In October of 1963, Katahdin hikers Helen Mower, 50, and Margaret Ivusic were working their way back down the mountain along the Knife Edge Trail. Although the two women were experienced hikers, Ivusic decided, over her partner’s protestations, to leave the marked trail and bush whack directly down the headwall to Chimney Pond. That fateful decision would lead to Ivusic’s death.
Mower made it down to Chimney Pond and alerted Park Ranger Ralph Heath that she had had voice contact with her hiking partner. Ivusic was stranded on the headwall. She could not go up or down.
Heath was able to make voice contact, and urged Ivusic to stay put, and that help would be coming. It was 8:30 p.m. and the wind was picking up. Heath wisely elected to wait until first light to launch an attempted rescue. The ranger’s supervisor advised Heath not to try a solo rescue, to wait until first light and additional manpower.
With increasing winds and bad weather impending, Heath changed his mind and decided to attempt a night rescue. At 11 p.m. Heath ascended the ridge alone by the Dudley Trail. He could not reach Ivusic without more rope and helpers, though he now knew exactly where Ivusic was on the headwall. It was snowing when Heath returned to Chimney Pond. At 6:10 a.m., Heath elected to climb straight up the headwall above Chimney Pond. He told Mower that he would attempt to reach Ivusic to stabilize and console her until additional help arrived.
Mower was the last person to see Ranger Heath alive. By the time additional help arrived, Chimney Pond was enveloped in a full-blown Nor’easter with snow accumulation building. Shortly, zero visibility and fierce winds dashed any hope of a rescue operation. After a few days, winter had set in on the mountain and a rescue was deemed futile.
Six months later, in early spring, the frozen bodies of both Ranger Heath and Margaret Ivusic were located and recovered from the mountain. The evidence suggested that Heath had tried to rescue Ivusic with a rope tied to her but that the rope had been cut on a rock or broken. The Ranger’s body was found 400 feet above Ivusic’s. His hat and gloves were nearby. He was wearing only light clothing. A later autopsy showed that he had apparently gone to sleep and died from exposure.
Heath’s tombstone in his hometown of Sherman Mills reads: “Ralph Heath, Ranger. He gave his life to save that of another.”
Indeed! A clear act of selfless heroism on the part of Ranger Heath. Former Baxter State Park ranger and supervisor Buzz Caverly saw to it over the years that a group of Baxter personnel, including rangers active and retired, would gather every spring at the Sherman Mills cemetery to honor and remember one of their own.
According to Caverly, there is a plan afoot by the current park director to discontinue the attendance of park personnel at the spring ceremony in Sherman Mills. Caverly, to his credit, has petitioned the Baxter State Park Authority to impose some permanence on the spring ceremony honoring Ranger Heath in Sherman Mills.
How soon we forget! Ranger Heath, who also served in World War II and Korea, gave his ultimate to try to save another, and he did it when he did not have to.
The Baxter State Park Authority must do the right thing, just as Governor Baxter would have wanted it to do.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected].