Search and rescue missions are spiking in Shenandoah National Park as it experiences one of the busiest times of its season.
Deputy Chief Ranger Bridget Bohnet attributes one reason for the increase of missing visitors to cell phones.
“Our trails are very well marked,” Bohnet said. “A lot of what we’re finding is that people are not paying attention to that. They’re not getting maps from our contact stations or online.”
“Instead, they’re relying on navigation systems on their phones. We don’t have very good coverage up here. On our entire east side there’s very limited coverage. A lot of people come without maps or orientation equipment… People have become so reliant on their phones that they’re not paying attention to it.”
Bohnert said the “selfies” trend is further complicating matters as America’s national parks offer virtually endless photo opportunities.
“I think people are trying to get those selfies and they’re not paying attention to rules and regulations,” Bohnet explained. “Don’t leave the trail, don’t go climbing near waterfalls. Just the other day we had somebody climbing on the rocks and slipped and fell and landed on his face… We get injuries from people playing on the rocks… We’re getting that over and over.”
She said the park has had two major searches this season as well as falls where they have been required to evacuate people.
Bohnet also noted that many of the calls received by her office are from concerned friends or relatives of hikers who interpret unreturned phone calls as causes for alarm. She said that what happens is that hikers will go on a hike that ends up taking longer than expected and when they aren’t back by a certain time, their relatives and friends will report them as missing.
While these regular, non-emergency reports may be somewhat frustrating to those tasked with search and rescues, Bohnet said calling is the right thing to do.
She said that too often the subjects of search and rescue missions do not make their plans or routes known to family and friends, and therefore do not have the luxury of being reported overdue.
These overdue hikers are often the result of lack of uniformity when it comes to pace, Bohnet said.
“Not everybody hikes at the same speed,” she said. “There will either be people ahead or behind and they don’t have a plan. Where are we going to meet? When are we going to meet? Don’t let the kids run ahead of you. Keep the group together. Stay on the trails.”
Preparation, said Bohnet, is the remedy for many instances she sees on a daily basis.
“We tell people to prepare for the type of hike you’re going to be doing,” she said. “If you’re doing Old Rag, you want to make sure you have adequate footwear. Be prepared… Stay together.”
Bohnet and all park personnel’s goal is to prevent the “very taxing and labor intensive” process of executing a search and rescue.
“Let’s say we get a call for a possible injured hiker on Old Rag (the park’s most popular hike),” she said. “We try to get as much info from the reporting party as we can. Then we’ll send whoever is available in that area to hook up with the patient or the reporting party. Once we have a better idea of what we have we’ll assemble a team.”
She said that would include a litter team with enough members to carry a person off the trail.
“We use a wheeled litter for that,” she said. “If it’s a lost person, we try to do containment. We put containment at those trail junctions and we’re usually successful.”
Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org