, just about to crest onto the Gateway, the point where the Hunt Trail opens onto the long plateau of the Tableland. The cold October wind is already tearing at our park-issued shells, shov-ing us off-balance. I can only imagine what it’s like ripping across the flat up above. We reach the spot where the coordinates say we should find our guy. Justine checks the GPS again. Our headlamps barely penetrate the thick nimbostratus. We can see maybe 10 feet beyond our hands, and we’ve picked up no sign of any life.
The radio crackles.
“54 to 613, 615.”
Ranger Bruce White, down at Katahdin Stream Ranger Station, is “54.” He’s the duty officer this evening, the ranking ranger in the park, and he’s the one that sent me and Justine—613 and 615, respectively—up the mountain.
I fish my handheld out of my pack, turn my back to the roaring wind, and trigger the mic:
“Negative. We’re at the coordinates. I’ve been blowing the whistle. Nothing.”
“How are the conditions?”
“It’s really slick up here. The wind must be 40 miles an hour. Every time we stop, ice forms on our pants.”
“All right, be careful. Let me talk to the chief, and I’ll get back to you.”
I bend against the gale, stuff the radio back into my pack, and turn to Justine. I have to lean in and scream for her to hear me.
“I’m fine,” she says, tucking her long brown hair into her knit hat. “Let’s keep moving until they tell us to stop.”
Maine’s highest peak and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Katahdin is unforgiving territory in the dark of night, which is why we rangers recommend that climbers make every effort to be down before the sun is.
We are still climbing, heading up in search of an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who deployed his ResQLink personal locator beacon, other-wise known as a PLB. These GPS-based gadgets send your coordinates to a satellite, providing rescuers your location in the event you need help, kind of like OnStar for hikers.
The U.S. Air Force, the agency responsible for inland search and res-cue, picked up this guy’s ping and called the Maine State Police’s Houlton Regional Communications Center, which in turn called Baxter Park’s chief ranger, Dan Rinard. Dan is sitting in his truck in a parking lot in town so he can receive a radio relay from us and still talk on the phone to the nation’s flying corps. This workaround is required because (thankfully) there is no reliable cell service in this “forever wild“ wilderness. Bruce, our supervisor, my partner at my earliest duty station, one of my besties, and almost always on the same shift as me, serves as the link between us and the chief.
AT northbounders—or NOBOs—represent the fittest and best hikers in Baxter Park, having already trekked more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine with loads on their backs. Unlike many of the day-hikers who arrive to climb the mile-high mountain, often grotesquely unprepared for the rigors and climate changes on the slopes of Katahdin, NOBOs have sculpted legs and well-developed lungs by the time they reach the park. They’ve scaled dozens of peaks, some even higher than Katahdin, including Mount Washington in the White Mountains, as they made their way north. In Maine alone, the trail is something of a beast, going up and over countless summits, from Old Speck to the Bigelows. So when a NOBO cries for help, it gets our attention.
I’m starting to worry we’re not going to find this kid.
The first coordinates we got seemed to put him over the edge of the Tableland in Witherle Ravine, a deep cleft in the side of Katahdin. No one would survive there. The corrected set showed him at the Gateway, which is where Justine and I are now looking. If I were up here, I think, I’d tuck right under the lip of the great plateau, out of the wind. Justine and I decide she’ll stay on the white blazes that indicate the trail, and I’ll clamber off to each side to see what I can find.
A native of New Jersey, Justine Rumaker is in her late 20s and vacationed in the park as a kid, falling in love with the outdoors. When I first met her a few years ago, she wanted to be in law enforcement, like her older brother, a state trooper back home. Back then, she was just getting started at the park as a summer intern in the info/education department, fresh out of the University of Delaware. Now, like me, she’s a seasoned frontcountry ranger. This is her third year at Katahdin Stream, and we’ve worked on several projects together: roofing an outbuilding, construct-ing lean-tos, building a new footbridge. We paired up for one big rescue before this one, back in July when a couple fell from a bridge onto the boulders of Katahdin Stream, and there are few other rangers I’d take over her up here with me.
