Jump to content

Newbies in the Outdoors & Tech rescue debate


Recommended Posts

BWCAW rescues renew debate over SOS technology and wilderness travel

As emergency communication technology improves, clearly saving lives, some worry that it's also encouraging risky behavior by unprepared people.
Written By: John Myers | Oct 23rd 2020 - 4pm.
 
John Myers
John Myers
 

The type of satellite SOS devices that may have saved two different Boundary Waters solo campers' lives over the last week are becoming smaller, more reliable and less expensive — and are being more widely used.

Whether that’s always a good thing or not depends on who you talk to.

While wilderness experts caution against carrying the devices as an excuse to take unnecessary risks, like paddling alone into a snowstorm even as lakes are icing over, the devices are becoming a more widely accepted accessory in wilderness travel.

As the News Tribune reported Monday, on Oct. 17 a 34-year-old Elkhart, Indiana man used a Garmin SOS device to summon help after becoming soaked and cold while camping on Nina-Moose Lake off of the Echo Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Ely outfitter that rented the first-time BWCAW camper a canoe also talked him into taking the SOS device, for a $10 daily fee, considering bad weather was approaching and that cell phone coverage in the wilderness can be spotty or non-existent.

 

The man had little food and inappropriate gear for the trip, and his rescuers — including the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Rescue Squad and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Sean Williams — said he was hypothermic and may not have survived much longer without help.

“It was as dark as I’ve ever seen it out there,” Williams said. “You couldn’t see anything. It was snowing heavily, fog was moving in and there was ice on the lake. We had to break through ice to get to the middle of the lake, and when we made it to the middle it was so dark we had to use a GPS to find the shore and his campsite.”

When rescuers arrived at his campsite, a St. Louis County Rescue Squad member applied heat pads to the man’s core to begin warming him. Rescuers got him into warmer gear and built a fire, which he sat near for about 90 minutes while wrapped in a wool blanket. When the man was sufficiently warm, Williams noted, rescue personnel loaded him into the boat and headed back to their entry point. Other members of the rescue squad met them at the final portage and helped get the man out of the wilderness and to medical attention.

The man’s decision to accept the outfitter’s suggestion and rent emergency communications equipment likely saved his life, Williams said in a statement released by the DNR.

“Had we not gotten there when we did, I don’t know that he would have made it through the night,” Williams said. “Luckily, he had the communications equipment and wasn’t afraid to use it once he knew he was in trouble.”

 
 

Nearly the same thing happened again on Tuesday when a different solo camper was overwhelmed by wet and cold conditions and used the same kind of Garmin SOS device, from the same outfitter, to call for help. The man was paddling alone, camped on Lake One, which also was starting to ice over. The St. Louis County Rescue Squad responded and took the man out of the wilderness to safety. The outfitter will have to send a crew in to retrieve his equipment. (And again on Tuesday night, the rescue squad went into the BWCAW again to rescue a third ice-bound paddler on Muckwa Lake who used a cell phone to call for help.)

Better technology, cheaper

News Tribune photographer Steve Kuchera — a veteran of wilderness travel from canoeing the BWCAW to hiking the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana to scaling Denali in Alaska — says an SOS device helped him get out of the Quetico Provincial Park wilderness in 2014 after a medical emergency.

Kuchera, camping with his wife deep in the Ontario wilderness, suffered a severe leg break while carrying a canoe across a portage. He was unable to carry gear or even walk across the many portages along even the shortest route to get out of the wilderness and to medical help. But he could sit in a canoe. So he and his wife paddled to seek help from other campers. It took them two days to finally connect with another group that, by chance, was carrying a Spot Satellite Messenger device.

They used the device to call for help, and the Ontario Provincial Police flew to their location in a float plane and ferried him to a hospital. After that incident the Kucheras purchased their own device, an InReach, to carry along on their wilderness trips.

 
 

Satellite devices range in capabilities from simply sending a non-detailed distress signal, to tracking your actual location and sending detailed text messages, to a full-service satellite phone that allows two-way voice communication with anyone in the world who has a phone.

They range in price from about $150 for a basic Spot Gen 3 Global Satellite Tracker and Messenger to $350 for the Garmin inReach Explorer + Satellite Communicator GPS device to $1,150 for the Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone. In addition to the up-front cost to purchase the units, most require a monthly subscription service fee, just like your cell phone provider. Those can be as little as $11.95 per month for the most basic devices to $110 a month for high-minute satellite telephone monthly service fees.

