January 18, 2013

Trio to receive Scouting heroism award


---- — PAUL SMITHS — On Sunday, two Boy Scouts and their longtime outdoor-guide mentor will receive the Honor Award with Crossed Palms.

It is the highest medal of honor given for heroism by the Boy Scouts of America. 

Ian McMullen of Lake Placid, Luke Eckert of Paul Smiths and their whitewater instructor and mentor, Jason Smith, 41, of Saranac Lake, are being commended for a high-risk rescue and attempted resuscitation on the Moose River about 15 months ago.

An experienced Adirondack guide with Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters in Saranac Lake, Jason had been guiding Ian and Luke on Scouting adventures with the Lake Placid Outing Club since their first flat-water paddling days some eight years earlier.

Ian, 21, is now a New York state outdoor guide, licensed for whitewater, hiking, camping and canoe trips. He is a student at Albany College of Pharmacy.

Luke, 18, attends North Country Community College where he is studying film and photography.


In a recent interview, Ian explained what happened on Oct. 16, 2011 as the three experienced paddlers guided a group along a waterway still swollen from Tropical Storm Irene rains.

“It wasn’t a very nice day at all,” Ian said. “It had been raining and kind of sleeting throughout the day.”

They had traveled to Moosefest, a kayaking festival on the Moose River, with the Lake Placid Outing Club.

“There were lots of people on the river. We go up every year — we had seven paddlers, including a couple of up-and-comers, so we were doing a section of river that was a little easier,” Ian said.

The group came upon a Class 3 section of rapids known as “Iron Bridge” and saw a tree fallen across part of the river.

“The tree went right across the standard (paddling) line for that part of the river,” Ian explained.

“It was actually a Class 4 rapid that day,” Luke added.

Outing Club leaders got their group out of the water to walk around the obstacle and observe how the river was moving around it.

Then the three leaders — Jason, Ian and Luke — got back into their kayaks and paddled the section, while the rest of the group opted to portage.


When the three reached the bottom of the rapid, they saw another group coming through in kayaks.

“One of them ended up flipping and couldn’t right himself,” Luke said.

“He ended up swimming. He had on a life jacket and a helmet, but he drifted down the river.”

Luke and Ian peeled out of the eddy to try to help the overturned kayaker, whose name was Jeff Burger. 

Twice, they were able to reach him, but Burger kept being drawn back into the fast-moving rapids.

“He ended up getting washed on top of a six- or seven-foot-high ledge,” Ian said.

Several inches of water were surging over the rock. 

“He had also managed to grab a hold of his kayak again. He was hanging on, trying not to get washed to the bottom. He had his boat and was stuck on the ledge — he was actually pinned to the top of the ledge by his boat, which was full of water,” Luke explained.

The two Eagle Scouts maneuvered around the ledge and tossed a throw bag to the trapped paddler. 

“We pulled Jeff in. We got him onto shore there, and he was all right. But his kayak let go and washed downriver,” Ian said.

“Then Jason and one of Jeff’s companions, Bill De Angelis, went after the kayak,” Ian said.

“Jason started downriver but saw the horizon line (an edge indicating a rapid drop) and pulled into an eddy. Bill went over the horizon line and into a really nasty hydraulic. Jason tried throwing him a rope, but the bag didn’t reach him,” Ian said.

Leaving their group safely on shore, Ian and Luke responded when Jason blew three shrill notes on a whistle for help.

They maneuvered carefully to avoid the raging river hole.

“We tried to throw a rope to the victim. Then we saw that he was probably unconscious and somebody had to swim into him,” Luke said.

Climbing across a tree, the two tied Jason to a rope so that the older whitewater guide could swim in and retrieve the victim.


The trio managed to pull the unconscious man out of the swift water, but found Bill De Angelis unresponsive.

“We couldn’t get a pulse,” Luke said.

Ian and Luke started cardiopulmonary resuscitation and kept up their work until emergency personnel arrived.

“It took 45 minutes for the ambulance to get there. That is one of the main things about being in wilderness,” Ian added.

“When you’re out there, you are really on your own. But from Scouting and from Jason, we learned a sense of resiliency. The textbook definition may not fit, so you adapt.”

Bill De Angelis, 62, did not survive the whitewater accident on the Moose River that day, but his paddling companion Jeff Burger did.

The accident report indicated De Angelis, who was from Mount Laurel, N.J., had broken two vertebrae in his neck.

“Our main contact since then has been with his friend Jeff,” Ian said.

“We had a barbecue and did a little paddling in Saranac Lake since. It was really cool.

“I think it kind of helped with closure.”

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