LAKE PLACID - A call had just come in to the dispatch center at the state Department of Environmental Conservation headquarters in Ray Brook on a recent Tuesday morning. It was just a tip, but a college-aged girl, backpacking with her family over the weekend, hadn't shown up for work that day - a concerned friend called, fearing the worst.
"This sort of thing is actually pretty routine," said DEC forest ranger, Chris Kostoss, sitting behind the wheel of a large green pick-up truck as it sped down state Route 86 toward Lake Placid. Static from the truck's radio buzzed on and off and soon Kostoss received a clear call from dispatchers with more information.
"It sounds like they were hiking out toward Basin Mountain ... a family of four," Kostoss said, before picking up the receiver and speaking directly into the radio. "Can I get a vehicle description?"
DEC forest ranger Chris Kostoss discusses climbing safety and bears with Jacob Sieger, 11, of New York City at the Notch Mountain Slabs in Wilmington.
(Photo — Eric Voorhis)
Kostoss wore large sunglasses and a DEC ranger baseball cap that didn't quite match his forest green uniform. A bulky utility belt sat on his hips holding a black handgun, pepper spray, a telescoping baton and a large blade.
"In this situation we usually check the parking lots first," he said, after writing down information from the dispatcher. "We look for a vehicle and then check the sign-in book to see if they've been around."
The Heart Lake parking lot at the end of Adirondack Loj Road in Lake Placid was nearly full around 10 a.m., as groups of hikers ambled toward the trailhead under a bright, clear sky.
At a quick glance, the large red Jeep Commando we were looking for wasn't around.
Kostoss said Basin Mountain - number nine in order of height in the Adirondacks - could be accessed from at least four different trailheads, and that aside from the Adirondack Loj, the most common way up was by way of the Phelps trail beginning at The Garden parking lot in Keene.
"We'll head there next," he said.
While paging through the guest book to find the family's name, Kostoss paused and smiled. He pointed to a name written neatly in the book, Peter Fish, a state forest ranger and active member of the Adirondack 46ers who retired in 1998 after 23 years of service.
"The guy retires and he still comes up here all the time," Kostoss said. "That's dedication."
After talking briefly with a family of hikers, Kostoss did a final sweep of the parking lot and then headed off. As we pulled out onto Adirondack Loj Road, headed toward Keene Valley, another call came in on the radio.
"We just got ahold of that guy's brother," a fuzzy voice said. "Sounds like they weren't scheduled to get back for another two days."
"Well, I guess that squashes that one," he said. "At least for now."
After a short drive and a detour to check a brush fire permit on River Road, Kostoss veered the truck into a pull-out along state Route 86 in Wilmington on the edge of the AuSable River. It was just before noon. A trailhead across the road led to Copperas Pond, and Kostoss wanted to hike in to make sure no one had trashed a lean-to that sits on the edge of the water.
"I just want to go take a look and see what's up," Kostoss said. "There's probably been a lot of traffic through here, especially with Ironman last weekend."
The trail was steep and rocky, held together by thick root systems. After a few minutes of hiking we paused, out of breath.
Kostoss doesn't hike everyday, but gets out "at least a few times a week." As a forest ranger, he's responsible for the preservation and protection of the state's forest resources, and the safety and well-being of the public using these resources. This can mean a number of different things, including law enforcement, fire management, education and outreach and search and rescue.
He begins work from home every morning and has the freedom to make his own schedule and plan hikes while tending to a variety of projects.
"That's one of the real perks to the job," he said. "Everyday is something different. You never really know what's going to come up."
Kostoss works closely with a number of other DEC rangers in the High Peaks who each cover a different zone such as Charlie Platt, located in Keene Valley, Joseph LaPierre, who covers Lake Placid, and James Giglinto in Keene. Kostoss's zone is Wilmington.
"We think of knowing the land as a close intimacy," Kostoss said. "You need to know whatever piece of state land is yours, so you can find people if you get a loose description of where they are. There can't be any surprises along the way."
According to Kostoss, finding lost hikers is one of the biggest functions of Region 5 forest rangers who cover the High Peaks area, mostly due to the sheer number of hikers.
"To be honest, most days aren't all that exciting," he said. "But then all of a sudden you get a day that's just crazy."
With an average of two fatalities on state land in this region each year, Kostoss said most of the rangers he works with have horror stories and ghosts they carry with them. He recalled a time in the early spring of 2008 when a man had suddenly passed away on the Johns Brook Lodge Trail from a heart attack, about six miles in the woods.
Kostoss and another ranger were called in for an evacuation. A helicopter followed, but because of high winds an airlift wasn't an option. The other ranger ended up hiking out with the deceased man's hiking partner who was OK but shaken up. Kostoss was left alone for the night, to "essentially guard the body."
"I remember just looking around and knowing that I was completely alone," Kostoss said. "There was still a lot of snow on the ground ... It was a long night."
But most days are a different story and one of the things Kostoss enjoys most about the job is getting out of the truck and onto the trails.
As we reached Copperas Pond, tucked away in Wilmington Notch, the lean-to came into sight, only about 40 feet from the edge of the crystal blue body of water. There wasn't a speck of garbage around the entire campsite.
"Wow. I'm impressed," Kostoss said. "See, people actually do respect nature."