County’s search and rescue team gets its manKevin Johnson is kicking himself for thinking it would be an easy assignment. Search and rescue in Lake County is an art form, and it all depends on geography, technology, training, and, in the end, some luck.
Kevin Johnson is kicking himself for thinking it would be an easy assignment. Search and rescue in Lake County is an art form, and it all depends on geography, technology, training, and, in the end, some luck.
Johnson, who works for the Minnesota DNR, set up just off Highway 2 on Reeves Road just after 4 p.m. last Thursday. He’s joined by three other Two Harbors members of the all-volunteer Lake County Search and Rescue Squad.
A hiker was turned around, off the Superior Hiking Trail, about a mile in. He was reachable on his cell phone.
Piece of cake, right?
But as the minutes tick off and searchers from the Finland and Silver Bay crews get on the scene, Johnson starts scratching his head. The hiker is right there, he says, pointing to a map. Why hadn’t any of the teams sent out on ATVs spotted him yet?
Deputy Mike Erickson is in his SUV down the road, using his siren to catch the hiker’s attention and help him better explain via his cell phone where he might be.
But the Superior Hiking Trail snakes around the Reeves Road, which begins off Highway 2 where southbound travelers first get a view of Lake Superior some seven miles south.
Johnson has military training but is new to incident command. He is making sure he has a list of everyone who goes in, there are about 20 team members on the scene now. Any woods search automatically brings all three county search and rescue units.
Johnson is also juggling radio traffic and any new information coming in from the hiker.
“He does a good job,” said Pete Walsh, the coordinator for the three search and rescue squads. It’s a new position designed to help each group work in synch when out on a call. It starts with training together, Walsh said.
As the waves of responders trickle in to the command post on Reeves, Johnson gives a repeat on the lay of the land and the situation.
Oh, and watch out for the road washout 200 yards away. One four-wheeler has already gotten stuck and even the deputy needed some good nerves and timing of the gas pedal to pop over it. Bumps in the road, literal and figurative, are part of the job.
It is past 5 p.m., about an hour since the first team arrived. We should have him by now, Johnson laments.
The pressure is there, even with a situation that never feels quite out of control. Imagine those two- and three-day searches, Walsh said. “It gets pretty intense.”
There are GPS coordinates to input into mobile devices and more info coming from the hiker. Some searchers have gone north instead of south, likely caused by confusion on the part of the hiker as to which side of the road he was on. There is an electrical line and a pipeline to triangulate the position, but not knowing until later which sideof the main road the hiker was on extends the search.
That Johnson knows this much comes courtesy of maps provided by the Lake Superior Hiking Trail Association. Executive director Gayle Coyer said the maps let the search teams find shortcuts onto the trail to cut response times.
Association maps show hikers who to call and how to get help if they get lost or injured. “We appreciate the work they do,” Coyer said of the search and rescue squad. And they put money into that appreciation, $1,000 a few years go for a “rescue pod” that can be pulled behind a four-wheeler and carry an injured person.
It’s far enough into the search that a deputy with a bloodhound has arrived. He patiently waits out the situation, heads up the road, but doesn’t have to take the dog out.
Human trackers, highly trained to analyze footprints and other clues a normal person would take for granted, are in the field.
The skills volunteers accumulate are amazing, Walsh said.
Sheriff Carey Johnson said all three search and rescue squads are vital to his department. “You can’t do a woods search with one person,” he said of a deputy staff stretched out across the second largest county in the state. “Taxpayers could not afford to have the sheriff’s office do all these things.”
A look at logs from 2009 show more than 90 emergency runs for Finland and Silver Bay each, 168 for Two Harbors. They do more than search and rescue operations. In Finland, because medical care is so far away, they do a lot of help with ambulance crews at accidents.
Two hours in and the hiker is found. It was Walsh, who went in on foot and got to him by simply following the hiking trail and putting the clues together. Sometimes the human touch can outwork any technology you throw out there. And that luck factor. “Right place at the right time,” Walsh said.
The hiker laments not having a whistle, a compass, or a GPS unit. He is an experienced hiker who works with the Superior Hiking Trail Association. He was going in to scout a site off the trail for a campsite and got confused when he started following some stray flag markers into the woods.
The sun had been moving in and out of the clouds and he knew well enough to call in before darkness played a factor.
No searcher begrudges a lost person in the woods. This is their job and they do it gladly and without fanfare. Johnson and other responders do their best to assure the hiker that anyone can get lost or hurt in a county known for its rugged outdoor spaces.
It could be rock climbers, boaters, campers, ATVers, snowmobilers, snowshoers, skiers, or hikers.
They can all get lost or in trouble – as sure as the search and rescue squad can get them found and out of harm’s way.
“They don’t get enough recognition for what they do for the community and tourists,” Johnson said.
Give money or time, or both
- The Two Harbors squad of Lake County Search and Rescue is planning a spaghetti feed in early April at the American legion downtown. Look for details in April News-Chronicles.
- All three squads, including Silver Bay and Finland, are looking for more volunteers. You’ll get CPR and First Respond-er training on the job, coordinator Pete Walsh said, and a lot of “satisfaction” in giving to the community.
Some hiking tips
Gayle Coyer, executive director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association, based in Two Harbors, offers the following safety tips for those going out on the trails in Lake County:
- Always carry beverages, snacks, insect repellant, a warm shirt or jacket and rain gear. Temperatures and conditions can change rapidly on the North Shore.
- Have maps of the trail (SHTA sells a complete set of pocket maps for the trail for $2.50; state parks also have maps). Keep track of where you are on the map so if you get lost you know where you last were on the trail.
- Use a GPS unit only if you know how to use it.
- Have a compass and know how to use it.
- Relying on cell phones is a spotty practice in Lake County. Assume you won’t get a signal.
- Carry an emergency whistle so if someone is close they hear you.
- Never go off the trail unless you are certain you can get back on the trail.
- If you do want to go off the trail and get to a certain spot, use bright flagging tape (comes in rolls) and put up flags every so often. Then you must go back the same way while removing the flagging.
- Pack a first aid kit and know how to use it.
- Coyer says keeping Lake Superior on your mind can help as well. Generally, along the North Shore, you can go downhill and eventually come to a crossing route or the lake.