June 27, 2013

What Happens When Hikers Don't Come Down?

I recently received an email from Christopher O'Neil.

 Chris is a long-time and very experienced BSP hiker and camper, as you will see below.  His email captures some of the culture of the Park and it raises some serious issues as well.  With Chris' generous permission, I've included it below, along with some comments from me at the end.
"Hi Jensen - 
One of the many things I love about the Park is its history, especially Governor Baxter's story. Having a lot of experience in the Park, I enjoy humbly conveying Park info to folks I encounter when I'm out there. I like the ambassadorish aspect of such conversations, and I feel gratified that every time I give someone a new reason to appreciate this treasure that I'm doing my tiny part to enrich and perpetuate the BSP legacy. 

This weekend was the latest chapter. Hope you have a Monday morning minute to read about this little encounter: 

Saturday at 6:05 am my friend's Subaru hit a wicked chuck hole on a paved section of Golden Road just west of Abol Bridge. We were on our way to a parking space at Roaring Brook for a Katahdin hike.   Both driver-side tires blew.  Thanks to quick action and plenty of North Woods hospitality we were able to hitch with our two pooched tires (rims were ok) to "That Guy's Tire" in Millinocket. They mounted two new tires in minutes and we were at the gatehouse by 11:30.  We parked at Kidney Pond and hiked Sentinel for the first time. Very pleasant. 

We stopped for a hitchhiker just south of Kidney. He had his fly rod and fishing gear in hand, bound for his site at Katahdin Stream Campground.  The guy was named Copperhead, from Chicago.

"Thanks for picking me up.  Where I come from nobody hitch hikes." 

"It's Baxter karma, my friend. We all do it."

 He replied that a little karma was in order, since his BSP visit had been a disaster so far. Canoes but no paddles at Kidney, so no fishing.  "That's nothing though. Wednesday I almost died. Have you ever climbed Katahdin?"

"Dozens of times."

"What are you, crazy?"

His Wednesday hike up the Hunt Trail began at 9am and didn't end until 11 am Thursday. He didn't summit until 6:30 pm and didn't descend to tree line before dark.  He had lost his wallet among the boulders. A Thursday morning hiker woke him as he snoozed between two boulders in his bivvy sack. The stranger "saved (his) life" when he shared electrolytes, salt, and water.  Every ascending hiker he encountered as he hobbled down the Hunt asked if he might be the Copperhead that the rangers were looking for. 
The stranger Thursday afternoon returned the lost wallet to Copperhead.  
Copperhead explained to us that he arrived in Maine intending to hike the AT, but he didn't realize how hard it would be. "We don't have any hills like this in Chicago!"  His feet were mangled and bloody. We suggested that the flies might kill him before he reaches Hurd Brook, so maybe spend the next nine months training and try again next year in Georgia!  

Funny story, but not so funny.  I mean really, man? 

I see in blogs and a frequently hear from people who complain that BSP staff are mean, rude, rigid, etc.  I try to defend the necessity for rules and the enforcement of them…like telling people where we're going and letting them know we made it.  I'm guessing that every day a few hikers forget to sign out at the trailhead, and if they're campers who don't return a day use pass or if they caught a ride to the Big Moose for a beer, you guys have no idea their whereabouts. 

A couple of years ago my annual Katahdin solo was a long one -- about 12 hours. I hiked from Roaring Brook to Russell Pond, explored about New City for a while, then summited via NW Basin Trail, scampering off the Summit via Saddle. (I had intended to descend via Dudley, but just as I reached the peak to touch the sign a wicked thunder storm was barreling in over the Brothers.)  At Russell I encountered a ranger working on a bog bridge and we chatted for a bit. He asked me where I was headed and when I told him he looked at his watch with a sudden look of concern. There had recently been a hurricane and he warned me that there was a lot of fording ahead. I assured him I was fine, but he asked and wrote down my name. I took no offense, and indeed thanked him. Later at Chimney and RB I made sure to let rangers know that I was safely off... and they might let the nice guy at Russell know too!  

I'm certain you can't be sending search parties out every night for people like Copperhead and others who simply neglect to sign out. What's the protocol, just so this "ambassador" can answer the question if ever asked?"

Chris' last question is a great one.  Last year, more than 34,000 people signed out on a trailhead register for one of the four roadside trailheads accessing Katahdin (Abol, Hunt, Chimney Pond and Helon Taylor).  This number has been pretty steady for at least 25 years.  That's a lot of hikers headed mostly for the same place (Baxter Peak), which happens to be the focal point of a large wilderness that Percival Baxter asked us primarily to protect and secondarily to use for recreation. 
This balance between recreational use and wilderness protection can be a difficult one to strike - particularly when the our Trust directive is clear that when the balance is most difficult, wilderness protection should be the primary consideration.
To sort this out, we have developed policies and yes, rules, that provide direction to Rangers and hikers alike.  The primary objective underlying most of the Park rules is to provide future generations the same pristine and spectacular experience in the Maine's largest wilderness as we do today. 
We hope also to help hikers have a safe experience.  In a wilderness setting your safety is your personal responsibility, but we do our best to help you with this.  Chris provided a perfect example of how this works.  Our rangers - in this case the ranger at Russell Pond - provide information, advice and recommendation on current conditions and anticipated hazards.  We also provide information at campgrounds, gatehouses, Park Headquarters and our website.  The decision on how to apply this information rests with the hiker. 
Most people, like Chris, make an honest evaluation of their skills and knowledge and proceed accordingly.  Some hikers overestimate their ability or experience and others, like Copperhead, don't try and get any information about the Park at all before entering the wilderness.  They aren't prepared, don't set a turn-around time and put themselves in unsafe situations.
These folks are often the ones we encounter in our search and rescue work.
To answer Chris' question, when hikers don't return from a summer hike, and we haven't received any information from other hikers on the trail or our own staff patrols about a hiker in distress, then we generally do what we can to confirm the presence of the hiker in the Park (sometimes people leave without signing out) by locating a vehicle or other information.  Then we wait until the next morning.  Our most common rescue assistance is to help "benighted" hikers who neglected to bring a headlamp or flashlight and misjudged how long a Katahdin hike would take them.  Night time in Baxter Park, especially on a cloudy, moonless night, can be very, very dark.  Walking becomes impossible and people are compelled to find a comfortable spot and wait for daylight. These folks, along with those who must stop to rest, usually find their way out the following morning. 
If we still can't locate the hiker by mid day, then our efforts become more serious and we set rangers out on likely trails to look for the hiker.  Colder weather or extreme conditions can change this protocol and impel Park staff to begin a search earlier.
Park rules prohibit camping along the trail or on the Tableland.  It's pretty easy to understand the reasoning behind this rule.  If only a small percentage of those 34,000 people heading up the Katahdin each year camped along the trail or on the Tableland at a spot of their choosing, I can guarantee the mountain hiking experience for our children and grandchildren would not be as good as the one we have enjoyed. If you stay out all night on Katahdin with camping gear, then we treat that differently and the summons book may come out.  In Copperhead's case, we concluded his overnight was a result of poor planning and preparation.  Our concern then shifts to his next move which is into the Hundred Mile Wilderness.  Unprepared southbound AT hikers have prompted a growing concern amoung our staff.  We provided all the information and recommendations we can.  I'm not sure if Copperhead decided to apply that advice or not, but he's out there somewhere.  Hiking strong, I hope!