View Full Version : Beacon rescue

Explorer Editor
12-29-2003, 11:25 AM
There was a lot of interest in the two rescues of an Ohio man from the Five Ponds Wilderness recently. I interviewed the man to get his side of the story. From his account, he was in genuine peril. Yet now he faces criminal charges. The case certainly raises questions for other hikers. For instance, if you run into trouble, how can you know whether your predicament qualifies as an emergency under DEC's interpretation of the law? Since DEC refuses to discuss the case, the answer to that remains a big unknown. It may be that the defendant said something to DEC investigators that led them to conclude he wasn't in dire straits. But until the facts come out, we can only speculate.

The text of the story follows. Sorry for funky text breaks. I will post a Web link (with graphics) as soon as I can.



Army saves man
in wilds—twice

DEC arrests Carl Skalak after he
sets off emergency beacon second
time, but he insists both evacuations
were legitimate.

When Carl Skalak Jr. canoed into the Five Ponds Wilderness in
mid-November, he got caught in a blizzard. And then the river froze. He made history of sorts by activating a personal locater beacon (PLB) that sent a
signal to the Air Force via a satellite.
On Nov. 14, he was flown out of the wilds by a Huey helicopter dispatched from Fort Drum, an Army base near Watertown. Skalak, 55, of Cleveland, thus became the first person in the continental United States to be rescued after setting off a PLB. The devices were approved for use in the Lower 48 just last summer, after a trial run in Alaska.
“The system worked like a gem,” said Lt. Daniel Karlson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which operates the satellites that relay PLB signals.
On Dec. 3, three weeks later, the system got its second test. Again, a Huey flew to the rescue. The person in distress: Carl Skalak Jr.
This time, not all of the authorities were pleased. The next day, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) charged Skalak with two counts of falsely reporting an incident, a misdemeanor. He spent a night in jail before posting $10,000 bail.
DEC spokesman Steve Litwhiler said the agency believes that Skalak didn’t need to be rescued either time. The charges allege that Skalak “was found in a healthy condition, not in apparent need of emergency evacuation, and with no imminent or occurring catastrophic or emergency condition present.”
Skalak begs to differ. In the first instance, he said, “the need of an emergency evacuation was pretty clear. With the river frozen up, there was no other way out.” The second time, he said, he would have risked frostbite or worse if he tried to hike out of the woods on his own. “It’s not like I went in there and rang their bell because I just had a blister or something.”
When Skalak first entered the wilderness, on Tuesday, Nov. 11, he planned to relax, take photographs and read a book by Sigurd Olsen, a conservationist who often wrote about the spiritual value of nature. Skalak drove his truck to a remote put-in on the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River in the western Adirondacks. He then paddled his solo canoe for more than two hours to Alder Bed Flow, a still stretch of the river in the Five Ponds Wilderness, and set up camp.
It started to rain Tuesday night. Sometime Wednesday afternoon, the rain changed to snow, and it continued to snow on Thursday. “When I woke up Friday morning there was like four feet of snow on the ground,” Skalak said. “More importantly, the river froze.”
Skalak said the weather forecasts had not warned of a snowstorm. Now he wasn’t sure what weather to expect. And he didn’t know how long it would take the river to thaw. Eventually, he decided to activate the beacon, which he had bought for $600 only days before his trip. He reasoned that if he waited and the weather turned worse or if he ran out of food and became debilitated, he would make things harder
on himself and his rescuers.
The Air Force Rescue and Coordination Center received the distress signal at 10:45 a.m. and notified the Herkimer County Sheriff’s Department. DEC started a search but never reached Skalak. In the end, officials asked Fort Drum to send in a helicopter, which picked up Skalak at about 5 p.m.
