Paranoia on the Northville Placid Trail; The Dannemora Escape
Where were you at the beginning of last summer, when the news broke that, two convicted murderers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, had successfully escaped from a maximum security prison in the Adirondacks of New York? I was in those same mountains when I learned of the Dannemora escape.
The story broke on June 6th, 2015. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rushed to the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, to gather information on how exactly these men pulled off such a daring stunt. The cameras from every major news network across the country were rolling as he exclaimed, “These are dangerous people, and they’re nothing to be trifled with.”
At the exact same time that this fiasco was going down, my friend, Daniel “Goobs” Pierce and I were trudging through the dense wilderness of the Adirondacks, attempting a thru hike of the Northville Placid Trail. On the morning of June 6th, as we rose and prepared for the 6th day of our hike, we had absolutely zero idea of the dilemma that was occurring directly to the north of us.
Starting in the small hamlet of Benson, New York, the Northville to Placid Trail runs approximately 130 miles north through the heart of the Adirondack wilderness. It is the longest continuous footpath in the Adirondacks, and is often overlooked due to the popularity of the 46 ADK High Peaks, which are located in the northeastern section of the park. Though there is a few miles of road walking along its length, the Northville Placid Trail is almost entirely a footpath, which stands in contrast with many other long distance trails that aren’t a part of the Appalachian Trail system. This makes it a very feasible option for hikers who want to complete a thru-hike, but don’t have the time for a 2,100 mile walk on the AT.
Most of our day on June 6th went by fairly normally; we left the Wakely Dam campground, and spent the day focusing on reaching our planned destination for the night, Tirrell Pond Lean-to. Along the way, we were able to stop and grab a shower at the Lake Durant Campground along NY route 28/30, where Goobs tried his luck with some fishing. Failing to get even a nibble, it was the same result he had experienced every time he casted his line for the past 80 miles.
Getting Word of the Dannemora Escape While in the Backcountry
By the end of June 6th, much of the country had already gotten word of the seemingly impossible escape. The escape was reminiscent of Shawshank Redemption for many who followed the story on the major news networks, and social media. But unlike most Americans at the time, we had no access to Facebook, and no manner in which to watch the story unfold on television. But luckily, for the first time on the whole hike, we had cell coverage that night, and this is how my ever-worried mother was able to alert us of the events that had unfolded that morning. Below is a screen shot of the first message she sent to me.
“Two extremely dangerous criminals escaped from prison today in upstate NY…” as you can tell from my response, I was pretty bewildered as I read the message. Unfortunately, my mom didn’t provide us with another update for several more hours, which left us to speculate. We were in upstate New York… but as those from the Empire State know, the term upstate New York refers to any part of the state that isn’t New York City. This meant, for all we knew, the escape could have occurred as far away as in Buffalo, it could have occurred somewhere in the Adirondacks, or it could have occurred anywhere in between. But I figured, since my mom isn’t from New York, she was probably referring to the northern part of the state when she used the term upstate, and it was at this point that Goobs told me of a field trip he had taken back in high school, to a maximum security prison located in New York, just over the border from where we lived in Vermont. The prison he was referring to was Dannemora, and it was located in the northern Adirondack park, the same park we had been traversing for the past six days. “This is just what we needed to happen…” I thought.
More Complication was the Last Thing We Needed
To say that we had been having a difficult time hiking the Northville Placid Trail would be an understatement. Our recent completion of the scenic, and challenging Long Trail in Vermont had instilled high expectations in our minds as we set out. Though the Northville Placid Trail does pass by many pristine wilderness lakes and ponds, it lacks the jaw-dropping mountain views that we had grown so accustomed too. Add in the fact that we were hiking in early June, which is the tail end of mud season, and the best time to hike if you’re looking to get consumed by mosquitos, and we had ourselves the recipe for a pretty arduous journey. I’m not surprised we didn’t see a single other hiker for the first 85 miles.
I know what many of you are thinking; “boo hoo, 85 miles is nothing, I had to walk with a broken ankle in the pouring rain without any food and blah blah…” and I get it. Things could have been much worse for us, but at the time, our spirits were still pretty destroyed, and learning that there were now two escaped killers on the loose, presumably trampling through the same mountains as us, was just about the last thing we wanted to hear.
“Of all the Forests in all the Towns in all the World, They Escape Into Mine”
Though I altered a few words for a better fit to our situation, this prominent line from the classic film Casablanca was running through my head on the night of June 6th. Eventually, my mom updated us with the details, and confirmed Goob’s original speculation; the prison that had yielded these escapees, was in fact Dannemora. As someone who is studying computer science, I often think in terms of numbers and odds, and as I played out the hypothetical odds in my head, I couldn’t believe our (lack of) luck.
“First of all, what are the odds of two high profile criminals escaping from a maximum security prison,” I thought to myself. I later learned that this was the first escape to ever occur at the Clinton Correctional Facility.
“Second of all, what are the odds of such an escape happening at the nearest prison to us, at the exact time we were on the trail?”
Once we knew the full story, we began to assess how the unfolding news was going to affect our hike. Dannemora was approximately 50 miles to the north of our location, and given the escape had occurred only about 14 hours earlier, we knew that it would be impossible that they were in our vicinity at the current moment. Depending on their mode of transportation, they could have still been in the village of Dannemora, or all the way down in Mexico for all we knew. But this was all speculation. We really just didn’t know.
The Final Decision
We ultimately ended up leaving the trail on June 7th, just a few days shy of the northern terminus of the Northville Placid Trail. We had started the previous morning with no idea that it would be our last full day on the trail, our sights set on the finish line that was only a few days ahead. However, due to our dwindling spirits, and the threat of severe thunderstorms in the coming days, hearing of the escapees was the match in the powder barrel that was long overdue to explode. Even though I knew the odds of running into them was very low, I still knew it would be in the back of my mind for the rest of the hike, and this would only lessen my enjoyment to a greater degree.
I justified the decision by examining the potential path that the escapees could have taken. In the worst case scenario for us, they could have escaped to the south, and covered up to ten miles a day. That could have put them in our vicinity after only two days, as we were planning to cover an average of 16- 17 miles per day for the remainder of the trip. Even if this had happened, the odds of running into them were still incredibly low, but the way I see it is, if we had the choice between hiking while there were escaped murderers in the area, or coming back another time to finish the remaining miles we had left, it made more sense to choose the latter.
Even though looking back at my anxiety over the whole ordeal is a bit embarrassing, I still don’t regret the decision. You never know what the trail will throw at you; sometimes it’s glamourous sunshine, sometimes it’s pits of boot-sucking mud, and sometimes it’s the prospect of escaped prisoners. Or it could be all three. Eventually, Richard Matt and David Sweat were both shot and captured by the police. They were caught heading northeast, almost the exact opposite direction from where Goobs and I were at the time. Even though we were never in danger, this story still illustrates how important it is to keep a level head in the backcountry, as the greatest challenges you will face are always mental challenges.
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