Three injury-related calls in three days
The past week was a busy one for Okanogan County Search and Rescue (OCSAR), with three calls for evacuations taking place between Thursday and Saturday.
The first took place on Thursday (May 28), when “at about 6:30 p.m. Okanogan County Communications received a call for assistance with a 17-year-old male who injured his ankle while hiking on Billy Goat Mountain,” according to a press release from the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office.
The teen, who was accompanied by two other young hikers, was unable to walk the roughly 5 miles back to Alta Lake. All were dressed appropriately for the weather conditions and were carrying water.
OCSAR Coordinator Rick Balam and Sgt. Weigel of the Sheriff’s Office assembled volunteers for the evacuation and communicated with Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to secure a U.S. Navy Search and Rescue helicopter, which located and flew the three hikers to the Brewster airport, where the injured youth was transported by Brewster Ambulance to Three Rivers Hospital and treated for ankle injuries.
On Friday night (May 29), Balam said OCSAR “received a call about an injured adult female about 10 or 12 miles up the trail toward Gardner Peak.” The woman was carrying an inREACH device, which provides global messaging via a subscription service, as well as basic GPS and compass page navigation. Paired with a smartphone or other such device, it can be used to access topographic maps and other navigation tools.
After slipping and falling about 200 feet, the woman used the inREACH to send a message, which was relayed to the national inREACH network, which connected with OCSAR. Balam was able to arrange for a Naval Air Station Black Hawk helicopter to fly in to search for the woman.
Although the injured woman had moved from the site where she initially sent the call for help, the rescue crew was able to locate her based on GPS coordinates sent periodically by the inREACH device, and flew her out. “They got lucky with the coordinates,” Balam said. “They were able to find her with information from the inREACH.”
On Saturday (May 30), an older man slipped down a bank at Fish Lake and was badly injured. OCSAR was “toned out” to respond, said Balam, but it was determined that the evacuation would be best carried out by LifeLine and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Using a side-by-side (an ATV outfitted with a full-size stretcher), they extracted the injured man from the area and transported him to a waiting ambulance.
Balam said that it’s not atypical for SAR crews to be busy at this time of year and he didn’t speculate on what role the global pandemic, warmer temperatures, and Memorial Day weekend might play in demand for SAR services “People are getting out after being cooped up,” Balam said.
Balam reminded those who are headed out to recreate to call 911 if they get into trouble. In cell service dead zones — such as many of the recreational areas in the county — Balam said that devices like inREACH and the SPOT (which sends texts but cannot receive them) can be lifesaving.
If you have a device like an inREACH, which can both send and receive texts, Balam asks device users to not just call for help, but to answer follow-up texts that help the rescue squads carry out the evacuations most swiftly and smoothly. Carry a light, even if you don’t anticipate being out after dark; having a flashlight or headlamp in your pack will help a rescue crew find you should things go wrong and keep you out late.
Balam said that those in trouble should stay where they are when they make the call for help, so that rescuers can have the best chance of locating them.
Finally, Balam noted, “Just be careful. Stuff happens. Use common sense and be careful.”