At the time, no charges were filed. In fact, Lt. Col. Scott P. Morgan, commander of the Air Force rescue center, said Skalak made the right decision. “He did exactly what he should,” Morgan told the L.A. DailyNews, “because he didn’t wait until he went beyond his capacity. . . . We weren’t going in and trying to find someone that was in extreme distress.”
A few weeks later, Skalak returned alone to the Adirondacks to retrieve his canoe and other gear. On Friday, Nov. 28, he hiked from the put-in, starting up an old logging road and then bushwhacking
for hours through thick balsams to the river. Because it had rained for several days beforehand, his boots and pants got soaked during the bushwhack. By the time he reached the campsite, it was 2:30 p.m.—he had been hiking for 5˝ hours. He then made a disheartening discovery: His canoe was missing.
Skalak suspects the canoe was stolen, since he had tied it down. He now contemplated the risks of bushwhacking back to his truck. Because he was unsure whether he could find the old logging road as easi-ly as he found the river, he thought he might have to bivouac in the woods, probably in subfreezing temperatures. He didn’t want to attempt the trip in wet clothing and wet boots. He had notified the local forest ranger that he expected to be out of the woods on Saturday. He also left a topo map on his
truck’s dashboard outlining his route. He hoped rangers would come to his rescue once they realized he was missing. And so he decided to stay put—at least until his clothing and boots dried.
“I figured the smartest thing to do was to sit tight,” he said. “I was warm and dry inside my sleeping bag and tent.”
He had enough food only for an overnight trip: a sandwich, a box of rice and 8 ounces of salmon. Nevertheless, he made it last from Friday night until Monday. Meanwhile, the temperature was dropping
into the teens. To keep warm in his bag, he put warm water in bottles and placed them between his thighs.
Nobody came to his rescue, and his boots and clothing never dried out. At 5 a.m. Tuesday—cold, hungry, out of food—he activated the beacon again.
Twelve hours later, Skalak was picked up by helicopter and flown to Fort Drum. The next day, he said, he was arrested and handcuffed after an interrogation conducted by several DEC rangers and investigators. He pleaded not guilty in town court in Old Forge and plans to continue to fight the charges. He is due in court again this month.
“They suggested that I should be walking out of the woods with wet boots in subfreezing temperatures,” he said. “I didn’t think that was a prudent thing to do.”
Steve Litwhiler, the DEC spokesman, refused to discuss the case except to say that the agency believes Skalak could have got out of the woods both times without help. The federal government seems to take a more lenient attitude toward the questionable use of PLBs. Similar devices have been used for years on ships and planes, but there have been few arrests for misuse, according to Lt. Karlson of NOAA. “We’d
rather that people have confidence in the system and not worry about making that judgment call when they’re at risk,” Karlson said.
He regards false alerts as the downside of operating an emergency system that has a huge upside: He expects thousands of people will be saved by PLBs over the years. Skalak’s rescues sparked much discussion on “Views from the Top,” an Internet bulletin board for Northeast hikers. Some of those posting messages fear that personal locater beacons will encourage hikers to go into the woods unprepared, knowing that they need only flip a switch if they run into trouble. “Give it time. Let it become more popular,” said one hiker. “Charging for rescues will start. Then the lawyers will get involved—lawsuits when a rescue isn’t fast enough.”
Neil Woodworth, attorney for the Adirondack Mountain Club, which represents 40,000 hikers, said outdoor enthusiasts, should be properly prepared before entering the woods, but he sees nothing wrong
with using a beacon in a real emergency. “I don’t see any difference in using a personal locater beacon, a cell phone or a walkie-talkie,” he said. “I don’t think the method of communication matters, but any
emergency call has to be reserved for true emergencies.”
Was DEC being heavy-handed in arresting Skalak? What are the implications of the arrest for other hikers? If they run into trouble, how can they know if their predicament is a legal emergency or not?
Apparently, these questions will not be answered until the case unfolds. DEC is not talking, and Woodworth said he could not comment on the specifics of the Skalak case without knowing all the facts.

