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Lost Hiker Search & Rescue

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One recommendation about the summer down here in the Everglades: stay home. It is a wet and deadly morass of water, mud, biting insects, poisonous plants, and animals that are above you on the food chain. You can still come down the Tamiami Trail or Alligator Alley, but stay within sight of your vehicle, and don't wander into the brush. And don't drive at night either, because of bugs splatting on your windshield like rain, and 10-foot alligators blocking the road that you won't see until it is too late. There are scary thunderstorms in the afternoon, and what was dry a couple months ago is now a river with lily pads, snakes, and alligators. Death is a good possibility if you are not prepared. Shorts and tank tops with no hat, water, or bug suits will ensure that you have a miserable time.

Growth of all the plants is such that it can totally obliterate a hiking path within a couple weeks. Rain everyday ensures that a sheet flow of water will make a trail look like a river. What were dry fire roads a few months ago are now rivers with lily pads everywhere, with a few gators thrown in.

About a year ago there were three people who wanted to hike from Oasis Station in Big Cypress up to Alligator Alley. They were unprepared for the summer climate and what they encountered. They quickly got themselves lost. They had to be rescued after three days and only going six miles.

On the north side of the park we have a 6.5-mile hiking trail that is part of the Florida Trail System. The summer conditions are such that the trail disappears and parts of it are now mushy islands surrounded by lakes and rivers. You cannot even get to the parking area without a 4-wheel drive vehicle, due to deep water and mud. So a few weeks ago I told the ranger station (and had them write it in the logbook) that the hiking trail is closed until further notice due to the trail conditions.

So what happens? Last Thursday, two people decide to experience the Everglades and hike the trail. They got lost due to the summer trail conditions that I just described. Unfortunately where they got lost was at one of the most difficult areas to reach. The high water and thick foliage makes it impossible for any vehicle to get to that area. Worse, when a person is lost, they are not able to give you many clues on where they are, and most of what they tell you is misleading.

But lucky for everyone involved, is that the people had cell phones, and they were actually in an area that had a signal. All cell phones now have a GPS function, and any law enforcement agency can track you down with it. So we called the sheriff's office, they called in the helicopter, and the helicopter located where the lost couple was. Unfortunately, it was in a heavily wooded area where they could not be reached. We asked them if they could describe a few landmarks, and they said a big oak tree and a lot of palm trees. That could be anywhere around here!

Finally the couple makes it out to the fire road. The helicopter then saw them, and said they were on a wide trail. We knew it was the firebreak, because you can see that from the air, but cannot see the hiking trail from the air.

So we got a couple of our ATV's, and our Polaris Ranger out on the fire road. (The Polaris is a 4x4 utility vehicle like a miniature swamp buggy.) If we had a regular sized swamp buggy, it would have been useless because of all the trees that are leaning or fallen over, but the ATV's and Polaris were able to dodge them. The fire road goes through an area that is part of the headwaters of the Blackwater River, and was just a little muddy a few months ago. Now there were parts of the road that were almost three feet deep in flowing water. We almost didn't make it through there with the vehicles, but the key is not to stop and keep going.

When coming back, one of the rangers in an ATV had a little alligator swimming parallel to him for quite some distance.

Well we got the people out, and it had a good ending after working the rescue for four hours. And we got out just at sundown. If it got dark, these people would really be in trouble, with the mosquitoes and limited visibility. And it threatened to dump rain on us, which would have made it impossible to get them out because the water would have been too high for the ATV's and Polaris.

