State park visitors in good hands should emergencies arise


Photos courtesy of Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources

By Ken Silfven
Michigan Department
of Natural Resources

Wet, cold, weary and frightened, the six young girls had been lost for hours in the rugged expanse of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

The youngsters, ranging in age from 3 to 13, became separated from their parents during a hike. A search that had been underway since before the darkness set in was yielding no clues.

After all, Michigan’s largest state park spans nearly 60,000 acres across parts of two counties in the western Upper Peninsula. With soaring mountains, deep valleys, thick hardwood and hemlock forests, and 100 miles of trails, the Porkies don’t give up their secrets easily.

“When people get lost off-trail we are literally looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Michael Knack, supervisor of the state park for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division, recalling the search for children.

But every minute mattered. Deteriorating weather conditions brought driving rain and 40-degree temperatures. After scouring every mile within the presumed general vicinity of the girls, Knack and his team caught a break at 2:30 a.m.

The girls had made their way to the top of the Summit Peak observation tower, where Knack spotted them. He’ll always remember that moment.

“When the 3-year-old saw me coming up the stairs she leapt from the platform into my arms and never let go,” he said. “I wrapped her in a space blanket and carried her as she cried back to the trailhead and the waiting ambulance. She and the other five girls were all found in good health.”

State parks have long been considered one of Michigan’s crown jewels, and for good reason.

“They offer something for everyone,” said Ron Olson, chief of DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division. “Whether it’s breathtaking beauty, quality time with family and friends, world-class recreational opportunities or pure solitude, you can find a state park that offers the experience you’re looking for.”

But outings don’t always go as planned.

As attendance at Michigan’s 103 state parks increases, the DNR estimates there is a corresponding rise in the number of medical emergencies and search and rescue operations, though total statistics are not recorded.

At the Porcupine Mountains alone, park staff averaged 11 to 18 searches during the last four years. Each year, seven to 20 injuries occur that require medical attention, according to Knack, a 15-year DNR veteran who also is a certified firefighter and emergency medical technician.

The types of emergencies in Michigan’s state parks tend to vary by region.

Those in metropolitan areas typically involve lost children, while water rescues are more prevalent in parks along Great Lakes shorelines.

Parks with a large land mass and extensive trail networks, especially those in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, are more likely to see full-scale, long-duration searches for hikers, hunters and snowmobilers. These full-scale operations may involve patrol vessels or aircraft.

While the range and scope of incidents vary, Knack said they usually share common themes. For example, day hikers seem to get lost more frequently than other visitors.

“They show up at a trailhead or scenic site and just head off down the trail,” Knack said. “The ones who get lost typically have not adequately acquainted themselves with the park’s trail system. They didn’t stop at a visitor’s center or a check station to get a map or speak with a ranger about their route or current trail and weather conditions.

“They underestimate the distance and topography of their route, and when night falls they realize they are lost. And then they end up on the wrong trail or worse yet – off the trail.”

Then there are backpackers, who seem more prone to sustaining backcountry injuries.

“They often spend weeks or months planning for their excursion,” Knack said. “They’ve usually studied their maps and routes and have a backpack full of gear. But carrying a full backpack for several days can cause fatigue and exhaustion that they’re not used to.”

Knack estimated that backpackers have higher incidents of injuries such as sprained or broken limbs, or pre-existing medical conditions that worsen after a few days of carrying a heavy load over tough terrain or in inclement weather.

A reliance on technology is a contributing factor to why some visitors get lost, according to Gary Hagler, chief of the DNR Law Enforcement Division, whose conservation officers often assist park rangers with emergencies.

“People tend to rely too much on electronic devices such as cell phones or GPS, which may not always work in remote areas,” Hagler said.

Hagler encouraged park visitors to follow basic safety tips.

“Always plan ahead,” he said. “Get a map of the park, find a ranger and ask questions about things like trail distances, conditions and the weather outlook. It’s also good to pack essentials such as power bars for energy, a flashlight, bandages and other lifesaving items. And, of course, don’t exceed your physical limits. It’s the failure to plan that usually ruins an outing.”

Conservation officers are trained in first aid and search and rescue techniques, which they frequently are called upon to use in every corner of Michigan, including state parks.

Newly commissioned DNR park rangers also receive training to deal with missing-person situations, as well as search and rescue operations. After their initial training, staff at many of the individual state parks conduct their own exercises to keep their skills current.

One of the more extensive exercises was designed by Knack and other western U.P. parks staff, in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Association for Search and Rescue, the U.S. Forest Service and the Michigan State Police Canine Unit.

The week-long training was at Michigan Technological University’s Ford Forestry Center in Alberta. It focused on the key principles of search and rescue, survival, lost-person behavior, communication and more. Participants included staff from several DNR districts.

“Having the ability to train with other DNR park rangers from across the state and interface with other agencies is invaluable,” Knack said.

Some emergencies require special equipment such as rescue pods, which are fully encapsulated sleds on skis that are pulled behind a snowmobile for winter rescues, carrying a victim and one rescuer.
In the summertime, rescuers may use a wheeled litter to extract injured and non-ambulatory patients.

When rangers receive a missing person report, the first step is to gather information.

“We ask the reporting party a series of questions about the missing person and plug those details into a ‘search urgency chart,’ which determines the immediacy of the situation and builds a missing person profile,” Knack said.

Rangers then notify the regional dispatch center with those details and establish a command center at the park’s headquarters. Next, rangers request assistance from other agencies, including the DNR Law Enforcement Division. They also may request a local emergency medical services team to standby, depending on the nature of the situation.

Two rangers then pack their gear and pair up as a “strike team” to conduct a basic search of the last known place or potential place the missing person may have been.

If that fails, the rangers regroup and send two-person search teams down the trails that likely would have the highest probability of detection based on the missing person’s indented route. Some searchers are placed at trailheads in case subjects manage to make it out on their own.

If the missing person isn’t found during the first night, rangers call in additional searchers who will be ready to move out at first light. Meanwhile, at the command center, the areas covered by search teams are tracked on a park map.

Rangers never know how a search will end. Searchers often find the missing persons. There also are times when they are found by other park visitors. Some who are missing ultimately manage to find their own way out. And, sadly, some incidents end tragically.

While there’s always some risk when enjoying the outdoors, Michigan’s parks have an impressive safety record.

“With more than 350,000 visitors a year, the number of lost or injured visitors is a low percentage,” Knack said. “Just stopping by a campground office or taking time to acquaint and orient yourself with a park map will greatly improve your overall experience. Trails, lakeshores, background campsites and cabins are a perfect place to connect with nature, deepen relationships and make lasting memories.”
Learn more about Michigan’s state parks and outdoor recreational safety tips at