12-29-2003, 01:34 PM

Thanks for posting your article. It's always good to hear another side of the story.

And yet I stand by my original opinion that is now reinforced by your interview...THIS IDIOT HAD NO BUSINESS GOING IN A SECOND TIME! He clearly is way out of his element in the backcountry and should stay put in front of his TV in Cleveland.

Very little food, inadequate warm/wet weather gear; no map; non-waterproofed boots; assumptions made at every turn (like expecting to find his canoe for the way out and having NO backup plans when he couldn't locate it; and, expecting-DID HE SAY EXPECTING-someone to come to his rescue??!!); not learning from his first experience; etc. There are COUNTLESS large and small mistakes made by this guy. He should be charged for the second rescue and I sure hope the next time he does this that the SAR personnel return safely after risking their lives for this IDIOT.

My 2 cents.

12-29-2003, 03:27 PM
I agree that there needs to be some sort of confidence in the system, but using it twice a month for suspect reasons is criminal, and he should help pay for the rescue. I think the DEC did a disservice letting him go back! You'll be damned if I want my tax dollars paying for this guys rescue! A standard needs to be set. If you were to this on Denali, the Rangers would throw you off the mountain, and then charge you for part of the rescue. As they should. If I decide to go over Niagra Falls in a barrel and need rescue, should l be let go and not charged for the rescue? I would think the locals wouldn't want to pay for it?

12-29-2003, 03:41 PM
I am not one for personal attacks. I try live by the golden rule and treat people the way I want to be treated. So I apologize for my insensitive comments, but I tried to frame my comments within a thoughtful but brief listing of a few of the many areas in which this person failed to use common sense and apply proper skills and knowledge in his backcountry activity.

Sorry again for my thoughtlessness, but I am very angry at what this guy did his second time out and the risk he incured upon those who rescued him. What he has done will reflect badly on those who truly need the help out there.

12-29-2003, 06:27 PM
People like that will make things tougher for hikers. Rescues like that cost money... A lot. Someone has to pay.

Remember, in the general population, hikers are a small minority. If the large majority of the (voting) public hear that hikers want to carry someting where they push a button, and they (voters) pay, you'll start to see all kinds of regulations, licensing, etc coming about.

If a smart lawyer (what's the opposite of an oxymoron?) wins a case for the guy, the state may start reacting in order to protect itself from more expensive rescues.

12-29-2003, 07:58 PM
Thanks Phil for the info. After reading your article, I have to say that I still think something is off here. It took the guy about two hours to canoe to his campsite and yet that was too much to hike out? He only needed to follow the river back out and I'm sure he would have made it out in less than a day's hike - he would have kept warmer too because he would have been moving. As far as the second time, I'm still not convinced - it sounded even more neglectful. He knew enough to buy the PLB and for $600 - why didn't he just buy better equipment and for a portion of the cost? Anyway, still, I think everybody accused is entitled to give their side. Thanks for keeping us informed.

ALGonquin Bob
12-30-2003, 07:29 AM
Of course it's so easy to spout ideas on what this unprepared Ohio man SHOULD have done, but how about this one: Since he had so much trouble the first time, I'm surprised that the "local forest ranger" let him hike in with so little gear on his back, if he had a pack at all. Wouldn't it have made sense for him to have paddled with someone else in a tandem canoe to retreive his gear? It would have taken less than two hours to reach the camp, he would have had someone (hopefully) with some backcountry knowledge with him, and a canoe to get back out in! If a ranger actually spoke whih Skalak beforehand and knew who he was, then I think that the DEC has to share some of the responsibility for allowing this... man to travel solo back into the area that caused him so much trouble only weeks before. I also hope that I never need rescue and come under the microscope like this 2-time unfortunate man.

A couple final questions: Do rivers freeze? ...and can a river (moving water?) freeze overnight?

Explorer Editor
12-30-2003, 08:20 AM
Originally posted by AlG
If a ranger actually spoke whih Skalak beforehand and knew who he was, then I think that the DEC has to share some of the responsibility for allowing this... man to travel solo back into the area that caused him so much trouble only weeks before. I also hope that I never need rescue and come under the microscope like this 2-time unfortunate man.

A couple final questions: Do rivers freeze? ...and can a river (moving water?) freeze overnight?

Al: My story was not as clear as it should have been on this point. He phoned the DEC ranger at his home and left a msg on his answering machine. He also left a map with directions of his route on the windshield of the truck left at the put-in. He never spoke directly with the ranger.

The river did freeze where he was: He was camped on Alder Bed Flow, which is a stillwater section. If we get the Web link, we may be able to post a photo he took.

John Graham
12-30-2003, 09:03 AM
The search subject in question did display poor judgement in going on a solo canoe trip that late in the season and he made no attempt to get out before summoning help, due no doubt to him possesing a PLB. These actions might be excused, but the second rescue definitely crosses the line. He walked in, but again refused to try and walk out. He surely shouldn't have gone in alone a second time, and clearly wasn't prepared for all eventualities. What really sticks in my craw is that he carried in video equipment and filmed his own rescue. I am a search and rescue volunteer and we call these kind of operations "Bas**rd Searches", for obvious reasons. This is akin to the kid who runs away and takes a vicarious pleasure in watching the search for him or for that matter the arsonist who starts fires and is thrilled to stay and watch the response. He went in to recover his canoe, worth at most a couple of thousand dollars, and as a result a search had to be carried out costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars and risking the lives of the helicopter crew needlessly. The Personal Locator Beacon is a potential lifesaver, but it is not a license to be a fool. Each time it is abused like this, it makes it more likely that when this device is used in the future in a genuine emergency, the authorities will hesitate to launch a search. This individual deserves condemnation, not sympathy.

