Day in the Life
On the job with four hard-working Adirondackers
by Lisa Bramen
Even if we never raise a rifle or hoe a row to put dinner on the table, most of us who reside within the Blue Line live off the land in one sense or another. According to the last census, some 46,000 Adirondackers—roughly a third of the park’s population—are employed, and a disproportionate number of their jobs are somehow connected to the landscape, whether studying it, protecting its resources, promoting its splendors or providing services to the folks who vacation here.
The four Adirondackers in these pages are no different. For them, the challenges of earning a paycheck in the largest protected area in the Continental United States—from lower salaries to having to work hardest when others are enjoying their summer vacations—are well worth the trade-offs.
Job: Associate Director and Research Associate, Adirondack Ecological Center, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY–ESF)
Hometown: Newcomb Age: 44
Counting flowers and catching tadpoles is, for most people, the stuff of idyllic childhood memories. To Stacy McNulty, it’s all in a day’s work. For much of the year, one of her major duties is getting out into the 15,000 acres of SUNY–ESF’s Huntington Wildlife Forest and simply observing nature.
The property is home to the university’s Newcomb campus, the Adirondack Interpretive Center and the Adirondack Ecological Center, and is used by students and researchers from around the world. McNulty helps coordinate and support these research activities; as a member of the SUNY–ESF faculty, she also teaches a class each spring and mentors students.
But on this day, in late August, the undergraduates who have been at the field station for the summer have returned to school, and McNulty can focus on her own fieldwork.
Climbing into a blue Ford F-150, she first stops at the laboratory to grab a bucket and fill it with bleach solution. She sloshes her feet around in the solution for a minute, ensuring that her rubber boots aren’t carrying any organisms between sites. Then she drives a short distance to an atmospheric monitoring station, where instruments have been set out to collect data for various organizations: the United States Geological Survey is measuring the Adirondacks’ rate of movement; snowfall and snowpack measurements are transmitted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and weather information is entered into the statewide Mesonet system.
McNulty isn’t here for any of that. Instead, she crouches to inspect some low-growing plants studded with tiny fruits. With a pencil in her hand, she counts the number of dewberries in an area the size of her clipboard, jotting the figure on a multi-page spreadsheet attached to it. The spreadsheet lists dozens of plants at locations around the property, which she keeps track of at different times of the year.
Looking up, she notices a raven flying overhead. “Ravens have really come back since I moved here” in 2000, she says.
And so it goes for the rest of her day, driving from place to place along dirt roads, checking how abundant or healthy various species are, noting on a separate clipboard when she spies an animal larger than a squirrel. Stopping for a lunch break by Huntington Lodge—a former Great Camp now used for conferences, retreats and to house student groups—she spots a loon on Arbutus Lake through her binoculars, and cranes her neck to check whether the ash trees have started to grow seeds. “Not much going on yet,” she says.
At the next stop McNulty hikes up a steep path to some vernal pools. “It’s interesting that there’s still water at this time of year,” she says. It’s been an unusually cool and wet summer. “Last year they were dried up by July.”
Using a long-handled net, she drags the bottom of one of the pools, then sifts through the soggy leaf litter. She gently plucks out a wood frog tadpole and places it in the palm of her hand, pointing out its lack of legs. “It still has a long way to go in development and not a lot of time before this pool dries up,” she says. “They should be getting out by late July, but they can’t get out of the pool until they have lungs and legs. They’re not being triggered by the environment to finish development.”
Rather than testing a specific hypothesis, McNulty’s fieldwork is more open-ended. “The question I’m asking is how the system changes from season to season and year to year,” she says. Much of the information she collects is added into larger data sets that help show what’s happening across an entire region or continent. In other cases, her observations can help shed light on what will happen locally in the near future. “I’m just out there counting nuts and things, which seems pretty esoteric,” she says. But she can use that information to predict whether, for instance, a shortage of food will mean bears on the move the following summer.
This year, she says, the conifers are loaded with cones. “We’ll probably have a lot of irruptive birds this winter. Also, a lot of red squirrels, which will have an effect on songbirds, because the squirrels like to eat their eggs. There are all these cascading effects.”
Soon, winter will come and McNulty will be mostly office-bound, entering data into the computer and making plans for future research. Still, she says, “I’m lucky. There’s usually a time in a career where you become the desk biologist. I have plenty of that, but I also get to do hands-on fieldwork.”
