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In search for escapees, voracious bugs, poisonous plants and muddy woods

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CADYVILLE, N.Y. » These rolling woods, just miles from the New York state prison where two convicted killers escaped a week ago, can be brutally unforgiving to the unacquainted. It is easy to get disoriented, local residents say, and between the bugs and the wet weather, it might be the second worst time of year for anyone to try to seek refuge there. Winter, of course, would be far worse.

"I’m sure if they’re out in the elements, they’re not having a good time," said Dan Ladd, an outdoors columnist for a local newspaper, The Press-Republican, in Plattsburgh. "It can’t be fun."

For days, hundreds of searchers have been working around the clock, pushing deeper into an area of homes and dense woodlands, trying to find Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, who turns 35 on Sunday, after their escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. If the men have been stuck in this muddy thicket of pine and spruce since their escape, they have confronted inhospitable conditions that could make finding food, water and shelter a challenge but would also complicate the efforts to track them down.

"You’ve got to assume they’re cold, wet, tired and hungry," Maj. Charles E. Guess of the New York State Police said at a news conference Friday. Even experienced campers and hikers would be challenged by conditions in the woods, and there is no evidence that the two men had any extensive outdoor skills.

On Saturday, conditions in Dannemora and surrounding areas were actually idyllic: warm sun, clear skies and a gentle breeze. Searchers continued to focus on a 5-square-mile area east of the prison. Officials said more than 800 people were hunting Matt and Sweat.

Those who know the terrain have made jokes that, if the men are in these woods, they are surprised the pair have not turned themselves over to the authorities by now, beaten up by nature and begging for a break.

The rain has fallen regularly and hard. The woods are filled with skunks, porcupines and black bears. Then there are the bugs that swarm the forest this time of year: black flies, ticks and deer flies.

"It wouldn’t surprise me if when they get them, they’re going to be severely bug bitten," said Brandon Minogue, 25, an emergency medical technician from Plattsburgh who was waiting for calls at the firehouse in Cadyville.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if they come back sick," added a colleague, Emily Oczechowski, 27.

There are many threats from nature that the escapees would face, those who know the woods said.

They could catch Lyme disease from the ticks or they could drink contaminated water. There is poison ivy, poison sumac and hogweed, and days spent slushing through the rain and mud leaves them vulnerable as well. "The dangers at this point, if they are not in a cabin, are hypothermia, dehydration and exhaustion," said Shane Hobel, founder of the Mountain Scout Survival School in Beacon, New York.

Survival experts say sustenance is available: The woods are crowded with deer during these months, so they could kill one and eat the meat. Wild strawberries, or the inner bark of some trees, such as birch and white pine, can also be eaten. But there are still plenty of hardships. If they wanted to start a fire for warmth or cooking, they would have to be careful because the smoke could give away their location. They may not have the necessary tools to hunt. "And unless they know their edible plants, which I highly doubt these guys do, they’re in trouble," Hobel said.

The typically quiet and idyllic landscape near Cadyville, a small community southeast of Dannemora, has been interrupted by the helicopters hovering over the woods, fleets of four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles and officers lining major roadways and blocking streets.

But it is unclear what, if anything, has come of the search.

The conditions that would make existence difficult for the men trying to hide are hardly any easier for the law enforcement officers they are trying to evade. (More than one police officer with a drier assignment has quietly confessed that they do not envy their colleagues in the field.)

For one thing, Ladd said, the wet ground makes it harder for investigators to hear any footsteps. And in woods as thick as these, visibility is severely limited. "Someone could be hiding 6 feet away from you, and you couldn’t see them," said Harrison Hobbs, 60, one of the emergency medical technicians at the firehouse.

Oczechowski, a native of the area, added that investigators were venturing into rarely visited places. "This is probably the most it’s been walked ever," she said.

Many around here are stumped by the possibility that the men did not get any farther than a few miles from the prison. The authorities said there have been more than 700 leads, and searchers have looked in the nearby community of Willsboro. Officials have also raised the possibility that they might have fled to Vermont. But in recent days, the search has zeroed in on this area.

"They didn’t make it that far," Oczechowski said. "I’m just saying."

Danny Sullivan, 24, said the whole ordeal has reminded him of another escape: A while back, one of his family’s pigs got away and they had to search through the woods. "It’s thick, thick, thick," he said.

"The only reason we caught him was because of the mud," said Sullivan, who works for the apple orchard his family has run for more than 35 years. But, he added, "He got around a lot better than these inmates, if they’re still around here."

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