I realize as I stumble around in the dark that these are similar conditions to the ones that led to the first officially recorded fatality in Baxter State Park, which also took the life of the only ranger to die in the line of duty: October storm, above treeline, late night, hiker off-trail. Of course, Ranger Ralph Heath was climbing on the headwall that looms over Chimney Pond in a genuine blizzard on that fateful day in 1963. As cold, tired, and frustrated as we are, Justine and I are far better off than that, on the solid and wide Hunt Trail in a frozen mist.
We lost the 6-inch white blazes that mark the way a few times as we broke treeline and hauled ourselves up onto the boulders of the Hunt Spur. The trail wends around and between some enormous slabs as it leaves the last scrubby conifers, and we had a difficult time squeezing our backpacks through. To keep ourselves oriented, we started leapfrogging—Justine stood on one white blaze while I searched for the next one. It worked well, so we kept at it.
I shine my light into crevices and under crags, looking for any sort of sign, but all I find is dark and granite and more dark and granite. I blow three blasts on my rescue whistle, a 100-decibel banshee that seems as loud as a train. These search-and-rescue (SAR) staples are so ear-piercing that they’re also marketed for self-defense, and every time I use it I warn Justine to put her fingers in her ears, but just like the dozens of other times I’ve blasted it this evening, I get no response. The wind simply swallows the sound.
I stagger back toward Justine. The fog is so thick that I can’t even see her headlamp until I’m 15 feet away. It’s like those stormy nights when a car’s high beams are less effective than the low beams in the murk, just making the cloud glow.
The radio sparks again.
“54 to 613.”
“The chief wants you to head up onto the Tableland and keep going to Thoreau Spring. If you don’t find anything, turn around.”
We push upward, still hopeful, despite the conditions. The guy has got to be out here. He could be hurt. He might be freezing. We may be his last shot.
When she came on duty at Katahdin Stream earlier in the day, Justine spoke with the AT hiker’s mother. Apparently, the 24-year-old from Ontario, Canada, began his climb sometime after 1 p.m., well past our recommended cutoff time. Justine also learned that he was warned about making such a late start by another ranger. The kid simply shrugged. Because it’s so steep, the 5.2 miles of Hunt Trail typically take climbers eight to ten hours, but AT hikers can do it much faster. Even so, there was little chance he’d be back by the time the sun set, shortly after 5. The guy also wanted to bring his own pack and was cautioned about this as well. The climb is difficult enough without carrying a load, which is why we offer thru-hikers loaner day packs. He chose to bring his own.
Justine mentioned all this to his mom, who thought the park was being too fussy. Her son would be fine. (We get this a lot. On busy mornings, we often stand in the parking lot at Katahdin Stream and Abol and talk to climbers about their plans, making suggestions, helping where we can. I remember the look one particular woman in her early 20s gave me when I asked her if she had more water than the single Poland Spring bottle she was carrying in her hand, on a day that was supposed to be muggy and in the 80s. She wasn’t wearing a pack. “I’m good,” she told me, with a smirk that said, What do you know about me and my needs?)
This NOBO’s mom waited at the trailhead and when her son didn’t return by dark, her tone did a 180, and she started to get concerned. She was upset when we initially told her we wouldn’t be mounting a search. When he triggered his PLB, setting the rescue in motion, Justine went back to her to get as much information as she could—his plans, the gear he had with him, any medications . . . the standard detective work we do when planning our response. As the evening progressed, Mom grew more and more helpful.
Bruce wasn’t certain we needed to go. “He had a pack, he knew what he was doing,” he said to me. Bruce White has been a ranger for a long time—I often joke that he’s been at the park since “after the War,” but he started in the late ’80s—and he had a hunch the kid would be fine. He’s been working at the base of the Hunt Trail for most of his three decades at the park, and his intuition is usually right. On nights like this one, he can often tell you exactly where the hiker will hole up or estimate to within an hour what time they will be down. But a storm is pounding the summit, and the kid called for help, checking two of the biggest boxes on our “do-we-go” protocol list.