Job: Environmental Conservation Officer (ECO) for the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
Hometown: Moriah Age: 36
It’s 3:30 p.m. in mid-November—the height of big-game-hunting season in the Adirondacks—when Alan Brassard meets two of his fellow ECOs behind the Elizabethtown fire station. ECOs generally work alone, but Brassard has requested help with a sting operation, and ECOs John Blades, who covers northern Essex County, and Rob Higgins, who covers Warren County, have answered the call. The DEC has received complaints of shots fired pre-dawn along a road in Lewis. It’s illegal to shoot from a vehicle or to hunt by shining a light on a deer, a practice called deer-jacking. Brassard has identified a suspect, but he needs to catch him in the act.
Brassard is about an hour into his shift; he has wide discretion over his working hours and how he fills them, as long as it supports the agency’s mission of enforcing the environmental laws and preserving the natural resources of the State of New York. Though he’s transferring to Warren County soon, he currently covers seven towns in southern Essex County, a significantly larger area than an ECO would in decades past. “We’re pretty much triaging,” he says. “You have to pick your battles.”
Earlier today Brassard answered a complaint about someone burning brush in Mineville; it turned out the man had a permit, and Brassard suspects the complaint is related to an ongoing feud between neighbors.
Though ECOs are focused on environmental law enforcement, they are trained in all aspects of police work and often assist other agencies; Brassard carries a Glock and wears a bulletproof vest. “You never know when you’re going to run into that felon with a gun who doesn’t want to go back to prison,” he says. “You’re always trying to be on your A-game.” (Less than two weeks later, an ECO in Columbia County will be shot and injured on the job by a reckless hunter.)
From their rendezvous point in Elizabethtown, Brassard, Blades and Higgins drive to a back road nearby, and stop alongside a wooded area near where the suspect is known to hunt. Brassard hops out and retrieves what looks like a decapitated seven-point buck from the bed of his truck. It’s a remote-controlled decoy that, when assembled, is meant to draw fire from unsuspecting deer-jackers. Brassard tucks the torso under one arm, the head under the other, and climbs 20 feet or so down a hill to place the decoy. The plan is for the other ECOs to keep a lookout at either end of the road, while Brassard hides in range of the decoy at a safe distance. When Blades or Higgins spots the suspect, they will radio to Brassard, who will activate the decoy. This is not sophisticated animatronics—the buck simply moves its head from side to side—but in the waning afternoon light it should be enough to catch a driver’s attention. And if he’s their perp, chances are he’ll jump at the opportunity to take an easy shot.
Just as Brassard gets in position, a pick-up truck drives by. After it passes, Brassard shouts from below, “Is that our guy?” Blades answers in the affirmative, saying, “We can’t win.” Brassard trudges back up to the road, a little out of breath, carrying the deer parts. “Unbelievable,” he says.
Their cover blown, Brassard, Blades and Higgins decide to try a different spot a couple of miles away. If they can’t catch their man today, maybe they can ensnare someone else. About 15 minutes after setting up the decoy and hiding behind a tumbledown camp across the street, though, they decide to abort the mission. The sky is darkening, and they fear they’ve been spotted by a driver of another pick-up truck that’s passed twice. “I don’t want to burn this area,” Blades says.
Brassard drives south to Moriah to check out a deer someone reported finding on the side of the road, and took home to use for meat. (It’s legal to take deer roadkill without a hunting license, but it must be reported and tagged.) When he arrives at the caller’s house, a gray-haired man with a mustache leads Brassard into his garage, where a headless skinned doe is strung up from the ceiling. The head and hide are heaped in a pile on some cardboard on the floor. “I’ve watched her all year,” the man laments, shaking his head. He says he talked to the wife of the man who hit the doe this morning, and she requested he save her the heart. After Brassard writes out a tag, the man gives him a tip: his neighbor up the road heard a shot around 8:30 the night before. “It bugs me because it’s not right,” the man says. “You don’t have to do that. Also, those are the same deer I bow-hunt.”
Next, it’s down to Ticonderoga, where Brassard has been trying to catch a group of young adults who have reportedly been shooting into a field. Sometimes, he says, he finds deer carcasses with just the backstrap, where the tastiest meat is, cut off. “They’re not sportsmen,” he says of the people who would do such a thing. “They’re just lazy.”
He backs his truck behind some bushes and waits in the dark. “When you’re just sitting out here, it’s boring. You can’t even use light,” he says, turning off his cell phone. “But once you catch someone, word spreads like wildfire. It’s a big deterrent.”
