Distraction Free Reading

Tracking the Wilderness: Secur(itiz)ing nature in a New York manhunt

Thatcher Hogan was standing on his dock on Lake Titus on Friday, June 26, when Steve, a family friend and carpenter who had worked on Hogan’s house, stopped by. Steve, accompanied by his brother Darren, an off-duty corrections officer, had taken a borrowed boat down to the end of the lake. Armed with two rifles, they were hunting for Richard Matt and David Sweat, the two convicts who had recently broken out of nearby Dannemora Prison. Subjects of a massive manhunt for the past three weeks, they had been making their way through the Adirondack woods, leaving occasional evidence—DNA on a peanut butter jar here, a pair of underwear there—of their apparently convoluted path from Dannemora to Lake Titus, outside of Malone, NY.

Steve and Darren were headed down the lake to hunt the prisoners. The border patrol had claimed they checked every cabin, boathouse, and shed on the lake for the presence of the escapees, but Steve had determined that they missed the camps on the far end of the lake. Unconnected to any road, they were only accessible by boat or by foot. These camps were perfect potential hideouts for someone on the run, and therefore also a prime place for two men with knowledge of the area and skill with firearms to hunt for two convicts with a $150,000 bounty on their head.

A few miles outside of Adirondack State Park, Lake Titus is a popular vacation spot, ringed by small, mostly seasonal cabins, or camps in the idiom of the Adirondacks. For the past decade, I’ve been visiting Lake Titus and hiking in the surrounding woods. I’ve developed a sense of the area as one of quiet, isolated from technology and the kinds of security issues that I focus on in my anthropological research and writing. I’ve spent summers writing there, crowing to friends about how peaceful is: “Oh, we’re in the woods, away from everything. No internet, no technology, it’s the perfect spot for writing.” However, as the prison break and ensuing manhunt reveal, the wilderness of the woods and the lake have become a new site of monitoring and securitization, with both the state and residents engaging in projects to surveil the woods.

A view across Lake Titus towards Elephant's Head mountain, the scene of intense searching for David Sweat.

Image: A view across Lake Titus towards Elephant’s Head mountain, the scene of intense searching for David Sweat. Credit: Thatcher Hogan

My sense of the area as remote from the anthropology of security was a product of my admittedly willful disregard of the way the local economy is deeply tied to the prison system, which provides much of the employment in the area. As a vacationer, I had driven past signs for the Bare Hill Correctional Facility, Camp Gabriels and Moriah Shock prisons on my way to and from Lake Titus. While hiking in the Adirondacks, I occasionally passed prisoners working on trail maintenance. But I was privileged enough that these did not intrude more deeply on my consciousness, and I continued to see the Adirondacks as primarily a wilderness and vacation area. While many of the visitors are vacationers, others make long treks from across the state to see family members or friends in prison. Relationships between guards and prisoners are also complex, and in the case of Joyce ‘Tillie’ Mitchell clearly exceeded those hoped for or imagined by the state.[1]

In an area with so many prisons, not all of them high security facilities like Dannemora, it’s not unheard of for prisoners to escape, taking off into the woods. I’ve had to stop at police roadblocks many times, popping my trunk to allow them to check for a stowaway.

Steve and Darren’s search was unsuccessful. A day after their journey down the lake, the police shot Matt after he tried to carjack a camper van on the highway by Lake Titus. They then developed a containment strategy for Sweat, who remained at large, constructing a perimeter around part of Lake Titus, gridding out the area inside it and systematically searching for him.

The hunt for Matt and Sweat made me reexamine my clearly naïve perception of the woods around Lake Titus as a haven from the social and technological world, and made visible elements of a security and surveillance apparatus that had long been present. It also produces new ways of coordinating modes of securing the woods, harnessing both government and civilian action. As I monitored the search, on Twitter (producing a heated family debate over whether #prisonbreakny or #nyprisonbreak was a superior hashtag), in the news, and through conversations, my perception of the woods transformed, my imagined wilderness replaced with a forest bristling with trail cameras, armed border patrol, police officers, and civilians, trained dogs, and seismic sensors sensitive enough to pick up human footsteps.

Reading Etienne Benson’s The Wired Wilderness (2010) on the dock at Lake Titus last summer, I reflected on his articulation of how debates over radiotracking were often debates over what wilderness should be. He analyzes complaints by Park Service officials that marking and radiotagging grizzlies was demystifying and taming the wilderness. By tracking and monitoring animals, we are turning parks into outdoor laboratories and destroying their wildness.

Call it a failure of inter- or cross-species empathy or imagination, but it wasn’t until the search for Matt and Sweat that I considered how the wilderness is wired not only to monitor non-human animals, but how these instruments can be deployed to monitor the movements of people. Trail cameras tracked the way people moved through the woods, and police divided the area into quadrants to search in a manner very similar to the way the ecologists I observed in my fieldwork divide fields to trap and monitor mouse movements. As law enforcement professionals and civilians alike searched the Adirondack woods for the escaped convicts, the wilderness emerges as a surprisingly wired and securitized space.

Notes and references

[1] Mitchell has been accused of having an affair with one or both of the prisoners, smuggling them hacksaw blades and other tools hidden in frozen hamburger meat, and colluding with them in a plan to kill her husband.

Benson, Etienne (2010) Wired Wilderness: Technologies of Tracking and the Making of Modern Wildlife. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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