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Immersion In Nature, Naturally, Can Be Risky

Road Through The Valley at Canyonlands National Park.
Paul Giamou
Road Through The Valley at Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands National Park in Utah is "a landscape of canyons, mesas and deep-river gorges" that invites its visitors to revel in nature. An hour's drive from Moab and part of the Colorado Plateau, Canyonlands sprawls across 337,000 desert acres.

Nearly a half-million people take in Canyonlands' gorgeous geology every year, and yet it is perfectly possible to hike out into the desert and see no other human being for hours, if at all. When New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof urges us to "Go take a hike!" because, "The wilderness is healing, a therapy for the soul," Canyonlands surely fits the bill.

The Grand County Search and Rescue team — the people who answer the call when hikers and other adventurers in the Moab area run into trouble — is the busiest in the state. From the team's website:

As beautiful as the wilderness environs of Moab are, they can be very unforgiving. The desert's mix of hot temperatures, rugged terrain and extraordinary remoteness, coupled with a dangerous mix of underestimating supplies and overestimating abilities, has created some unfortunate circumstances for many visitors. And sometimes, even after taking diligent precautions, the desert just has its way with the most prepared of adventurers.

The rescuers who traverse this terrain to help others are highly trained. And, as I personally learned this summer, they are also amazing people. Almost all are volunteers — or paid little — and save lives with the greatest degree of professionalism and compassion.

On June 12, my husband Charlie set out on Canyonland's Syncline Trail to take an 8.3-mile loop hike around the geological feature known as Upheaval Dome. An experienced hiker, he has for almost every year of our 25-year marriage walked challenging trails in and around Moab. He's done the rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike in Arizona. In short, he's no novice. He knew not to attempt the Syncline hike in July or August's crushing heat and he knew to take extra water.

From back home in Virginia, I talked with Charlie that Thursday morning as he headed for the trailhead. When my husband hikes alone, I always know the name and location of his trail for the day. He would be out of cellphone coverage for the hiking hours, but I knew I'd hear from him when he came off the trail. That's our routine — and it's worked successfully for decades.

But, this time, that call did not come.

As the afternoon wore on, at first I found reasons not to worry; Charlie's desire, after all, and mine for him, was to enjoy Utah's beauty — not to be tied to technology. Our daughter was home visiting from college and, so, I had company; we set about reassuring each other that everything was fine, as it always had been during all the other Utah hiking trips.

At 9:30 p.m. I was on the phone with the Moab police dispatcher. Events moved quickly from that point. I answered many questions as a search team prepared to go out; not only basic ones about my husband's physical description and health status, but also about his stride length and what types of shoes he wears to hike.

Rangers located Charlie's rental car at the Upheaval Dome trail head. Someone entered his hotel room 50 miles away, back in Moab, to bring a piece of his worn clothing to a search dog to help track him on the trail. A team, including the dog, set out — and a helicopter flew in from Salt Lake City — to aid the search.

Canyonlands Ranger Lofton Wiley offered me what I believed then, and still believe now, to be the optimal mix of realism and reassurance. Yes, it was possible that my husband had fallen from a steep and hard-rock-scrabble portion of the trail and lay injured. It was far more likely, however, that he was lost, perhaps wandering well off the trail, as happens with some frequency at Upheaval Dome.

I clung to the reassurance. When the person-and-dog team searched through the night with no sight of my husband, though, my worries intensified.

Around 8:30 a.m. Friday, Ranger Wiley called to report that the helicopter pilot had sighted and rescued Charlie. Although quite dehydrated, he would be fine.

So what had happened?

The terrain was physically fatiguing, my husband recounted when we talked, even more so than his pre-hike research had lead him to believe. After many hours of hiking, even while following the cairn trail markers, he became disoriented as to his location. Once his water ran out late in the day, the confusion associated with dehydration didn't help matters.

He's still not sure, even now, precisely how all this happened. But it did happen, and he slept on the trail that night as best he could, admiring a sky free from light pollution. Though he heard the helicopter and waved his arms, he couldn't be seen. At first light, he entered a wash to seek underground water. Standing there, about to dig, he was seen by the helicopter pilot.

We struggled to express adequately our thanks to Ranger Wiley, the search-and-rescue team, and to Shalla the dog. Charlie met the team as he rested that Friday morning, eating fruit and drinking water, at the ranger station. The rescuers waved away my husband's apologies for the night-long hiking they had undergone on his behalf. They expressed only happiness at his rescue — and Shalla conveyed her own kind of joy, too, when she was allowed to "find" Charlie as fitting reward for her hard work on the trail the night before.

About two weeks after the rescue, my husband and I wrote a letter to the rescuers and the rangers in another attempt to convey our gratitude. We included with the letter a donation (we had been charged nothing for the rescue).

It's been two months now, and I still can't get these people out of my mind — or what might have happened had they not been so skilled at what they do.

Google the phrase "national park rescue" and you will see how often search-and-rescue efforts are needed in national parks all across the country. Not all of these missions have a happy ending. Also in June, for instance, the body of Karen Sykes, a journalist and experienced wilderness hiker, was found after an intensive search in Mount Rainier National Park.

Tragedies do sometimes occur.

Some think making untouched nature more publicly accessible would save us from these sad instances. A proposal is on the table to create a tramway at the Grand Canyon, as Kevin Fedarko wrote on Sunday in the New York Times, that would "descend about 3,200 feet directly into the heart of the canyon." Gondolas, each able to carry eight people, would transport more than 4,000 people daily into the canyon — an outcome that Fedarko says would be a "sacrilege." I agree with him.

The answer is not to develop our park lands. Public transport to make the area around the Upheaval Dome safely accessible would be, to put it mildly, a terrible idea.

Instead, the answer is to accept that immersing ourselves in nature involves risks, to do everything we can in the way of personal preparedness and responsibility to minimize those risks, and to educate others about those risks.

And when things still go wrong, we can be massively, publicly thankful for the people who are skilled and ready to help.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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