12-30-2003, 09:09 AM
This second rescue bugs me. He didn’t seem to think this through. He got stranded there because the river froze and he couldn’t paddle out. I would think he should have come to the conclusion that the water might be frozen again seeing as the second trip was 4 weeks later. I would think that he should have expected this and had a plan to hike out.

As far as these rescue beacons go, maybe there should be a required course on self-rescue before one is allowed to purchase one of these devises. I don’t like the idea that someone with very little backcountry knowledge would be able to walk on into a Best Buy and purchase this item. I see them being a wonderful aid to search and rescue teams in finding someone in need of rescue. But, it has to be remembered that these rescues are expensive. Especially when the rescue could be avoided by just educating the would be rescuee.

12-30-2003, 10:36 AM
Personally, I’ll be very interested to see what happens when this case goes to court. I am dismayed that the DEC has declined to comment in meaningful depth or terms on the basis for “false report” charges brought against Carl Skalak.

My own interpretation (suspicion) at the moment is that the DEC may be less concerned about recovering costs associated with the rescues than with establishing a precedent under existing statutes for “criminalizing” the act of requesting or requiring rescue or extraction from backcountry areas.

(I’m using somewhat florid language there, and realize it, but let’s not forget that Skalak is charged with a misdemeanor, and evidently spent a night in the slammer before posting bond and being released on bail. Surely, the false report charge is not a civil suit brought expressly and merely to recover costs, even if penalty provisions in the law allow for recovery of costs.)

The most obvious motivation from a DEC perspective is to discourage people from making requests for rescue, or from putting themselves in situations or positions where rescue may be necessary. While such a goal in prosecuting Skalak may seem to be well-intended, it is nonetheless something that should be of considerable interest and concern for those of us who spend time out in the wilds of New York State.


12-30-2003, 01:07 PM
Here in New Hampshire, you can be charged for your own rescue if your actions are deemed reckless. I agree with mommabear that the first rescue seems suspect. A two hour paddle is too far to walk out? Had he been charged several thousand dollars for the first evacuation, would he have been so cavalier about the activating the PLB the second time?

I have helped with SAR's and I know that Fish & Game (who conduct them here) are not as quick to blame the victim as some members of this BB, so many rescuees are not charged. I wonder if there shouldn't be a minimum charge even if the hiker has not been reckless. It seems to me that a PLB should be a last resort. If a hiker knew that they would be charged $100 (for example) even if they hadn't been reckless (or the full cost of the rescue if they were) maybe they would decide that they could manage to hike out.

12-30-2003, 01:39 PM
I'm kinda on the fence on this one. Certainly, taken at face value, we can all find fault in this fellas conduct. However, none of us were there with him at the times he activated the PLB.

I'm sure all of us can recall times that, while in them, seemed more desperate than later reflection showed them to be. Vice versa, for that matter as well. I can recall several times that I thought things were fine, only to later realize were perilously close to disaster (Both in and out of the woods).

"Untill we walk a mile" I think the saying begins. With this in mind, I find it hard to overly condem this guy, and at the same time, feel the whole situation pretty moronic.

I think the real issue that needs to come of all this is that these PLBs are now here and likely to be used more often. I think it behooves the DEC, Fish & Game and whomever else, to very quickly set up guidelines for their use and potential penalties for thier misuse.

Unless it can be determined that this guy deliberatly activated it as a joke or a "test" to see if it worked, he will probably get a pass for it. All he has to state is that he THOUGHT his life was in jepordy (even if we all know it wasn't). If his lawyer or him can convince the jury that that was the case and that the whole purpose if this device is to save your life in a critical situation, he'll walk.

There is no president to say that his actions were valid or not. Until there is, it will be hard to arbitrarily charge anyone that uses these devices in a similar manner. Once spelled out, we'll waste neither precious court time or money on it. Either you met the guidelines or you did not, case closed.