Contrary to popular belief, Baxter Park rangers don’t immediately go up after every hiker who doesn’t come down Katahdin. I routinely have campers run up to me to say they have seen headlamps high up on the mountain long after dark.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” they ask breathlessly.
I explain that we see lights several times a week, flashing here, flashing there, like herky-jerky stars. Blinking dots on the peak are as routine as long lines at the gate in summer.
“So many people underestimate the difficulty of Katahdin,” I tell them. “Unless we know of an injury, or the weather is bad, or they’re really young or old, we’ll wait until morning. If they’re not down by 9 or 10 a.m., we’ll send someone up.” The campers are shocked by this. But if we went after every hiker who was unprepared, unfit, or other-wise unready, the staff would die of exhaustion and the park would go bankrupt from all the overtime. This is standard stuff. It says on all our trailhead postings that the responsibility to get back to the car lies with the individual.
Most people are smart enough to pick out a rock, sit and rest their weary glutes, wait until the sun comes up, and pick their way down in the a.m., having learned a sore lesson. Not all, but most.
Bruce really didn’t want us to go after this hiker, and he’s one of the supervisors most keen to get people down. I was a lot more concerned. The weather was downright nasty, and this hiker was a NOBO—few people know more about hiking than that smelly bunch.
Because he tripped his transponder, I figured he must be in real trouble.
“Time to call it.”
The radio is hard to hear over the wind. I turn my back to listen.
“Come on down. We don’t want you guys up there anymore in this stuff.” Bruce sounds tired, too.
In situations like this one—a hasty search in the wee hours after a long day, in worsening weather—we begin to think about diminishing returns. Rescuers tire, which makes them more susceptible to slips, trips, and falls, and the likelihood that they’re going to find their subject decreases with every hour. The weather isn’t helping, and Justine and I have been stumbling already on the wet ground. Both of us worked an entire shift before setting out on this adventure.
Turning around is the last thing we want to do, though. I hate the idea of leaving anyone up here in this weather. If the guy is injured, he could die from exposure. I feel a deep need to keep looking. I don’t even want to consider aborting the search.
While a warm bed sounds good, we both feel we’re the best hope this kid has. I consider pretending I can’t copy—hearing the radio is difficult when you’re in the middle of a gale—but think better of it. Bruce has an unbeatable track record on these things. It is also quite possible, even likely, that our subject is behind us somewhere and we missed him on the way up.
Justine has an idea. “What if he started down the Abol Trail?” she asks. I nod, thinking this might buy us some time. I press the mic on my handheld.
“Let us at least check over to the head of the Abol Trail,” I say to Bruce. “There’s a chance he might have tried to descend that way.”
“All right, but then you’re coming down. Let me know when you turn around.”
It isn’t far to the Abol Trail from Thoreau Spring, and I follow the stone path over to the edge of the Tableland, slipping on the wet rocks and going as close to the mountain’s ramparts as I dare. I feel bad cross-ing the little string fences that mark the way, knowing there is sensitive vegetation all over the place up here. There’s a reason only arctic flora grows on this vast plateau, I think to myself, trying to keep upright in the ferocious wind. The climate atop Katahdin is too brutal to allow anything less hardy to take root.
Because I can barely see the ground in front of my headlamp, I’m leery of stepping too far over the lip where the Abol Slide, a long slope of glacially arranged boulders, emerges onto the Tableland. We’ve had people fall here on nice days. In weather like this, going too far is a ticket to the abyss. If I step in the wrong spot, I could make it down the mountain a whole lot faster than I want.
Still no sign. I feel an emptiness in my gut as I make my way back to Justine, who has been scanning the other side of the trail. Nothing.
At 1:30 a.m., I radio Bruce.
“613 to 54.”
“We’re heading back to the Gateway—but we’re going to continue looking on our way down.” With heavy legs and even heavier hearts, we begin our slow descent, intent on dragging out the search as long as we can.