Many visitors to New York’s Adirondack Park will never come across a wilderness forest ranger. As of 2022, just 54 rangers covered the park’s 2.6 million acres, including its trails, fire towers, summits, and everything in between. One of the primary duties of rangers (and often a reason for encountering one) is to help unprepared, lost, and injured hikers. Such was the case of “Bob,” the hiker that author Larry Weill found huddled in the corner of a lean-to, wrapped in his tent and shivering after a June morning frost, while working in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness Area. The author had run into Bob a few days prior—carrying all the wrong stuff—and ended up warming, feeding, and escorting Bob out of the woods. Accounts like these make up Weill’s first book, Excuse Me, Sir… Your Socks Are on Fire, a humorous narrative for any outdoor enthusiast searching for a light-hearted read.

Book Review: Excuse Me, Sir... Your Socks are on Fire by Larry Weill

Weill’s Excuse Me, Sir… Your Socks Are on Fire: Life and Times of a Wilderness Park Ranger in the Adirondack Mountains provides readers with anecdotes from his three-year career working in the park from 1979-1981. While in West Canada Lakes, Weill became intimately familiar with this region of the Daks and maintained what we now call Leave No Trace principles: he packed out trash and extinguished coals left behind by “bible schoolers and backwoods boozers.” Weill even spent a fall season atop Pillsbury Mountain watching for fires.

Much of the Adirondacks is public land and there are generally people around, although you can hike for days without seeing someone. Yet despite the tiring weeks of patrolling remote areas, Weill’s book revolves largely around people (or lack thereof), what they do in the outdoors, and what they reveal about being a ranger. He also provides a look at the wide array of the people you meet in the park—from front country campers (as we read in A Hard Night at Whitehouse) to loners to fellow rangers—doing so with an abundance of humor, deep imagery, and interesting characterization.

One character we’re introduced to is Leighton Slack, the hermit of Perkins Clearing, a conservation area with some leased camps, whom Weill meets early in his time at the West Canadas. “Leighton’s interests were extensive and diverse. Sometimes he was all work, while other times he was more interested in play,” writes Weill. “In addition to dancing, Leighton would gladly take on competitors in a number of sporting events. The horseshoe pit that was laid out in front of his house invited me to make the mistake of challenging him to his own game.”

Then there’s John Remias, the then-resident caretaker at West Canada Lakes. The area Weill patrols is very remote and he often goes days without seeing another soul. This makes his visits with Remias at the caretaker cabin that much more special. In one scene, Weill reveals Remias was once stationed at Cedar Lakes, but that cabin was taken down by the state to comply with a policy of no four-walled structures standing in designated “wilderness” areas. In the coming years, the West Canada cabin would follow suit, and Remias remarks with sarcasm and wit: “‘You kidding me?’ he’d ask with a twinkle in his eye… ‘if you really want to get rid of all four-walled structures, I’d better leave now, ‘cause I’ve got a helluva lot of outhouses that I’d better take down between here and Piseco!’”

What becomes so enthralling about Excuse Me Sir… is the truth in it all. Like many memoirs, the author reveals enough about himself to create a connection with the reader on some level. We do not just read about the day-to-day of a ranger; we learn about growing into adulthood and a new career, how not to judge people and what stereotyping does, and how to be present and practice mindfulness.

Although the stories told are from a time before new lean-tos and dams collapsed—it was published in 2006, before many updated policies in the park—Weill’s words read just as present as last week’s hike. If you’re familiar with the area, the book’s pages will draw you back to beaver activity, bugs, and campfires. This book is by no means a guide to backpacking, but lessons can be learned if you haven’t been to the park or backpacking before. Remember to pack out what you pack in, be prepared, and, unlike Bob, leave your sack of flour, jug of oil, and five-pound cutting board at home—the trout in West Canada Lakes are more delicious with a light pack.

Editors’ Note: Weill has three other memoirs following Excuse Me Sir… all following the same wilderness ranger narrative and delivering the same fun reading. If you’re looking for a more serious read, check out Andrea Lankford’s (another former park ranger) Trail of the Lost, which explores the disappearance of hikers from the Pacific Crest Trail.