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From the June 2007 Conservationist

Lost in the Woods

By Steve Guenther

Rangers to the RescueIn the late morning of Wednesday, June 13, 2001, Robert Hicks decided to hike alone to High Falls, located southwest of Cranberry Lake in the Adirondack Parks Five Ponds Wilderness Area. Mr. Hicks traveled by boat across Cranberry Lake to access the trail located on the shore of the lake, arriving at the trail head around noon. He was familiar with the four-mile hike to the falls from previous trips. Expecting to return to his boat in the afternoon, Hicks gathered a minimum of gear before starting out. Mr. Hicks traveled the short distance on the trail to the DEC trail head, where he made the appropriate entries into the trail register before continuing. After hiking about 1.5 miles, he encountered a very large pine tree blown down on the trail. The wooded area adjacent to the trail was thick with new growth and was also flooded by a nearby beaver dam. The best route around the barrier was somewhat confusing, because numerous paths had been developed by hikers in their attempts to circumvent the blocked trail. He successfully traveled around the downed tree and returned to the main trail heading toward High Falls.

Later in the afternoon when returning on the trail, Hicks approached the blocked section of trail. He attempted to backtrack along the same path he had used earlier that day to circle around the downed tree, and had traveled only a short distance before losing the path. He began frantically wandering in the woods in an attempt to locate the trail and quickly realized that he was lost.

Robert Hicks was reported missing on June 14th to NYS Forest Ranger Bernie Siskovich, by a neighbor who noticed his boat missing. Over the next three days, 18 forest rangers, a contingent of volunteers, and a state police helicopter searched a huge area of the Five Ponds Wilderness Area. On the afternoon of Sunday, June 17th, Forest Rangers Jay Terry and Wayne LaBaff located Hicks approximately two miles west of his last known location. Hicks had spent four nights in the woods. He was dehydrated and badly bitten by hordes of Adirondack deer flies and mosquitoes. Every year in New York State, Forest Rangers search for approximately 200 lost or stranded people. Many find themselves lost in the woods after dark. Some stay overnight until they are found the next day. Sometimes a lost person is found deceased, after a search that lasts many days. Although anyone can get lost or injured when outdoors, many such events are preventable. Most serious problems occur when people are in unfamiliar, remote areas, are poorly prepared, or are ill-advised of weather conditions. Searches are made more difficult if lost hikers fail to leave detailed plans of their route and intended destination.

The safety lists below have been designed to advise hikers of items they should consider carrying. The lists are based on seasonal and daily weather conditions and the experience of NYS forest rangers. No matter how complete your gear, it doesn't help if you become separated from it. Make sure your kit is convenient to carry, so you'll have it when you need it. A minimal survival kit can by placed in a large zippered plastic bag and can be carried on your person at all times, not in your backpack. This will lessen the chances of you and the kit becoming separated.

Survival kitIf you are lost, STOP:
Stay calm. Sit down.
Think. How long until dark? How did I get here?
Observe. Identify landmarks. Listen for sounds, like traffic, gunshots, or water. Where are the most likely places to find food or shelter?
Plan. Should I try to make it out before dark or plan to spend the night? Collecting firewood is much easier in the daylight. Try not to panic.

By taking a few precautions before entering the woods, like packing a survival kit and signing the trail register, you can make your trip much safer.

Basic Survival Kit
A basic kit includes matches in a waterproof container, fire starters such as a candle, flashlight and extra batteries, map and compass, temporary shelter, emergency blanket, knife, signal device like a whistle or mirror, food, cord, and a first-aid kit.

Cold Weather Kit
In cold weather, add to your basic kit rain gear, extra hat and socks, gloves, and hand warmers.

Severe Weather Kit
In severe weather, add to your cold weather kit a jacket, more food and water, extra gloves, mittens, a stove and sleeping bag.