Search and rescue missions are developing in the network of national parks

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Some rescues require helicopters to evacuate the injured from the hinterland, look like this SAR mission in 2011 at the El Malpais / NPS National Monument

Search and rescue missions are developing in the network of national parks

By Lori Sonken

When two New Yorkers sightseeing in Alaska left a nearby Talkeetna airfield Denali national park on a beautiful day in late May there was clear skies the perfect morning for their Cessna 182. They had no idea what was in store for them.

Despite the initial clear weather, several hours later they encountered turbulence and a downdraft crashed their plane into a plateau that overlooked the mountains just inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve near Mount Hawkins.

“It was death. We were dying, ”said Frederick Northup, the only passenger on the plane piloted by James Feola.

The plane ruptured and the impact dispersed their emergency equipment and supplies, leaving only an all-season mountaineering tent and a few granola bars accessible. The tent kept them from freezing – the temperature was in the 1930s – but it was the Garmin InReach satellite communication device next to Northup’s leg that likely saved their lives.

With the push of an SOS button, Northrup was able to call for help.

Number of escalating search and rescue missions

Across the country, search and rescue (SAR) missions to national parks are on the rise this year. From January to June, there were 1,470 incidents, slightly more than the 1,403 reported in the same months in 2018, said Cynthia Hernandez, spokesperson for the National Park Service in Washington, DC.

But the numbers are more striking in some individual parks, such as Acadia National Park in Maine, where SAR from the start of the year through mid-August increased 65% compared to the same period in 2019.

There are preventative measures visitors can take, including wearing appropriate gear – like the satellite communicator Anne, Northup’s wife, purchased for her trip – to reduce risk and maintain positive results.

“Everyone should have one. They’re not that expensive, ”Northup said. The price of the phones ranges from $ 350 to $ 600, in addition to the subscription fee.

Parks such as Yosemite may present more difficult situations for rescue missions / NPS file

Northup pressed the SOS button and sent a “rescue needed” text message through Garmin, one of several providers of satellite messaging devices. This sparked an appeal to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center, which in turn notified the NPS Alaska Regional Communications Center. Garmin also alerted the daughter of Northup in upstate New York that her father was in trouble.

“It was awful for us, and I imagine even worse for them. We haven’t slept. We just sat in the living room waiting and waiting, ”her daughter, Sara Northup-Lynch, said in an email.

Thirty-six hours later, after several unsuccessful attempts by various search and rescue teams battling low visibility, high winds and snowfall, a rescue team aboard a National Guard Pave Hawk helicopter Alaska Air Force rescued the men around 2 a.m. on Remembrance Day. , on May 31, two days after they found themselves stranded at the top of the mountain.

Luckily for Northup and his pilot Feola, there were already search and rescue teams in the area looking for 12 climbers stranded near Mount Bona. Once ripped off the mountain, the two were transported to a regional medical center in Anchorage, where Northrup was treated for a sprained foot.

The May plane crash at Wrangell-St. Elias is one of six SAR operations this year, including three killed, in the vast park and reserve the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Switzerland combined. This year’s SAR numbers are comparable to 2018, but there are about 30,000 fewer people visiting this year than three years ago, said Carrie Wittmer, public affairs officer for Wrangell-St. Elijah.

Individual fleets have seen their SARs increase

Other parks, including the Grand Canyon, are also seeing an increase in SAR operations despite a drop in the number of visits.

“Our number of SAR calls has increased by about 25% despite a drop in park attendance,” Meghan Smith, preventive search and rescue supervisor, said in an email. Grand Canyon Park visitation levels are lower, likely due to the fact that international travelers are not visiting the United States during the pandemic, she said.

Smith speculates that one of the reasons for the increase in SAR incidents is that people’s fitness levels have declined during the pandemic. Their daily routine no longer includes walking upstairs, through parking lots or in large office buildings, as they may have done before the pandemic. Plus, there are fewer commercial bus routes, so more visitors hike the trails instead of getting on a bus.

“We usually respond to emergencies related to heat, general fatigue (often due to poor physical shape), inability to complete their planned route (often due to physical fitness and poor planning). ), lack of supplies (due to poor planning) as well as orthopedic injuries and pre-existing health issues, ”she said in an email.

Although the number of visits is down this year at the Grand Canyon and Wrangell-St. Elias, overall recreational visits are increasing across most of the system, NPS spokesman Hernandez said.

In general, lifeguards are not charged for SAR operations on federal lands. However, if a park’s plane is unavailable and mutual aid is sought from another source, those rescued will likely be responsible for all costs, Smith said. Costs vary depending on the type of emergency, location, time of day, and available resources, but can run into the thousands of dollars.

Flash floods in Sion

A popular walk in Zion National Park the iconic slot canyon – The Narrows – winds through a gorge that narrows to 20 feet wide in places with walls sometimes reaching 2,000 feet high. Along the ground runs the Virgin River, a generally calm stream that can flood in a flash when thunderstorms bombard the park with a downpour.

Visitors have the option of hiking along the cobbled Riverside Walk which stretches a short distance into the canyon section, or travel further upstream through the Virgin River over uneven, slippery rocks.

“People don’t take The Narrows Walk seriously,” said Makalya Lamb Ramirez, a resident of Bellingham, Wash., Who has first-hand experience of the challenges of walking.

On July 23, she was crossing the Virgin River with her boyfriend and two cousins, all in their twenties. Suddenly a flash flood sent muddy water into the river.

“Where the water was up to the ankle, it suddenly became up to the thigh,” she said. And it was cold – probably in the 50s or 60s. Wearing hiking boots, Ramirez said she felt prepared, but others on the trail wore light shoes, such as Crocs or toed shoes. open that can be slippery on the river bed or even susceptible to being washed off your foot. Although frightened by the torrent, the hikers were not injured, although two were stranded on a rock in the river until the water calmed down.

(Zion maintains a Security at Virgin River Narrows web page with safety tips, including a link to the National Weather Service’s potential flash flood ratings. NPS recommends that visitors check out the online resources before attempting The Narrows Trail where hikers have died.)

Animal rescue

Not all SAR incidents involve people. Katrina Karr, founder of Yavapai Humane Trappers Animal and Rescue, spent three days in January trapping a lost husky named Sky on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Using a cell camera and food as bait, she retrieved the dog and returned it to its owner.

Karr said the research would not have been successful without the help of NPS. The rangers “contacted us for any sightings on their side. They also helped us set the trap on the edge,” she said. “They were absolutely amazing.”

After the dog was trapped, the rangers helped break out the trap with the dog inside.

“They wanted to save her as much as we did,” Karr said.

Prepare properly for your national park vacation so you don't need to be carried / NPS file

Prepare properly for your national park vacation so you don’t need to be carried / NPS file

Appropriate equipment, training and fitness reduce risk

Make sure you have the right equipment for your activity, such as a satellite phone, maps, appropriate clothing and footwear, and exercise training. For backcountry trips, NPS recommends leaving an itinerary with the park visitor center and a family member or friend. Other NPS recommendations for a safe visit include maintaining an appropriate distance from wildlife, training for treks, and carrying adequate food and water.


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