Summer hikers cause spike in search-and-rescues

11 searches initiated in Skamania County in the last week

A rescue effort along the Dog Mountain Trail, May 10, 2015. (SCEMS)
A rescue effort along the Dog Mountain Trail, May 10, 2015. (SCEMS)

SKAMANIA COUNTY, Wash. (KOIN) — With the summer weather, more people take to the trails in Oregon and Washington. That means more people often overdo it, get lost, injured or all of the above.

Since June 27, there have been 11 search-and-rescue calls in Skamania County. Most turned out well, but the 3-day long search for 90-year-old Wilford “Ray” Johnson was suspended Monday.

Sheriff Dave Brown said his office has been very busy lately.

“Right now is not uncommon when you have a winter like we had,” Brown told KOIN 6 News. “The snow is still settled in up high and the trails are still covered.”

He said it’s not the locals who get lost or hurt.

“Not one of these (11 rescues) is a local person. Not one of the pieces of tax dollars that we spent on these folks to go look for them is paying into the system to look for them,” he said.

That affects a department Brown said is already lacking resources, which he blames on the federal forest funds lost when Congress did not reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act.

“It’s across the West and it’s killing counties ability to provide service, and it’s killing public safety services,” Brown said.

There are more than 800,000 acres of national forest in Skamania County, Brown said, and only 2% of it is taxable. That doesn’t give them many options to make money.

He told KOIN 6 News the Secure Rural Schools Act impacts 700 counties and 4000 school districts across the US, but hits the West hardest because of the vast amount of federal land. He said about $240 million is needed to fund it nationwide.

“Either we begin to manage our forest and create revenue or keep giving us the check,” he said. “We gotta have it.”

If Congress doesn’t make changes, Brown said it could really hurt the whole area.

“We are not going to be able to provide any level of service close to what people, A, deserve, B is appropriate and C, what I expect from this agency,” Sheriff Brown told KOIN 6 News. “Unless we get help from Congress.”

Because of these recent federal cuts, the Stevenson-Carson School District is asking voters to approve a 3-year replacement levy. That money willl be used to support basic operating expenses. Voters will decide August 1.

The 11 calls for help

“While we understand, people enjoy hiking and recreating in the forest, please remember there is still significant amounts of snow in popular areas in and around Mt. St. Helens. In local hikes within the gorge, please remember your limitations” — Skamania County officials

There were 2 calls on June 27. In the first a 70-year-old hiker who fell and hit his head was helped down by EMS crews, but went to the hospital in a private car. Later that afternoon, a 66-year-old hiker fell and hurt herself. She was rescued by crews and taken to a hospital for treatment.

People who come from out of state also are often not prepared. That was the case twice on June 29.

Just after 2 p.m., a 24-year-old from Cincinnati, Ohio flew in, took an Uber to Cascade Locks and then began hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. But when she got to Indian Heaven Wilderness she hit snow and couldn’t backtrack. She called for help, used her GPS to pinpoint her location and camped the night. Rescue crews began searching the next morning, found her in the afternoon — and then took her back to PDX.

A Georgia woman also called for help around 10 p.m. that night. She reached the Mt. St. Helens summit but got lost on her way back. She kept in contact with the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office, who helped talk her back to Climbers Bivouac, where she was picked up and taken to her car.

Dog Mountain Trailhead in the Columbia Gorge, April 5, 2016 (KOIN)
Dog Mountain Trailhead in the Columbia Gorge, April 5, 2016 (KOIN)

The 3-day search for Mr. Johnson began on the afternoon of June 30. Later that night, a mother called to report her daughter and boyfriend were lost on the mountain. Search-and-rescue crews were able to contact the missing people and talked them down to the path toward the parking area.

Late the next night, a Beaverton father called to report his daughter and 11 others hadn’t shown up from a hike of Mt. St. Helens. The hikers were well equipped but hours late. However, before search crews began, the father was able to get hold of the group and learned they were on their way out.

Two more calls for help came within 90 minutes of each other on the evening of July 2. Two hikers said they were stranded on a ridge above Castle Lake, and other hikers called it in. Later, another hiker was lost on Dog Mountain and just as a deputy began checking the area the hiker made it to the parking lot unhurt.

Early on the morning of July 3, a Vancouver hiker called and said he became lost on the June Lake Trail and was separated from his hiking partner. A deputy was contacted, learned the hiker had made it out safely and was reunited his hiking partner about 6 hours after the first call.

A file photo taken of Mount St. Helens from an aircraft in July 2015. (KOIN)
A file photo taken of Mount St. Helens from an aircraft in July 2015. (KOIN)