JOHN HOLYOKE

Maine pilot’s death illuminates harsh reality of warden work

Posted March 30, 2011, at 1:05 p.m.
Last modified March 30, 2011, at 11:34 p.m.

When Daryl Gordon didn’t return to his Aroostook County home on Thursday night, his wife called to report the Maine Warden Service pilot missing. Shortly before 9 a.m. on Friday, Rita Gordon’s worst fears were realized: Her husband’s plane was found on Clear Lake, where it had crashed.

Daryl Gordon had died in the line of duty, the 15th Maine game warden to do so in the service’s 131-year history.

It had been 19 years since the last warden — William Hanrahan — had perished while doing a largely thankless job protecting the state’s natural resources. Many of the state’s 100-odd wardens had spent most of their careers without having a peer die at his or her post.

Gordon’s death illuminates the harsh reality of warden service work, at the same time illustrating why wardens are rightfully proud to wear their green field uniforms.

On Thursday evening, dozens of game wardens headed into the woods in northern Piscataquis and Aroostook counties. They surely feared the worst — that one of their colleagues needed help, or was beyond help — and an aggressive search was mounted.

Here’s the important part: That search was nothing new to those wardens. In fact, it was the same kind of search they’ve done countless times over the years. In those cases, a colleague wasn’t the subject of the search. Instead, it was somebody’s 5-year-old daughter who had wandered into the woods. Or somebody’s father, who hadn’t returned from snowmobiling or hunting. Or somebody’s mother, who suffered from dementia and had disappeared from her rural home.

Searches are a part of warden life. And when those searches took place — if you were lucky — Daryl Gordon or one of his two fellow warden pilots would circle, scanning the ground. They’d find something — a scrap of clothing, a person huddled against a tree. And they’d help direct wardens on the ground toward that person. More often than not, the result would be a tearful, happy reunion.

Thanks in part, many times, to Daryl Gordon.

The Maine Warden Service is a profession. But being a Maine game warden is not a mere job. Spend a bit of time around those men and women and you quickly learn that.

Instead, game wardens are members of an exclusive club. Their experiences, while widely divergent, are still largely shared. All of them have tried to outwit night hunters. All of them have chased poachers. Many of them have gotten their trucks stuck in distant mud holes and had to figure out how to extricate themselves.

All of them are Maine game wardens. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

And all of them have spent their careers knowing, if not focusing on, the reality: This job, this profession, this club, is dangerous.

In fact, it can kill you.

Fifteen wardens have died in the line of service since 1886, when Lyman Hill and Charles Niles were shot to death on the Machias River. Four others have drowned. Three, including Gordon, have died in aircraft accidents.

Wardens work odd hours, often spend much of their time by themselves, miles from civilization or paved roads, and perform tasks that many of us are not capable of. They also perform tasks that many of us would rather not.

Such as telling a father that his child, who paddled off in the family canoe without a life jacket, will never come home again. Such as leaving a sleeping wife and newborn child in the middle of the night so they can search for someone else’s wife and newborn child who are overdue. Such as sneaking up on armed poachers in the middle of the night and staring down the barrel of rifles in order to enforce the state’s fish and game laws.

Daryl Gordon’s life was celebrated on Wednesday during a private funeral at Augusta Civic Center.The media was not allowed to enter.

But Gordon’s legacy, the Maine Warden Service legacy, deserves mention here. This profession plays a key role that few of us fully understand. We often mistake a businesslike demeanor for arrogance. We sometimes forget that game wardens are law enforcement officers, not tour guides.

Relatively few people have worn the uniform of a Maine Game Warden over the past 130 years. The club is small. It is exclusive. And its members define the term “loyalty” differently than most of us.

On Friday, as Col. Joel Wilkinson fought back tears while briefing the press about the plane crash that had claimed Gordon, the chief warden explained the next steps that would be taken.

Gordon would be taken to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy, Wilkinson said.

His body would be escorted by two of his fellow wardens.

And wardens would remain at their post with the body until the funeral was held.

That’s loyalty. Maine Warden Service loyalty.

All of us could learn something from that.

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