He sits for about an hour, with no action, before giving up for the night. Justice will have to wait. (Later in the season he will arrest a man shooting from his vehicle in Ticonderoga.)
To cap off his shift, Brassard decides to drive through some Crown Point back roads. The woods are full of critters that occasionally scamper across the road. Brassard slows down, opens his window and shines his spotlight on a deer enjoying an evening nibble. It looks up, frozen in the glare of the light.
“It’s that easy,” Brassard says. He turns off the light and drives off.
Katy Van Anden
Job: Wedding Planner, VanBee & Co.
Hometown: Saranac Lake Age: 33
Around the time most people are getting ready for summer weekend fun, Katy Van Anden’s workweek is just starting to ramp up. It’s 9 a.m. on the Friday before Labor Day, and she is in her makeshift Saranac Lake office, in the building her parents own adjacent to their popular Lakeview Deli. (“I was the girl who always smelled like pickles,” she says of her school days.) She’s jockeying between her laptop and cell phone, putting out one fire after another—most related to the two weddings she’s handling this holiday weekend. The Saturday wedding had already been booked for two years when an acquaintance begged her to take the Sunday event; against her better judgment, she agreed, a decision she is now beginning to regret.
Two of the trailers delivering rental equipment for the Sunday wedding, to be held at the groom’s parents’ home in Lake Placid, broke down somewhere near Plattsburgh. She’s also discovered the plate covers she ordered don’t fit the plates, so she is going to have to send her assistant to Albany to pick up new ones. And there is still a long to-do list for both weddings, for clients counting on her to make their events perfect. The pressure is intense. “I usually have one cry a season where I just feel overwhelmed,” Van Anden says. “This time it was yesterday.”
Fires extinguished—for now—she climbs into her SUV to start ticking errands off the list: Pick up lunch menus at the printer for guests of the Saturday wedding, who are staying at a resort on Lower Saranac Lake. Pick up a hand-pump for the keg at the beverage distributor for the rehearsal dinner tonight. Visit the resort to check that everything has been delivered as scheduled. Pick up table linens at the rental company.
Meanwhile, she is answering calls: from Saturday Bride, relaying the groom’s concern that the dance floor they chose is too small; from the rental company, whose drivers can’t find the Sunday site; and, a half-hour later, from Sunday Bride, who is complaining that the bathroom trailers don’t include a water tank, and that, instead of the four-seater golf carts they ordered, the rental company sent a small utility vehicle. In the background, Sunday Groom says, “That’s not going on my property!”
After a quick lunch at her family’s deli, where she is also the catering manager during the slower months, Van Anden loads up her car with bottles of ginger beer for a Moscow mule bar at the rehearsal dinner. Bouncing between the resort, two different hardware stores to find containers for the keg, and her office, she barely has time to stop for a restroom break.
The afternoon brings more fires. The videographer has arrived from Boston on an early-morning flight to Lake Clear, but his video equipment didn’t make the plane. He’s been promised it would arrive on a later flight, but so far the airline’s 800 number has proven unhelpful. He says he’s been up for 24 hours and needs to rest before the rehearsal dinner. Van Anden makes a phone call—she knows people who work at the airport—and arranges for the equipment to be delivered to the resort.
Annual cry session aside, Van Anden seems to thrive on the problem-solving and constant motion her job requires. Her favorite part, she says, is helping clients plan the special details that make their wedding a unique expression of their personalities, and matching their style to the right venue, photographer and other vendors. But on a day like today, she has to laugh at the disconnect between how her profession is portrayed in movies and television and the reality. “So many people say, Oh, you’re a wedding planner, that’s so fun,” she says. “And yes, it is. But basically I schlep shit and listen to people that are pissed off.”
The trick is maintaining her composure and a bright smile through it all. So when Saturday Bride, a fashionable Bostonian with a bohemian vibe, complains that the picnic tables for the rehearsal dinner are arranged in straight rows instead of artfully scattered, Van Anden cheerfully recruits a helper and re-arranges them herself.