Longtime Ely Outfitter Steve Piragis said the devices are getting more popular among his clients. His staff said most of their units are booked all summer.

"With more and more paddlers out with such devices, and sat phones, which we also rent, comes the possibility that they can be used in less than an emergency for a convenience rescue. That possibility is enhanced by the influx of newbies to the wilderness this year,'' Piragis noted. "So far it's not out of hand. But there have been some instances where a rescue would not have happened and the situation could have been remedied without calling for the rescue squad. Thankfully we still have a great squad of volunteers but they may burn out if it got worse. "

Some wilderness experts say the happy ending for the Indiana man may mask a more important take-away message from the incident: Is technology emboldening unprepared people into taking unnecessary risks? In wild areas, self-sufficency can't just be the goal, it has to be the rule. What if the SOS unit had malfunctioned? What if the man had been too hypothermic to operate it? Nothing can replace being properly prepared. Nothing is safer than knowing when not to go.

Spurring overconfidence?

Ken Gilbertson, professor of environmental and outdoor education at the University of Minnesota Duluth who has been guiding and teaching wilderness travel for 50 years — including instructing wilderness rescue courses — said a long-raging debate continues over how much communication may be too much in wilderness areas. That debate renews every time emergency communication technology improves, he noted, first when cell phone towers were erected near wilderness areas and now with inexpensive satellite devices readily available.

“Some people would say this (latest BWCAW rescue) shows exactly why we need communication in the wilderness. The device worked. He used it. He survived,’’ Gilbertson said. “But there’s another view that says this shows exactly why we shouldn’t fall back on technology to save us, that people who are unprepared for wilderness travel maybe shouldn't be there.”

The debate isn’t just around the BWCAW, but surfaces as more inexperienced adventure seekers try to scale famous mountain summits.

“There’s a huge argument going on in the wilderness education and wilderness travel professions over how many people are climbing Everest and Denali now and who expect, at the push of a button, to be plucked off the mountain if anything goes wrong,’’ Gilbertson said. “Adding this layer of technology really gets to the heart of the question of why we go into wilderness in the first place.”

In some areas, the devices are required by the managing natural resource agencies for any groups venturing out. But the technology shouldn’t be used as a substitute for experience, common sense and wilderness values, Gilbertson noted, citing a case earlier this year when inexperienced BWCAW campers used a cell phone to summon help.

“It turned out they weren’t really in any distress or danger. They just got themselves into an area where they didn’t feel like paddling out. So the rescue squad went in to find them and here they were sitting in another group’s campsite waiting to be taken out,’’ Gilbertson noted. "They left all their gear behind."

The problem of inexperienced people going beyond their capabilities into wild areas has amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as Gilbertson predicted in a July News Tribune article, as more people seek outdoor refuge.

In the end, Gilbertson noted, because it's impossible to stop people from making bad decisions, the question may be moot. But it's still worth raising.

“This isn’t just a philosophical question. It’s a real question... The biggest concern here is with the rescuers. These calls are pulling (rescuers) away from other emergencies. It’s putting them in danger. And it’s costing taxpayers a lot of money,’’ Gilbertson noted. “What if one of the rescue squad had tipped in that icy water, in the dark? This could have been a far different story then.”

arrow-back.png 
Duluth News Tribune
1 / 2
A Spot Gen 3 satellite SOS device that can be used to summon help where cell phone service is not available. The units cost about $150. The Louisiana-based company claims their SOS devices have aided more than 7,300 rescues and counting. (Photo courtesy Spot)
 
 arrow-next.png

Related Topics

Link to post
Share on other sites
mister grouse

Some of the criticisms /risks the writer worries about are inherent in every emergency rescue undertaken by public service personnel like rescue squads or fire departments .  Seems to me it up to the good judgement of the R S members to know when an attempted rescue/ or rescue in progress  is simply too dangerous to their own personnel to continue.

 

 The SOS signal devices undoubtedly save lives.  They are also likely abused by people who are not in serious peril.  Given the high value our society places on human life I doubt the devices will be restricted.  

Link to post
Share on other sites
24 minutes ago, salmontogue said:

How many here carry a device like the Garmin InReach?

I don't but the wife wants me to as I hunt solo and travel a lot of areas without cell service (even here in MA). Probably will get one.

