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Community remembers beloved forest ranger

From left, Samantha Stytzer, daughter Hazel and Robbi Mecus pose together in the woods. (Provided photo — Samantha Stytzer)

KEENE VALLEY — A celebration of life honoring Robbi Mecus was held this past Saturday at Marcy Field in Keene Valley. Hundreds of friends and colleagues attended and some addressed the gathering to speak about Mecus. Several disparate communities were present — transgender and queer, Keene Fire Department, forest rangers with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, climbers and hikers and others — with, of course, some overlap between groups.

In 1999, Mecus became a forest ranger. Twenty-five years later, on April 25, 2024, she died in Alaska’s Denali National Park. According to the National Park Service, Mecus, 52, fell about 1,000 feet while ascending “the Escalator” on Mt. Johnson, a steep and technical alpine climb. The 5,000-foot route necessitates navigating steep rock, ice and snow.

Melissa Orzechowski was Mecus’s climbing partner on that occasion. The roped climbers both fell; Orechowski, who fell the same distance as Mecus, miraculously survived but suffered severe injuries.

Samantha Stytzer, formerly married to Mecus, hosted the celebration of life and, introduced by Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr., was the first speaker. Stytzer described Mecus as thoughtful with warm and sincere eyes, someone who made her feel safe “even the first time I met her.”

She praised Mecus’s ability to be a teacher “without ego.” Both loved to travel; travel, Stytzer said, was a big part of their lives. They married, they evolved.

“The next adventure destination would be parenthood,” she said.

Their daughter, Hazel, was born, and “Robbi cared about being a family,” Stytzer said. “Hazel, you are loved beyond measure.”

Stytzer told the gathering: “People are always the best part of travel. Not only did Robbi travel, but she connected with each of us, becoming part of each of us. Looking at this crowd, it is clear Robbi is a well-traveled soul. Thank you for holding us up.”

Ranger Christine Raudonis praised Mecus’s “ability to remain vulnerable.” Mecus showed strength, Raudonis maintained, by showing her personal side, by questioning and voicing doubts on a rescue job.

Importantly, Mecus felt vulnerable because, as she said, she didn’t know any trans climbers or queer rangers, and at one time feared that coming out as trans would end her beloved career. Instead, Mecus was inspiring and impactful as a mentor and leader, surprising herself when other rangers and people from different walks of life accepted and embraced her.

Mecus was chairperson of the town of Keene’s Diversity Committee in 2020. The committee planned and managed the town’s first Pride parade, which was also sponsored by the Keene Valley Congregational Church and Keene Valley Library. This was a rare event in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, in that it was held not virtually but in public, outdoors. The starting point for cars was Keene Central School in Keene Valley, and the parade ended at Marcy Field, where the celebration included food and music. Approximately 200 people attended.

The Pride parade, while arguably the best-known and most visible project of Keene’s Diversity Advisory Committee, does not comprise its entire volume of work. As chairperson Mecus once stated, “Our mission is to advance initiatives and policies that promote inclusivity to both residents and visitors.

“We work to remove barriers for all under-represented people in order to enhance and market our welcoming spirit … We envision a future in which all aspects of the town of Keene are welcoming to both residents and newcomers.”

Ranger Brian Dubay said “Robbi created a legacy for herself … she would come into an incident and save our ass … there were hundreds of humans Robbi saved in the mountains.”

The inclusivity that Mecus introduced with the LGBTQIA-plus community “opened a door … and opened up our division,” he said.

Ranger Chris Dicentio introduced some comic relief when he described himself and Mecus as “two green graduates of the Ranger Academy drinking chocolate shakes and trying to learn a job together.”

He apologized to New York state taxpayers, joking, “most of our time was spent in trying to find those chocolate shakes.”

“I’m not built for climbing rock, I’m built for going through it,” he said. “When I did climb I only climbed with her and never trusted anyone else. She was like Yoda, gave great advice and kept it confidential. Because of Robbi the technical rope program was rekindled. We are extremely grateful to her.”

The celebration ended with rangers performing a flag ceremony, at the end of which Hazel was presented with the American flag in honor of her mother’s service.

In closing, the rangers stood by for a final call. Over a police radio an announcement was made:

“We thank you for your 25 years of exemplary service to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Forest Rangers and the citizens of New York state,” a voice spoke over the department’s radio service. “Your dedication to duty is reflected in the many lives you saved. You have been relieved. We have it from here. May you rest in peace.”

Inside a big white tent, the seated crowd watched through the open south side as the rangers drove away across Marcy Field in the rain, then went north on state Route 73. Widespread sobbing was audible above the constant pattering of rain, bird calls and the sound of small children playing and talking, perhaps the only ones present unaffected.

Lemonade — purportedly 128 lemons were squeezed to produce it — was served afterwards on the Holt House porch, in memory of Mecus’s contribution of homemade lemonade to Hazel and friends’ entrepreneurial lemonade stand on Market Street.

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