Leaf peeping season takes many hikers of all experience levels to New York’s North Country. The high peaks offer some of the most breathtaking summit views in this region. 

With that, however, comes the need for an experienced group of volunteers to answer increasing calls for help.

“We’ve had all kinds from rock climbing falls to water rescues to carrying someone out in the dead of winter,” says Keene Valley Fire Chief Stephen “Rusty” Hall.  “Accidents will happen and we’ve got to be able to assist when we can.”

Chief Hall is one of 15 volunteers who make up the Wilderness Response Team, a cooperative effort between the Keene and Keene Valley Fire Departments.

“I’m a third generation and my son who’s also an officer here is fourth generation,” says Hall.  “It’s just dedication to the community.”

Dedication to the community and to the New York State Forest Rangers who depend on them.

“So far this year, we’ve had about 65 calls for either searches or rescues,” says Ranger Robbi Mecus, who has been a forest ranger for about 20 years.

Though the Department of Environmental Conservation, along with New York State Police, respond to 90% of rescue calls in the high peaks, when the Wilderness Response Team is needed, it can make all the difference.

“If we’re short on manpower, if we have multiple incidents happening at the same time and there’s not manpower available through the backcountry rescue team, then evacuations will be delayed,” says Mecus.

The below scenario is real and an extreme example of what a rescue can entail:

“Last winter, we had a subject who broke both legs between Saddleback and Basin Mountain and that took about 35 forest rangers and 8 to 10 people from the backcountry rescue team and it took us about 37 hours to get him out,” Mecus explains. 

Mecus promotes education and safety first, before anyone heads out on a trail.

“One of the frequent things I hear is’ I didn’t plan for this,” Mecus says.  “No one plans to break their leg on a trail but what we can do is be prepared in case you lose the trail, you have a compass and a headlamp and a map and extra food and clothing

Who They Are

The volunteers range in day jobs from former educators, to attorneys, to even ministers.  Former school teacher Ron Konowitz has been on the team for decades.  

“I was the Wilderness Response Team Coordinator for 27 years,” says Konowitz.  “My job really was to make sure the equipment was updated and make sure it was in a readied fashion in the right spot.”

Konowitz also trained nearly all of the team’s members too, including 27-year-old Pat O’Dell.  He took over as Coordinator about a year ago.  He is also a former student of Ron’s.

“I’ve known some of these guys since they were tiny kids,” Konowitz adds.  “Our 1st Assistant Fire Chief Ian Hall is also a former student of mine and it’s interesting because they’re my bosses now.”

A need for younger volunteers is ever-present within volunteer groups such as this.  If you’re interested in donating some of your time to help, click here.  The busiest single weekend for rescue calls of the entire year is just two weeks away.  Columbus Day.     

“Overwhelmingly though, our busy season is the summer,” Mecus adds.  “From Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, we get probably 60 to 75 percent of our calls.”