Link to post
Share on other sites
48 minutes ago, mister grouse said:

Some of the criticisms /risks the writer worries about are inherent in every emergency rescue undertaken by public service personnel like rescue squads or fire departments .  Seems to me it up to the good judgement of the R S members to know when an attempted rescue/ or rescue in progress  is simply too dangerous to their own personnel to continue.

 

 The SOS signal devices undoubtedly save lives.  They are also likely abused by people who are not in serious peril.  Given the high value our society places on human life I doubt the devices will be restricted.  

Having the same outfitter linked to two separate poorly prepared individuals certainly raises concerns.  If he is providing gear  and bad advice that gets poorly prepared into these situations, he is a lot of the problem.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I do, I started with a SPOT and now have an InReach.  I hunt areas where I don’t have cellphone service and it gives me and my wife peace of mind.  I’ve probably carried a device for 5 years and have never sent an 🆘 but I don’t engage in risky behavior either.

Link to post
Share on other sites
mister grouse

I would say in this case it would be hard for me  to blame the outfitter.(and I have no idea who the outfitter is). Im fairlyly familiar with the BWCA and similar areas in that region, as well as the outfitters.  Im feel it is very likely they warn to the highest extent any paddler who chooses a solo paddle trip.  Especially now looking at potential of severe weather. Unless you give a paddler a mental exam how could you tell if someone was dumb enough not to avoid danger ?  Or in the other groups case, was too lazy to paddle themselves out after things settled down. 

 

 As noted in article:""In the end, Gilbertson noted, because it's impossible to stop people from making bad decisions, the question may be moot.""" 

 

Now I guess you could say the outfitter could refuse to service this client.  But I suspect others would rent to him if the client went elsewhere for the rental .  Seems to me that insisting on the SOS device was the sign of a solid outfitter.  

 

Also notable is the number of single camper  deaths and near incidents from backpacking people in various parks or( semi )wilderness areas.  Some related to overdoses.  Cant really protect some people from themselves.

Link to post
Share on other sites

To quote Clint, "A man's got to know his limitations."

 

Too often many don't.

 

Your first trip to the BWCA, you go solo when the weather is turning to snow and the lake is freezing  and you have neither enough food nor the right clothes.  People seem to think they can do what ever they want, even if they are completely unprepared or incapable.

 

The reference in the article to people paying thousands of dollars to climb Mt. Everest when they are not climbers is the prefect example.  No concept that just because you have the money to do it doesn't mean you are capable of doing it.  

 

I suspect there is a lot more of that behavior this year.  

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
22 hours ago, salmontogue said:

How many here carry a device like the Garmin InReach?

 

Perk

 

I can see the BWCA Wilderness Area across the lake from the cabin I am in for the month of October. I carry not only an InReach but starting this year rent a sat phone too. Most outfitters here have stopped renting sat phones and instead just rent an InReach. Hope to never have to use either but once I hit 62 started to think what if... I get paid for designing and maintaining highly available technology systems with redundancy. Which may explain why I carry both.

 

Friend and I between us don't quite make one fully healthy human being even if you took all the good parts off us. If we had to walk out of the woods for many miles we would be screwed, and not like there are many places to walk to here. We walk short distances with the dog and run a Polaris Northstar back in to find prime places to hunt. Sometimes he sits in the buggy while I take the dog out and claims he hears BANG! then cuss words from me, I can neither confirm nor deny that. There are better places to hunt grouse in Mn. as far as numbers but I really like this area and wildlife that I run across more.

 

This is the coldest and most snow here in 115 years. Not uncommon for snow in Oct. but it usually warms up and melts. This year not so much it is brutal. NOAA forecast has been changing every couple of hours for 10 days now and hasn't even been close to accurate.

 

No one has been down this trail for a week when I took this picture of a bull moose.

 

50508184922_336289d1b5_h.jpg

 

I carry 2 boxes in the back one for recovery gear and another for survival gear. Most people here carry a Garmin InReach or other SoS device. Last year in mid Oct. found this backpack on a trail.

 

48956118622_6572b129b1_h.jpg

 

He was smart enough to put his name and cell phone number on it. He was cutting and opening cross country ski trails in the BWCA and it fell off his ATV on the way out. No cell phone reception anywhere so of course had to wait until we got back home  for him to get a call that we had it.

 

The Garmin InReach does allow texting to SAR teams but is slow and limited. They can get more than a little pissed if you have a minor incident and want an extraction and I don't blame them. Which to me is another reason to carry a Sat phone also.

