SARANAC LAKE - It could have ended much differently.
That's what one of the chaperones of a group of 15- and 16-year-olds from a Hudson Valley camp said Wednesday, one day after two dozen of the teenagers were tossed into the churning waters of Middle Saranac Lake when their canoes capsized during a powerful thunderstorm. The teens were able to get to shore and, although a few suffered minor injuries, most escaped the incident unscathed.
"All I can come back to is our kids: They have a lot of experience, and from my interviewing all of them, they all reacted calmly and appropriately, and they pulled together," Frank Salek, a chaperone whose son is one of the group's counselors, told the Enterprise Wednesday morning. "It certainly could have been worse."
The teens were part of a group of 60 on an annual camping trip to the Adirondacks from Vovcha Tropa, a children's camp in East Chatham owned by Plast, the Ukrainian equivalent of the Boy Scouts of America. Salek said most of the kids who attend the camp are from the Tri-State area: New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The first group of about 30 teenagers and somewhat older (19- to 25-year-old) counselors, including Salek's son, began their canoe trip on Monday, camping that night on Lower Saranac Lake. As they paddled to Middle Saranac on Tuesday, a second group of roughly 30 teens left on a separate canoe trip to Oseetah Lake.
As the skies grew dark Tuesday afternoon and the weather began to turn, Salek said he and another chaperone, who were staying at the Best Western Mountain Lake Inn in Saranac Lake, became concerned. They called the two groups by cell phone to see what was happening. By that point, the first wave of thunderstorms had already hit the group on Middle Saranac.
"They told us that as they were traveling to their second campsite, they were hit with severe weather and wind gusts, to the point where it had created big whitecaps on the lake," Salek said. "They said it was kind of like a cyclone or a twister-type situation where the water just churned them."
Roughly a dozen of the 15 boats, each of which carried two people and their camping gear, capsized, sending two dozen of the teens and much of their gear into the lake.
Salek said the lead counselors brought their canoe to shore and helped the rest of the campers get themselves, and whatever gear had come loose from their boats, on land. They assessed the group and decided to call 911.
"There were some injuries where we were concerned enough that we wanted them checked out at the hospital," Salek said. "Five went to the hospital: one with a banged arm, a banged leg, we had someone who hit their head on their canoe when it flipped."
State forest rangers and the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department were contacted. Ken McLaughlin and another Saranac Lake firefighter brought the department's rescue boat to the South Creek fishing access site off of state Route 3 and put it in the water.
"We had a tough time initially trying to get through because the water was so low," McLaughlin said. "We had to paddle, we had to pole and the motor was kicking up mud until we got towards the mouth of Middle Saranac.
"Then we went across (the lake). Of course it was storming at that time. It was nasty. We worked our way over to campsite 66. When we got there, everybody was out of the water. Some were calm and composed. Others were pretty excited."
A paramedic who came in on the boat evaluated the camper who had suffered a head injury. He was then put on a backboard and loaded onto the boat to return back to South Creek. Again, McLaughlin said, they had trouble getting the boat through the low water, but they eventually reached a waiting ambulance at the launch site. The teen was then transported to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake.
Meanwhile, a family that was camping on the lake used its pontoon boat to bring the other injured campers and the rest of the teens to a beach, where they were met by their chaperones, who had hiked to the beach. They all hiked the half-mile to a trailhead on Route 3, where the fire department had arranged for the group to be picked up by a Saranac Lake school district bus. The injured teens were taken to the hospital while the rest were brought to the Best Western, arriving at roughly 8 p.m.
Salek said all the injured campers were treated at the hospital Tuesday night and released.
The second group of campers, which had left that morning for Oseetah Lake, was able to safely get to shore before the worst of the storms hit, Salek said.
"They actually had set up camp and were prepared to hunker down, but the ranger went there and we decided it was better to just get everyone in," he said. "We had them ferried in and transported them here to the hotel."
Salek thanked the staff of the Best Western for drying their wet clothes and allowing the campers to stay in two of the hotel's rooms until a bus from their camp arrived to pick them up around 11 p.m.
"I can't stress how great a job all the rangers and the rescue folks did," he added. "Although I'm sure (the campers) were scared, when I spoke with my counselors and the individual kids, for the most part, they told me everybody held it together. But they will certainly have a story to tell for a long time to come."
McLaughlin agreed that the situation could have ended very differently.
"We've had canoes tip over there before, and we've actually had drownings because of that, so we were very fortunate," he said.