Updated: Mar 29
(EDITOR'S NOTE — 1120 Press is proud to present the following piece by writer Michael Virtanen — an excerpt from his forthcoming biography on Wayne Failing, a Utica native and mountaineer who went on to spend decades as an Adirondack whitewater, hunting and fishing guide and adventurer in the Caribbean, Central America and the Southwest. A veteran journalist who worked for newspapers in Utica, Albany and The Associated Press, Virtanen now resides in Pittsburgh. When he’s not writing, he enjoys spending time with his two young granddaughters who like to stick him in their treehouse “jail,” smear him with mud and feed him weeds. Mike’s piece — unflinching and raw — is the 16th installment of our VOICES series. We hope you enjoy.)
Wayne Failing's very first assignment at New York’s Higher Horizons program was to design and implement a five-day canoe/hike/one-night-solo outing for 12 juvenile
delinquents plucked from the cottages of the State School at Industry, south of Rochester. He would draw gear and food from the program’s quartermaster and work with a new intern from the reform school, who would serve as his assistant.
His main qualifications for the assignment were experience on three mountaineering expeditions and roaming the dark streets of Utica until 3 a.m. in his own youth, a resume that suggested he could handle this. None of the 12 who actually went were screened in advance, which was Higher Horizons’ usual practice.
It was 1978. Failing was 26 years old with a master plumber’s license. He worked several years with his father and had recently earned a bachelor’s degree in education from night classes at the State University of New York College of Technology, which had opened in a repurposed factory building in Utica.
He chose the Stillwater Reservoir near Big Moose in the Adirondacks for its destination, which had all the elements for the itinerary and was an area with which he was familiar. After that first week, Failing considered immediately quitting. As he recalled decades later, the signs were bad from the start.
“When I arrived at Industry to the first cottage I was surprised to see a large police presence and yellow crime-scene tape all around the cottage. They had a new intake the day before and they tried to rape him that night. He refused and put up a struggle. He was stabbed 23 times and buried in a shallow grave behind a cottage. The police informed me these guys weren’t going anywhere. And so the director of the facility said Cottage #2 would take their place on this trip.
“I met Billy, who was a nice kid and new intern, for the first time. He informed me that he grew up on a farm in a small town in western New York and hadn’t met many blacks, Hispanics or city kids in his life. He was as green as they come but good natured and game. He was comfortable in the woods anyway.
“We had eight Puerto Ricans, who all spoke Spanish and who turned out to be a house gang, and two black kids and two white kids. It’s a long drive, about four hours, from Industry to Stillwater Reservoir and they were getting bored. So they started testing us for sport, talking trash, making threats, acting out, trying to shake us up. Make us afraid. Billy wasn’t much help. We were outnumbered. And things were getting out of hand. The trash talk now was how they were going to come into our tent that night and make us their bitch. Fuck us and do what they wanted.
“I was driving and trying to think how I was going to get this situation back under control when two partridge flew across the road. I hit the gas and killed them both. Put the van in park and went out and picked up the birds and climbed back in the van. Standing up front, looking them in the eye, I bit the heads off both birds, tilted my head back and squirted their warm blood all over my face and body. Dripping blood everywhere, I asked, ‘Who wants to climb in my tent tonight and stick their dick in my mouth?’
“You could have heard a pin drop in that van all the way to the put-in. Billy was giving me a sideways glance as well.
“We loaded up and pushed off in the canoes. Stillwater Reservoir is a large body of water from a dammed-up Beaver River just north of Eagle Bay and Big Moose. Remote with many islands, big beaches and lots of driftwood for fires at every site. The canoeing and first couple nights in camp were uneventful. Billy and I were in our power element in the wilderness. For them it was unfamiliar and scary.
“On day three, we did a day hike to Trout Pond. Two of the kids, Miguel and Robert, asked if they could run ahead on the trail. Being a dead end on a well-marked trail I thought: What could go wrong? So I said okay and they ran ahead at a trot. I was thinking the more energy they expel the better.
“About a mile down the trail my deer hunter eyes caught a little movement in the woods to my left. I asked the group to rest on the trail. Billy and I moved up for a closer look. There the two were, naked, screwing each other in the ass. I said to Billy, ‘I want you to go down there and tell them Wayne said that’s against the rules.’ And off he went. I moseyed down behind him in case things went sideways. They were distracted but soon as he got close and started to speak, they pulled apart and jumped on some rocks and said they were rock climbing. Naked, of course. Knowing where we were, I told them as they got dressed I wouldn’t report this if it never happened again. They swore it wouldn’t and we finished our hike to Trout Lake and back.
“The last night we were doing a solo camping experience. Billy and I set them out on islands, or far away on shore, and brought all the canoes back to our base camp. And we took the life jackets so they wouldn’t swim to each other.
“I put Miguel and Robert on separate islands to keep them apart. We went to pick up Miguel first the next morning but he was gone. It wasn’t rocket science to go to Robert’s island next. And there they were in the tent together doing it again. Miguel had swum over last night without his life jacket. I had had enough and said I had no choice but to turn them in when I got back. Big mistake tipping my hand because a fight ensued. We put it down and they started packing up to leave. I walked a little ways away to gather my thoughts on what to do next and as I turned around I saw Billy sitting on a log by the shore with his head down in his cupped hands. Standing right behind him was Miguel with a large rock ready to come down and crush his skull.
“It seemed he was ready to kill us both and escape rather than face the consequences of his actions. I reacted with a sprint and hitting him with a full body block, knocking us both in the water and we wrestled like two gators doing a death roll. At some point, after swallowing some water, he gave up. I took my wet bandana from around my
neck and tied his hands behind his back.
“I still had 10 kids on solo and it was already mid-morning. The problem with Miguel was that he was a member of the Puerto Rican gang of eight. I couldn’t let him back with the group to hatch a plan in Spanish to do away with Billy and me, steal the van and make a getaway.
“Just then I spotted a passing motorboat and flagged it down for help. I told Billy to gather up all the other kids, load the gear in the canoes and paddle back to the put-in and the van. I would hitch a ride with this doctor, as he turned out to be, and his young son, back to the phone booth in Stillwater and have a staff member come out from Industry and pick up Miguel, never to reunite with the group.
“Billy set off and I jumped in the doctor’s boat with the tied-up Miguel for the six-mile ride up the reservoir. As we motored along, Miguel keeps talking trash to the doctor how he’s going to kill him and his son for helping. On and on. Suddenly the doctor shuts off the motor and stops the boat. He looks at Miguel and says that if he doesn’t stop talking he’s going to tie the anchor around his legs and toss him overboard. Miguel looks at me like I’m going to protect him and says, ‘Can he do that?’
“I replied, ‘He’s the captain and this is his ship. He can do anything he wants.’ Not surprising you could hear a pin drop in that boat all the way to the landing.
“When we landed, I tied Miguel to a tree and walked to the phone booth to call the administrative office at the state school at Industry for assistance in picking him up. Someone answers the phone and I hear crashing, glass breaking, boom, bang, and the voice at the other end says, ‘It’s a riot. No one’s coming. It’s every man for himself.’ Click. He hangs up.
“My new plan is to lie just to get them in the van without incident and back to reform school. Dump them and go home. So I went into the convenience store and bought a couple of cold Cokes and walk back to Miguel, still tied to the tree. And I said, ‘You know, what would you say if we both forgot about everything that happened on this trip and just chill and go home?’
“He agreed so I untied him, and we sat on the shore drinking our Cokes and saw the others coming down the lake. Loading up was uneventful as was the ride back. They were looking forward to a shower and a hot meal.
“I checked in with the administration and gave them a report, and on the way out saw Miguel walking by the road. As I drove by I yelled out the window, ‘I just busted you.’
And as Failing drove off, Miguel began to give chase, running as fast as he could and throwing rocks at the van as it pulled away.
— END —