July 2, 2012

On June 24, we conducted a rescue operation in the Park.
  We use the term “Search and Rescue” or the acronym “SAR” to discuss these incidents.  The term “Search and Rescue” clearly defines two separate and quite different actions - in reality, at Baxter Park we are fortunate to conduct mostly rescues and only occasionally, a search.  The great majority of our “rescues” are most accurately described as "assists".  We help a hiker who has sustained an injury, suffers from an illness or is beset by some other difficulty, back (and usually down) to the trailhead.  In these hiker assists, we may provide some medical treatment in the form of taping, support or other help, and we almost always provide psychological assistance in the form of encouragement, understanding, information, a watchful eye and a listening ear.  The key factor is whether or not the hiker is "stable" and able and willing to hike out under their own power, albeit sometimes very, very slowly. 

The June 24th rescue was one of the small percentage of Baxter Park rescues that involve a hiker who is unable to walk under their own power.  Hikers who find themselves in this situation often expect that a helicopter will be dispatched to pluck them from their distress and deliver them to the nearest hospital.  The Maine Army National Guard and the Maine Forest Service have done just that in the Park many times over the years, but helicopter evacuations remain a very small percentage of the total evacuations conducted in the Park.  There are several obvious reasons for the infrequency of helicopter rescues – helicopters are complex machines requiring continuous maintenance and a skilled pilot and crew, and the lack of either of these prevents a helicopter from taking off.  The weather in the Park, which is often a contributing factor in an injury or condition requiring hiker evacuation, can prevent the safe operation of aircraft in the Park.  Lastly, while they are a great tool for reaching remote locations to evacuate an injured or ill hiker, flying a helicopter involves a significant amount of risk to the pilots, crew and in the event of a crash, any ground personnel in the crash area.  For this reason, the risk to the injured or ill hiker and to the rescuers involved in a litter evacuation must be great enough to justify the risk applied to the helicopter pilot and crew.  There is no metric available to calculate this risk comparison, it is a judgment call made by the incident command structure in place at the time of the rescue.  In general, the use of a helicopter should be considered if the injured or ill hiker is judged to be at risk to lose life, limb or sight. Otherwise, it’s time to set up the tent and make sure the hiker is comfortable, fed and hydrated and has time to recover.  Sometimes a night of rest is all that's needed to complete an assisted evacuation the following day.  If rest and food don't or won't suffice, it's time to get out the litter.

That brings us to June 24.  The structural statistics of a litter carry in mountainous terrain often surprises people.  Simply put, rescues are hard work and can often take a lot of people a long time to accomplish.  The June 24th rescue started with a knock on Katahdin Stream Campground Ranger Betsy Dawkins cabin door at 1:30 am.  Making the necessary contacts to begin the rescue process, gathering gear and hiking to the hiker, conducting an assessment of the hikers condition (all in horrible weather) and assembling the necessary support personnel on site took about 11 hours.  By noon, approximately 40 people were at or on their way to, the hiker.  This group included volunteers from various SAR groups throughout Maine who traveled to the site to assist.  These dedicated volunteers work on their own time, use their own vehicles and often bring their own gear to the rescue.  They often include individuals with the experience and technical rope skills necessary to move a litter with a 200 pound patient down a steep and rocky trail.  The importance of their assistance in these efforts can not be overstated.  On the 24th, the evacuation group included volunteers from Lincoln, Mount Desert Island, Mahoosuc and Wilderness Search and Rescue teams.  The evacuation group also included personnel from Baxter State Park, Maine Forest Service, the Maine Warden Service and several individuals who were camping at Katahdin Stream and offered to help.  All of these various groups and individuals worked under the supervision of the BSP Rangers who were directing the field evacuation effort.  In this case, Ranger Isaac Needell ran the show. 
Beginning around noon, this group of 40 people spent the next 11 hours moving the patient down the trail toward Katahdin Stream Campground. While the litter is being transported, the patient’s condition is carefully monitored and safety concerns of both the patient and the rescue team are considered.  At Park Headquarters, other staff work to coordinate any additional support including more personnel, food, medical and shelter supplies, contact with the patient’s family or significant others and medical provider and eventual transportation to the appropriate medical facility.

It’s not hard to see that litter evacuations are a big deal.  A rough estimate of the value of personnel time in the June 24th rescue is over $15,000.  We recently purchased two new state-of-the-art titanium litters at a bargain price of about $2,000 each.  On the positive side, somewhere around 20,000 people start out from a Katahdin-access trailhead each year.  The overwhelming majority of our hikers make good decisions, are well prepared and complete their hike safely.  Charlie Jacobi, Recreation Specialist for Acadia National Park once remarked about mountain hiking,  “Going up is voluntary, coming down is mandatory.”  For that small percentage that don’t know their limits, or aren’t prepared for the weather and difficulty of Katahdin, we will need to continue to be prepared to assist them complete the mandatory portion of their hike.  We are fortunate to have such a strong and dedicated staff and such skilled and capable support.  Another reason why we love Maine and Baxter State Park!
Maine Army National Guard Medivac Helicopeter at Russell Pond