And while I mention rain, another danger is lightning. Lightning plays no favorites and can kill you even by hitting nearby and traveling through the ground. The rangers here don't fear much, but they do fear the lightning for good reason. We saw two huge pine trees that were recently hit by lightning, maybe even the day before. The trees were split right down the middle as the intense lightning bolt made the sap boil and literally explode inside the tree. Chunks of bark were found 200 feet away. So don't be outside when lightning is near.
Current Location:
the hammock
Current Mood:
annoyed annoyed
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[User Picture]
On August 12th, 2008 02:10 am (UTC), connor_campbell commented:
there are just some people that shouldn't be allowed to breed. i know it is probably just par for the course, but y'all really seem to get a bunch of Darwin Award potentials, don't you?

i have been wanting to join up with the local SAR unit here if they would allow it, dad did it when he was younger, and i think i would enjoy it. (maybe not all of it, but the idea of helping people in time of need is appealing, and with my knowledge of the woods, i think i could do well)

hopefully you won't have to deal with anymore potential statistics the rest of the year!
[User Picture]
On August 12th, 2008 09:37 am (UTC), seminolewar replied:
lost hikers
People just don't realize that there are still wilderness areas in Florida, and it doesn't take much to get lost.

I was talking to my friend Karl with the forestry division yesterday, and he told about an area of around 280 acres that they recently burned, and going back to check if it was still burning. The area is mostly prairie. They had two lost hikers come up to them, and thankful they had found someone. These people were in shorts, had no water or canteen, and no wide brim had, in the summer time.

These trails are not a walk around the block. And it is happening more frequently, because our society expects everything to be given to them. We are getting pressure from both directions, from the people who are unprepared and get lost without the proper gear, to our district which wants us to make all trails hard-packed shells and wheel chair accessible.

You heard me right, they want the trails to be ADA. That is cost prohibited, and will not be done by the FTA who created the trails. It will cost more time and money (and maybe destroy more Indian mounds for those shells).

These trails were originally created by dedicated volunteers with the FTA in a few weekends of clearing. They will not lay 6.5 miles of shell surface for free. And has anyone noticed that those volunteers are getting older and dying off?

I have seen these shell surfaces, and down here the summer conditions will require that all the paths be re-shelled every year so the pathways don't disappear. I would like to see someone suggest that for Myakka River's trails, which are about 60 miles in length!
[User Picture]
On August 12th, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC), connor_campbell replied:
Re: lost hikers
shells? they are mad! cost prohibitive would be a lie through gross understatement! just for one second considering their idea has merit, why not use limerock, which will last much longer and is in great supply here in Florida? we still have plenty of usable pits up here in this county! the Silver River Museum did this years ago with their main trail to the river boardwalk before the land became an "official" state park. that trail is still there and in decent condition almost 20 years later, with no upkeep. granted, they never did get it totally finished like they wanted, but it is still wheelchair accessible for the most part.

i understand the desire of those handicapped to see as much as anyone, but they are going to have to accept the fact that it just isn't possible. or they are going to have to come up with a work-around on their own. (about that waning things handed to them?)

yeah, you are 100% correct. people just do not realize. was it you who sent me the article about people getting "vacation-minded"? future Darwin Award winners and alligator food, that's all they are. i try not to show too much contempt for them when i encounter them. i don't know how successful i am. you ask me, they deserve it.
[User Picture]
On August 12th, 2008 09:12 pm (UTC), seminolewar replied:
Re: lost hikers
Lime rock is getting scare too. There are several quarries in this county that have closed down, and I think only one or two still in operation. The one next to the Fakahatchee ranger station closed down three years ago. The big crane is still there.
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On August 13th, 2008 12:09 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
Everglades exploring
I used to collect Scouting fiction that was placed in Florida. Some of it is pretty wild - pistol packing Boy Scouts leaving behind bodies in the Everglades because "they're bad guys so nobody cares care about them anyway." In one of the better books, two Scouts decide to canoe from Fort Myers over to the east coast. After a couple of days, they get caught in a brush fire and lose practically all of their gear. They decide that they would be wimps if they turned around and went back, so they proceed to complete their trip with little more than a canoe and a pocket knife. Do you want me to try to locate the book and loan it to you?
-Rick O.
[User Picture]
On August 13th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC), seminolewar replied:
Re: Everglades exploring
I have some of those books at my parent's home, and will have to check to see if I have some of that. Also, the state library has started to digitize some of the books over the last few years, and I think that might actually be one of them. I will have to check.
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