The rehearsal is scheduled to begin on the resort’s beach at 4, but by 4:15 the officiant hasn’t arrived, so Van Anden gets started, working out with the wedding party how they are going to arrange the procession. The bride’s nephews practice their entrance, a dance routine to “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”
The officiant shows up in time for the second run-through, but now it’s nearly 5 and the person who is supposed to help set up the rehearsal dinner buffet is an hour late. Around the same time, Van Anden gets a call from Sunday Bride, who asks her to come supervise the installation of the tent from the rental company; the couple is still upset about the utility vehicle and the bathroom trailer and doesn’t trust them. “They knew I had another wedding,” she says after hanging up, the tension starting to draw her shoulders toward her neck. To make matters worse, the family has chewed out the customer service person at the rental company, who was supposed to help with the wedding Sunday and now wants to back out. Just as Van Anden decides to put an assistant in charge here while she goes to Lake Placid to smooth things over, Saturday Bride and Groom yell, “Katy! The kegs aren’t flowing!”
Dinner music has started playing over the sound system. As Van Anden takes a deep breath, then walks over to the kegs to diagnose the problem, Cat Stevens croons, “Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world.”
A few days later, Van Anden will call this weekend one of the most stressful of her career. In the end, though, she reports, “both weddings were beautiful and went off without a hitch.”
Job: Town of Webb Tourism Director
Hometown: Old Forge Age: 66
Roadkill disposal is not in Mike Farmer’s job description, but he is in charge of promoting Old Forge’s image, and dead animals in the middle of town are not consistent with his brand strategy. So when he arrives at the office one late-August morning to find that a Canada goose has met its end in front of the Old Forge Visitor Information Center, he wraps the feathered corpse in an old quilt and stashes it at the side of the building, planning to dispose of it later.
The rest of the morning is spent in his office, handling emails and phone calls and occasionally chiming in when one of the two women at the information desk is assisting a visitor—“Congratulations, you got past Old Forge, Pennsylvania!” he quips to a fellow from Missouri who’s looking for Old Forge Hardware. He frequently jumps up to look out the windows, remarking, “Oh! There’s our shuttle. I need to get a video of that today,” or, “Oh, there’s our Legion commander. I need to talk to him.”
Farmer was born and raised in Old Forge, but spent most of his adult life in Colorado, where he handled marketing for a ski school. Six years ago, when the Town of Webb was looking for a tourism director, his friend Miriam Kashiwa, founder of the Old Forge Arts Guild (which eventually grew into what is now View), told him, “This community gave you a lot. You should give something back,” he recalls. “She was right.”
In a place like Old Forge, where tourism is the bread-and-butter of the economy, Farmer’s job is intertwined with economic development. “We’re geographically blessed,” he says. “We’re the first major stop in the southwestern Adirondacks. From here to any place in the park is an easy day trip. That’s why our motto is ‘Adirondack Base Camp.’ People question why we send people away to Great Camp Sagamore or the Wild Center. But when people go there, they associate those places with Old Forge. When they go home, they remember they were in Old Forge. Why not put that on our buffet?”
Farmer breaks for lunch around 2:30, grabbing a slaw dog at the Dog House, then makes the rounds in town. “I like to do things face to face,” he says.
He stops at the Central Adirondack Partnership for the Twenty-First Century (CAP-21) office to chat with the new executive director, Robin Hill, about a regional economic development meeting she attended in Rome. The way the state divides regions competing for economic development money lumps the Town of Webb in with the Mohawk Valley. “We are geographically, culturally, et cetera, Adirondack,” Farmer says. “We have nothing in common with the Mohawk Valley. When we’re fighting for a grant for two- or three-thousand dollars, we don’t even register.”
Next he stops at Kurt Gardner’s photography gallery to ask for some Facebook marketing advice. Gardner, who works in the film production business, offers his photography and video services to the town for a cut rate, out of love for Old Forge.
After a stop at the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, in Thendara—one of the area’s marquee attractions, along with Enchanted Forest/Water Safari, View, the Strand Theater and McCauley Mountain—to drop off some brochures, he pulls over to place a GoPro camera on a stop sign, his way of analyzing traffic into town. “I used to drive around parking lots to see where license plates were from. Then I could decide where to put our money,” he says.
Returning to the office for a quick stop before a CAP-21 board meeting across the street, he checks in on the stowed goose, which he hasn’t had time to deal with.
All he can do is laugh, wondering whether whoever took it was after the quilt or the goose.
At the board meeting, where the group discusses their upcoming inflatable duck race fundraiser, Farmer tells the story of the purloined fowl. “The goose is gone,” he says, adding, “I don’t know if it’s cooked.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Adirondack Life. Subscribe now to receive eight issues per year.