Just my .02 cents. Thanks for the article Phil.

12-30-2003, 03:00 PM
Mon Vol,

You raise an interesting option. In certain areas of the ADK High Peaks I can get fined somewhere around $100-$250 for NOT HAVING MY DOG ON A LEASH. And there are many other infractions that, when deemed appropriate by the Ranger or other authority, can warrent a ticket and fine (no snowshoes in winter is another that comes to mind). So why not implement a fine system-at least on the second occasion. If the DEC deems the rescue as being legit within their guidelines, then no fine...

I really don't want to be seen as someone who discourages proper use of PLB's or other rescue systems. This guy is hopefully the exception to the rule. But he does deserve condemnation and should pay for the costs of the second rescue. And God help him if next time someone loses their life going in after him!

12-30-2003, 03:36 PM
If I make a call, because my pet bird is in a tree, won't come down, so I need help... I think we'll agree that is misuse.

What if I am on a solo trip, and I trip and break a leg.... Is that misuse??? Is it a frivolous rescue? Maybe..

Let's say that I am a person who never hiked alone, and never went off trail, but I've been hiking/backpacking for 20 years. I'm experienced, and pretty much know what I'm doing. Now, I think,

"Hey, with a PLB, I can do things I never could do before, because if there is a problem, I can get help."

Don't look at the individual case...look at hundreds of cases. These (as will better cell phone coverage) WILL make more people do things they would not do, and they WILL cause more rescues.

Is it fair that I have to pay for your rescue because new technology has given you the confidence to do something you would not have done previously?

"It will save lives."

So what! What is the value of a life? Again, don't look individually, but look statistically. How much will we be willing to pay to save 10 lives a year?

Before answering, consider this... Traffic deaths. We could eliminate tens of thousands of deaths a year if we would want to. All we have to do, is lower speed limits to 30 MPH. We'd never do this, because it is too much of an inconvienence... We (society) have decided that certain things are worth certain deaths.

We've come to accept it with automobiles, but we haven't yet in the backcountry.

12-30-2003, 05:34 PM
Originally posted by Grumpy

My own interpretation (suspicion) at the moment is that the DEC may be less concerned about recovering costs associated with the rescues than with establishing a precedent under existing statutes for “criminalizing” the act of requesting or requiring rescue or extraction from backcountry areas.

If this is the beacon I think it is, it does require a license and it's use is regulated. There are penalties for misuse, perhaps criminal, perhaps just a simple fine or license revocation. The reason for the license is that the user is supposed to be educated in it's use and misuse and for the authorities to be able to check the call back number associated with the license to confirm that the individual is not at home.

I'm for the prosecution under any existing laws but I'm uncomfortable with trying to criminalize any such behavior in a legal case. That's for the legislature, IMHO.

I'll dig up some exact info on these things the next day or so.

12-30-2003, 06:11 PM
i have a couple thoughts on this.

in every becon package there should be a set of guide lines that you must follow in order to use it if you dont; you pay.

i think that it works well for marine use and i dont think there are that many saliors out there taking more risk just becuase they have them. but in every group there is allways someone who will abuse it.

pete i feel your analogy is a bit off for one the audubon has an unlimited speed limit yet has fewer accidents.

i for one feel the man was a bit reckless and cavilar.

12-30-2003, 07:57 PM
1. There was only 18 -20 inches of snow in the area when he went on his first trip. 2 1/2 - 3 foot drifts were maximum.

I and several other people were in the area during those days and would attest to that, should the DEC need us.

2. The river has many twists and turns, it would have only been 2 mile MAX. back from where he was to the side road off of the Bear pond road that's known as the Kelly Pond Road via walking.

3. On his return trip- if he would have just been uphill several hundred more yards, he would have avoided all that "thick spruce" and yet been able to keep the river and/or valley in sight.

4. I'm betting that his canoe wasn't stolen because after the snow-pack melted after his first trip the water was at near record highs.

At the I-beam crossing to Upper South Pond trail the water was so high that it was nearly touching the I-beam which is normaly about 8 feet above water level.

Maybe, his knot tying skills aren't so good?

Think I might go looking downstream for the canoe. Sounds like a challenge; it's probably way downstream by 'west bend' south of Streeter Lake. :D