Link to post
Share on other sites

 

 

I think there is nothing wrong with carrying these devices and think limiting them would be asinine. Maybe my view comes from blue water sailing where having an epirb is standard practice and has been for years. Yes, dummies use them when they don't need to and yes, having the devices may encourage slightly more risky behavior. But idiots are idiots and you can't regulate effectively against being stupid. Are we really thinking we should ask for more government regulation?????

 

BTW, Mike and Steve......I'll be within 60-80 miles of you in 10 days. Damn I wish the border would open!!!!

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 3 weeks later...

Just bumping this for anyone thinking about an InReach Mini.

Cabelas, Costco, REI and probably others have them for $249 ($100 off) at the moment. Be sure sure you understand the cost of service.

Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/24/2020 at 9:37 AM, salmontogue said:

How many here carry a device like the Garmin InReach?

 

Perk

This is the device I carry 😁 & I even posted a thread about getting lost once. Once i got one of these I find I am not getting as turned around as I used to . Following a dog through the woods can get confusing at times.....

Coghlan's Ball-Type Pin-On Compass

Link to post
Share on other sites

I have a Inreach mini I do a lot of solo hunting in spotty cell coverage areas I run a monthly plan and suspend service 9 months out of the year it is a tool I will most likely never use but is good to have in the tool box JIC

Link to post
Share on other sites
Dave in Maine

We get a good number of people here in Maine who get in over their heads, or just get turned around.  We (here and elsewhere) had a good laugh a couple weeks ago with the grouse hunter who got out of his jeep to shoot and retrieve a grouse, lost his jeep and wound up spending the night in the woods.  When other hunters found his jeep the next morning, door open and motor still idling, they called in the wardens to do SAR.  It all worked out OK - the lost hunter had woods skills.  Recognizing he was lost he (a) built shelter - a lean-to, (b) built himself a fir bough bed (to keep off the wet, cold ground and ... avoid hypothermia), (c) built a fire and stocked up on wood, (d) sat tight until he heard the search plane, then found a clearing.  He had some orange on, so he was visible to the searchers.  In other words, despite not having tech, he did just about everything right (no one at home bothered to call in he was missing...).

 

This knucklehead in Minnesota couldn't even start his own fire?  And consequently nearly died of hypothermia.

 

Kathadin killed 2 people this autumn.  One was a newspaperman who took a tumble of 50 feet or so onto rocks - not much chance to escape that one.  The other was some young guy who ... died of hypothermia.  While the news reports I saw were vague on this, I suspect he was underequipped for the potential weather.  

 

When I was younger and limber I skied a bit.  Out in Colorado, they have signs at the boundaries of the ski areas telling you, if you ski into the backcountry and need rescue, you're going to get charged for it.  I know we've had some discussion here about the costs of medevac - into the tens of thousands - and SAR people cost money, too.  The potential costs discouraged me from backcountry skiing, which was the purpose behind those signs.

 

SAR is under the jurisdiction of the Warden Service here in Maine, paid for with hunting license dollars.  When the topic has come up about (careless, ignorant, stupid, underprepared, underskilled) non-hunters freeloading on hunters bearing the cost of SAR here in Maine, I have suggested the state going after the lost persons' homeowners insurance, and requiring the homeowners' insurance of anyone in the state to cover, for the costs of SAR, to be reimbursed to IFW.  I always get pooh-poohed about it, for reasons no one will ever explain.  

Link to post
Share on other sites

Im 59 and hunt solo often. I started carrying an in reach this year and have ben pleased with it. I send a starting out message to my wife daughter and nephew that includes my location. I have 2 other preset messages that say  Done for day all good and another that says delayed but no worries. 

I have enjoyed backcountry sports from hunting to snowshoeing,  winter camping and ice climbing when younger. I like to think Im pretty responsible and know my limits and feel well prepared. I have attended EMT training and refreshers though have let my cert lapse. The unexpected can happen to anyone but I recognize thats not the same thing as being unprepared and making good decisions. I fear one of these days Im gonna step into a badger hole  and break a leg,  Ive stepped in plenty and been lucky so far. States that have challenging environments should make policy based on the economics of the risk reward. Clearly outdoor pursuits benefit them financially, if the balance of those benefits are out of balance with SAR costs then they should take step to require rescue insurance or bonds, thats only sensible. I frankly am glad to see more people using outdoors especially if they aren't near me :) If we as hunters are the only ones using the resource we are in trouble, our numbers won't support the lands and programs   we value. Knuckleheads are inevitable, just look around, how could you not expect some of them to make it out into our world? 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...