Reaching the summit
The most essential piece of safety gear to bring on Acadia National Park’s trails this summer isn’t a GPS beacon or expensive hiking shoes (although those might help). It’s “self-honesty,” said Dr. Julius Krevans Jr., a physician at Bar Harbor’s Mount Desert Island Hospital, who, along with his wife, Mary Krevans, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in public health who is semi-retired from a research position at The Jackson Laboratory, volunteers with Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue (MDISAR).
No matter which trail you plan on striking out on, said Julius, be honest with yourself about your skill and fitness level. Make sure you have a route not just to get up (that’s often the easy part), but to get down as well, when you’ll be tired, more distractible, and more likely to fall.
“Downhill is where most of the accidents happen, by a significant majority,” said Julius. “When you’re going uphill, you’re less tired. Going downhill is slightly trickier and if you fall the consequences are greater.” It’s also true that for most shoes, said Julius, “the traction is much better on the ball of the foot than the heel,” and when you’re looking forward for where to step, your foot is farther away, making it easier to make a mistake.
Julius said he also frequently sees hikers who set off up a trail, get tired and “turn around and discover it’s going to be harder going down. It’s really easy to go up something that you can’t go back down.”
The most common accident search-and-rescue teams see in Acadia, said Julius, “is a healthy, somewhat experienced person wearing relatively lightweight footwear, walking along a level spot where it’s slightly downhill, and they’re distracted by an eagle, or a lobster boat, or something else that catches their eye for one second and they roll their ankle.”
Even on the warmest of summer days, the rocks in Acadia rarely get above 50 degrees, said Julius, which means that if you’re forced to wait for help sitting on the rocks for several hours, it’s vital you carry something to keep yourself warm. Julius keeps two pieces of foam (one each for under hips and under shoulders) and a lightweight bivy sack (personal-sized waterproof shelter). That’s more than most people, he said, but the foam and bivy are relatively lightweight, and the foam also provides a warm spot to sit for lunch.
Exposure is one of the biggest dangers hikers face, in Maine and elsewhere. There’s a common misconception that help (if you can reach it, that is) will swoop in on a helicopter and take you out. In reality, “there’s almost nowhere in the park you can actually land a helicopter,” said Julius, and no guarantee one will be available. “Because Maine is a poor state and has very limited military presence, air assets are very limited, and all have their pluses and minuses,” the doctor said.
“It gets late into the evening and hikers are exhausted or they’ve run out of food and water, and they think, ‘I’ll call 911 and someone will come get me.’ But they don’t normally get carried out.” — Mary Krevans, Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue
“If you’re down in there and something goes wrong, it’s going to be an hour-plus that you’re going to be laying there, assuming you can reach help,” said Julius.
Once rescuers do locate you, “you’re looking at several hours to get somebody off a trail,” said Julius. And don’t count on being carried out, even if you’ve broken something: carrying a litter takes at least 14 people (two teams of six to switch back and forth, one scout and one leader) and is very slow going.
“A lot of the time people don’t understand how hard it is to carry somebody and how time consuming,” said Julius. “We’ll walk people out if they can bear weight, either using crutches or a stiff leg brace.”
The couple have done rescues in Maine’s Baxter State Park, said Mary, where “it gets late into the evening and hikers are exhausted or they’ve run out of food and water, and they think, ‘I’ll call 911 and someone will come get me.’ But they don’t normally get carried out. They get food and water and more batteries for their flashlight and we’ll walk them out.”
“Going downhill is slightly trickier and if you fall the consequences are greater.” — Dr. Julius Krevans Jr., Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue
That means you need to be able to keep yourself warm until rescuers can reach you. “Cold is bad. Really bad,” said Julius. “One of the biggest predictors of surgical outcomes, good or bad, is the temperature on arrival to the ER. So, a lot of what we do is trying to maintain people’s core temperature, and it’s not just because it makes them happy.”
Both also cautioned not to rely on a cell phone, either for directions or to call for help. Service in the park is spotty, and it’s vital to carry a map and be able to navigate with it. Tell someone where you’re going, have a “time in and time out,” so loved ones know when to call for help, wear appropriate footwear with good traction, and take food, water and whatever you need to call for help and stay warm until it arrives.
Julius calibrates his gear for the terrain, the weather and his energy level. When he was running sled dogs in Alaska, he said, “I had enough stuff with me that if something happened, as long as I had my sled, I would just be on the trail. I said I’d be on and when someone decided I was late, they would find me, and I might not be happy, but I would not be frozen.”