Being a trooper requires dealing with a lot of tragedy.

Perhaps the hardest part of the job, for me, was telling family members that one of their loved ones had been killed and was never again coming home. Sometimes it was a little easier than others to deliver the news, but it was always difficult and left a lasting impression on me.

This story is about one of those incidents. When I patrolled the northern area of Piscataquis County, I lived in the small town of Greenville Junction. My home was next door to famous Dr. Pritham. Everyone in Greenville Junction knew each other and probably knew more than they should about everyone else’s business. But it was a tight-knit group that helped each other when needed.

Late one middle-of-the-winter cold afternoon, a neighbor came to tell me that her brother was overdue in returning from a night of snowmobiling and camaraderie at a friend’s camp. I gathered all the information I could so an investigation could be initiated. Once I got the location of the camp, I contacted Warden Charlie Davis, who patrolled the area. I advised him of the complaint, where the overdue person was last seen and where he was supposedly heading. Warden Davis immediately went looking for the overdue person.

I re-interviewed my neighbor to find out who she had contacted when looking for her brother. I also asked for names of friends and relatives, in case he went somewhere different and never bothered to tell anyone. As soon as I finished talking with her and before I had made any calls, Warden Davis radioed that he had found the snowmobile. He gave me his location and I met him there.

Warden Davis had searched the trail between the camp the man had left and the residence he was supposedly heading toward. The majority of the trail was on a plowed road. It was there that Warden Davis found a set of snowmobile tracks going up over a plowed snowbank.

We trudged up over the snowbank and found the snowmobile crashed into a tree. The sled was moderately damaged in the front end. There had been a dusting of snow overnight, but it didn’t cover any of the evidence. We could easily see the operator was at the very least stunned and confused after striking the tree. We could see where he landed in the snow. There was a fair amount of blood, indicating he was injured.

Looking over the scene, we determined the operator had gotten up and wandered around the sled for a short period of time. The crash site was only about 10 feet from the plowed road, but the operator did not know this as it would have been very dark and the snowbank was high.

Instead of walking back up over the snowbank to the roadway, the operator had wandered off in the opposite direction, deeper into the woods. I knew this meant serious trouble for the snowmobiler.

Warden Davis and I had only walked a couple of hundred yards into the woods when we came across an article of clothing. I knew immediately what that meant. The person was suffering from hypothermia.

I learned about hypothermia at the Maine State Police Academy. Hypothermia occurs when heat leaves a person’s body and s/he eventually freezes to death. One of the things I learned, and one that I had a hard time believing, was that people suffering from hypothermia actually feel hot and want to take off their clothes. I could not believe anyone would do this in such a horrible, scary situation.

But here I was on my first such case and it seemed to be coming true right in front of my eyes. As we followed the trail deeper into the woods, Warden Davis  and I came across another piece of clothing. Things looked dire.

After several hundred yards, we found the man. He was lying in the snow, his boots were off, and it appeared that he had been attempting to pull off his snowmobile suit when he died in the snow. He had frozen to death. It was such a sad sight to see. The man had died in a state of confusion after being injured in the snowmobile accident and not being able to find his way out of trouble.

A simple, minor accident had taken his life.

Then it dawned on me that I had to tell my neighbor and this man’s family what had happened to him. But first Warden Davis and I did a preliminary investigation, then we put him on a toboggan to take him out of the woods so he could be transported to a funeral home.

When all of that was taken care of, I notified the family. Some people are able to figure out when a police officer arrives if the news is good or bad. When I arrived at the residence without their brother, they knew the news was tragic.

This was one lesson that I learned very early in my career; never take the elements for granted. Treat them like they could hurt you, because they can. Dress appropriately, even if going out for a short while.

Just another day in the life.

Mark Nickerson is a retired Maine State Police Trooper. The 28-year veteran lives in Unity. The award-winning columnist may be reached at menick@uninet.net.