Don't be a loser on the trail

One of my greatest fears about getting lost in the woods — beyond suffering for days or weeks while gnawing on roots, slurping swamp water and fighting off a biblical plague of stinging insects — would be the humiliating rescue.

To be carried out on a litter, carted away in an ATV, or worst, hoisted to safety by a chopper, would almost be more agonizing than continuing to wander around aimlessly while hunting for the trail.

"When we found the wayward hiker, supposedly an experienced outdoorsman, he had somehow managed to stray completely in the wrong direction and tramp deeper into the wilderness. If he only had turned around sooner he would have come to a road leading directly to a row of hotels and restaurants," I imagine one of the searchers announcing.

Had this fantasy ordeal followed the script of recent, well-publicized search-and-rescue episodes, my survival would be labeled "a miracle'' — though friends and family with whom I've occasionally shared misadventures might then observe, "The only thing 'miraculous' is that something like this didn't happen years ago."

Anyway, there's been a proliferation of missing and injured hikers lately, including Katalin Metro, a 75-year-old woman who tripped and broke her nose last week while climbing Arizona's Piestewa Peak. After a rescue helicopter crew placed Metro in a basket and began raising it skyward, a stabilizing line came loose, which caused the basket to spin as wildly as a pinwheel in a gale.

If you want to barf, check out the YouTube video. Metro eventually made it aboard and was airlifted to a hospital for treatment of facial injuries and extreme nausea.

Then there was Amanda Eller, a 35-year-old physical therapist and yoga instructor who became disoriented last month while hiking on a three-mile trail in Maui's Makawao Forest Reserve. After her shoes washed away in a flash flood, Eller tumbled down a ravine, breaking a leg and tearing a knee meniscus. She then hunkered down near a waterfall, gobbling berries and moths while she waited ... and waited ... and waited for help to arrive.

Seventeen days later — incidentally, less than an hour after her family announced a $50,000 reward — friends aboard a helicopter finally spotted Eller, lowered a rope and pulled her aboard. This prompted an international media circus not seen since Henry Morton Stanley stumbled upon David Livingstone on the shores of Africa's Lake Tanganyika on Nov. 10, 1871, and famously exclaimed, "Hey, Doc! That you?" (or something like that).

Now, don't get me wrong — I'm delighted that Eller survived a traumatic experience, and credit her determination to stay alive. But many fawning news accounts treated her more like Sir Edmund Hillary rather than someone who screwed up, just as I have on more than one backpacking expedition.

In fairness, after numerous interviews, as well as a news conference in which she ill-advisedly referred to her travail as a "spiritual experience" and her rescue as an "aloha moment," a more contrite Eller posted a Facebook video apologizing for putting her rescuers' lives at risk. She also acknowledged having acted "irresponsibly" by leaving her cellphone and water in her car.

Earlier this month, Joshua McClatchy who lost his way while hiking in Arkansa's Ouachita National Forest, may have neglected, as did Eller, to bring enough water, but at least he managed to hang onto his phone.

So the navigationally challenged, 38-year-old Texan did what any man would do in such a situation: He texted his mother.

After she alerted authorities, rescuers, including the National Guard, sheriff's deputies and throngs of volunteers, spent nearly five days on foot and in helicopters before they spotted McClatchy's headlamp in the dark. A crew then had to struggle 21 miles over steep trails to lug the exhausted, dehydrated hiker back to civilization on a stretcher.

I'm not sure how Arkansas deals with missing hikers, but I do know that if McClatchy had gotten lost or injured in New Hampshire, he'd be facing a bill amounting to several thousand dollars to pay for his rescue.

The Granite State is one of few to demand reimbursement from hikers, hunters and others whose negligence resulted in a need for rescue services. This gives new meaning to the state motto, "Live Free or Die."

New Hampshire also sells Hike Safe Cards, a kind of rescue insurance policy that cost $25 a year for individuals and $35 for families.

According to Hike Safe website, "The card is valuable for anyone hiking, paddling, cross country skiing or engaging in other outdoor recreation. People who obtain the cards are not liable to repay rescue costs if they need to be rescued." However, the original law applies: Anyone deemed negligent may still have to pay, regardless if they bought a card.

The website reports that from 2006 through 2014, N.H. Fish and Game conducted an average of 180 search and rescue missions each year at a total cost of about $350,000.

Hike Safe card sales brought in more than $75,000 to the Search and Rescue Fund in 2015, the first year they were available. Sales will contribute to this fund, along with about $180,000 collected from the $1 registration fee charged for each boat, snowmobile and off-road recreational vehicle.

Of course, the best way to offset search and rescue costs is to exercise responsibility on the trail: Heed weather warnings, know your limitations, carry emergency provisions, inform someone at home of your itinerary before departing and above all, don't rely on cellphones, GPS or electronic tracking systems to keep you out of trouble.

Stay safe, and as an added precaution pack some Dramamine if you wind up airlifted by a helicopter.


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