Sooner or later, most career game wardens place themselves in harm’s way in the line of duty. The same can be said for game warden pilots who often are called upon to assist, from the air, in coordinated ground searches for missing persons. More often than not the weather is nasty, and warden pilots find themselves up there under the “scud” in what flyers sometimes call “high pucker” conditions.
On December 4 Game Warden Pilot Dan Dufault found himself in exactly those kind of conditions. It was windy and snowing that morning when the parents of 11 year- old Dylan Butler and 3 year- old Madison Richardson reported the kids missing. The missing youngsters were eventually spotted by pilot Dufault from the air. Amid the swirling snow squall, the kids were seen floating down the Kennebec River five hours after they were reported missing.They were eventually rescued and hospitalized with hypothermia.
Dufault didn’t have to fly. Conditions were almost impossible with poor visibility and a low overcast. In cases like this, it is the warden pilot’s call. He knows the risks and nobody, including his bosses, ever second guesses a warden pilot’s decision to stay on the ground in weather that can kill the most skilled bush flyer. In all probablity, Dufault’s willingness to take the calculated risk and search for the kids, while flying his Cessna under the scud at treetop level, is the reason they are alive today. With falling temperatures, time was of the essence.
Without question, in the eyes of these kids and their parents, Dan Dufault is a very special guy. They will not soon forget him and his courage and airmanship. Dufault is one of a long line of Maine Game Warden Pilots who have served Maine citizens with courage, dedication and uncommon airmanship.
Two Game Warden Pilots died in the line of duty. In 1956, warden Pilot George Townsend was killed in a plane crash at Maranacook Lake. Later, in 1972 at the same lake, warden Pilot Dick Varney drowned when his helicopter crashed into the lake. Former Chief Warden Pilot Jack McPhee was killed last year when his personal Super Cub crashed up north.
Maine’s first Game Warden Pilot was Bill Turgeon. In 1937, Warden Turgeon flew an airplane belonging to the then Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Stobie. The airplane was a Gull-Wing Stinson. There have been about 20 game warden pilots during the nearly 70 years that the Maine Warden Service has had flying game wardens. The names that I have found are: Bill Turgeon, Bob Bacon, George Later, Gary Dumond, Malcom Maheu, Andy Stinson, Dick Varney, George Townsend, Eben Perry, Jack McPhee, Dana Toothaker, Gary Dumond, Jim Welsh, Alan Ryder, Roger Wolverton, Jason Bouchard, Charlie Later, Dan DuFault and Durwood Humphrey. There was a warden pilot nicknamed “Windy,” and there may be a few that I have missed.
During my stint at MDIF&W, I flew with a couple of warden pilots. Spending time with Dana Toothaker, who was Chief Warden Pilot for a number of years, I picked up stories. Toothaker chalked up 19,000 hours during his 26 years in the air with the Maine Warden Service. He also flew choppers in combat in Vietnam and Desert Storm. Toothaker, who is 64 today and operates a landscaping business in Phillips, winters with his wife in Punta Gorda, Florida where his fishes away the hours.
Toothaker: ” It was my first year as a warden pilot. While flying patrol in the Super Cub, I spotted dogs chasing deer not far from Benton. A state trooper I knew had a home nearby with a short field. In trying to land on the snow-crusted surface of his field on skiis, I misjudged the distance and hit a telephone pole damaging the plane badly.”
“Did the boss give you hell?” I queried.
‘Well, he came up to the accident scene. He looked at me funny. All he said was, ‘ A little small, Dana.’ “
One winter, Warden Pilot Malcom “Mac” Maheu, who was a bomber pilot in WWII, crashed his warden plane through the ice at a remote lake where there was a warden cabin. Maheu got himself out of the plane and the icy water and to the cabin. Shivering with hypothermia, he could find no wood or kindling in the cabin. The story has it that Maheu went back to his plane, got under the icy water and retrieved his ax from the cockpit so he could start a warming fire in the cabin. The pilot was eventually rescued. From that day on, the order come down from on high. No warden cabins will ever be left by any occupants without leaving a prepared fire in the stove ready to be lit.
As far as we know, nobody is keeping track of just how many lives have been saved over the years as a direct or indirect effort of Maine’s Game Warden Pilots. My guess is that the figure is substantial. Of course, modern airplanes are expensive to buy and expensive to keep in the air. When there are are budget shortfalls in Augusta, the number crunchers begin looking at possible cutbacks in warden airplanes and pilots.
Maybe this can’t be helped. But if you were the parent of a missing child, the wife of a lost hunter, or the son of an elderly person who walked off into the woods, there would be comfort in knowing that the Warden Service Rescue Unit is using every tool at its disposal- including Game Warden Pilots.
Like Warden Pilot Dan Dufault, and those skilled bush flyers before him, flying game wardens are a special breed.
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The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected].