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Robbi Mecus, a 'superhero' of outdoors and LGBTQ communities in the Adirondacks, dies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

New York's outdoor community is grieving the loss of a state forest ranger who died while climbing in Alaska last week. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell reports that 52-year-old Robbi Mecus, a transgender ranger, worked hard to help everyone feel safe and welcome in the Adirondack Mountains.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Talk to anyone who worked with forest ranger Robbi Mecus, and they'll have an amazing story to share about how she found a frostbitten hiker this winter in the middle of a snowstorm, how she saved part of a town from a wildfire years ago, how she tied a harness to an injured hiker in just 90 seconds to get them hoisted out by helicopter before dark.

ROB PRACZKAJLO: Robbi Mecus had reached a point in her career after 25 years where she was in the top tier of a small handful of rangers.

RUSSELL: That's fellow forest ranger Rob Praczkajlo. He describes her as a rock star, one of the very best. But it wasn't always easy for Mecus. She was born in a boy's body, lived nearly all her life in that body. Praczkajlo breaks down when he remembers what it was like as Mecus struggled with her identity.

PRACZKAJLO: It was torture to watch her be tortured by it. And I gave her so much credit for having the strength to do what she felt she needed to do.

RUSSELL: I interviewed Mecus back in 2020. She knew she was trans from a really young age but didn't have any role models and worried she wouldn't be able to do the things she loved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBBI MECUS: There's many reasons why I didn't come out until I was 44. But one of them was because I didn't see anybody else doing the things that I still wanted to do, and I didn't think I could do them. I didn't see any queer rangers. I didn't see any trans climbers.

RUSSELL: Mecus had to blaze that trail herself. She had to come out to her family, including her young daughter, as well as fellow forest rangers, police and fire chiefs, volunteer search and rescuers - people like Ron Konowitz.

RON KONOWITZ: I really didn't understand it, to be honest. Like, I didn't understand why someone would want to go and transition like that.

RUSSELL: Konowitz says he understands now.

KONOWITZ: You know, the fact that she was able to open up so many people's minds to the idea of a trans woman being a ranger and being a law enforcement in the Adirondacks, which is pretty conservative - she gained so much respect from the hiking public and the climbing public.

PAIGE HUMPHREY: Robbi - for the queer community, for the trans community, she's a superhero.

RUSSELL: That's Paige Humphrey. She went to some events Mecus organized, like the annual Adirondack Queer Ice Climbing Fest (ph). Humphrey says Mecus became an important mentor in her life.

HUMPHREY: She made us feel like we could do anything 'cause we can. Queer people can do anything.

RUSSELL: And that is why Mecus put herself out there, says her good friend and fellow forest ranger Allison Rooney.

ALLISON ROONEY: She realized that the role models she was looking for in the climbing community and beyond didn't exist for her, and she wanted to be that beacon for other people who were struggling in the same way.

RUSSELL: Rooney says Mecus wouldn't want people to grieve her too much. She'd want everyone to get out into the woods, go for a climb, have a drink around a campfire - all the things she really loved to do.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT POND PA'S "SUNSET AT THE GAS PUMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell, NCPR
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