Lost hiker sparks conversation on trail safety

Safe journey through the Alaska wilderness requires preparation, even for short hikes

The Sheridan Mountain trailhead as seen on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. On Dec. 26, Cordova resident Emily Taylor became lost while hiking the Sheridan Mountain trail. “I was so tired on the walk out,” she said after being on the trail for eight hours. Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times
The Sheridan Mountain trailhead as seen on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. On Dec. 26, Cordova resident Emily Taylor became lost while hiking the Sheridan Mountain trail. “I was so tired on the walk out,” she said after being on the trail for eight hours. Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times

Bring layers, make sure you have snacks and plenty of water —  these are common words of advice that most hikers have heard at least once before.

When hiking in Alaska’s vast wilderness, in winter months when light is limited, and in any season, given unpredictable weather, additional precautions are also helpful when facing the Alaskan elements.

Just ask Cordova resident Emily Taylor, who in recent weeks decided to hike the Sheridan Mountain Trail, just outside of town. She tried to find someone to go with her but was unable to.

At 10:19 a.m. on Dec. 26, Taylor began hiking. At 2:13 p.m. she messaged her husband, Nate Taylor, “You might need to come help me.” She spent the next two hours trying to find her way back to the trail.

“There’s a fair distance between the markers and if you forget which way you’re going then it’s easy to get turned around,” Taylor said. “I went off the trail because I wasn’t sure which way to go and then instead of just staying there I went further and further lost which was the dumb part.”

She sent another message to her husband at 4:16 p.m., “I need help. I am lost.”

After eight hours on the trail, Taylor made it back to her vehicle, with help from her husband who went to search for her.

“I was a little bit too over confident, until it was getting dark,” she said.

Taylor, who has hiked trails in town before, figured she’d be back before dark.

“Packing a flashlight is always a good idea,” Taylor said. “Make sure your batteries are good.” 

Know your surroundings, layer, and beware of traps

Erin Cole, Developed Recreation Program Coordinator for Cordova Ranger District, urges hikers to pay attention to their surroundings.

“For Cordova right now, we have a lot of trappers that trap during the winter, so just being aware that there may be traps on the trail,” she said.

Cole recommends checking with the local office of Alaska Department of Fish and Game to get more information regarding trap locations.

“Dog walkers especially, pay more attention to that because dogs wander off the trail where the traps are,” she added.

Weather in Cordova can change in an instant, especially at higher elevations, so proper layering can be instrumental in staying safe on the trail.

“If you’re wearing down, you want it to fit tight to your body because that’s how down is effective,” Cole said. “If you’re wearing other layers you want there to be some air between the layers because it insulates that air and that’s what keeps you warm.”

Cole recommends synthetic layers, staying clear of cotton, and wearing wool, which provides warmth even if it’s wet.

“Down is great if it’s going to be dry, but not if it’s going to be wet. And cotton is never good in the cold,” she said.

Footwear is just as important, especially in places like Cordova, which experience frequent rain that can make trails icy.

“You never know, even if you know how your body works on trails, you never know if you’re going to slip, if you’re going to encounter somebody else that needs help that causes you to stay out there, so be prepared for other people, if not for yourself,” Cole said.

Wear footwear that lends sturdy ankle support, boots with grips and even spikes.

“You can be confident about what you have control over, but not what you don’t have control over,” Cole added.

Filing Wilderness Trip Plans with Alaska Wildlife Troopers

Sgt. Robin Morrisett with the Alaska Wildlife Troopers advises those going out on the trail or water to fill out a Wilderness Trip Plan or Float Plan and give it to a responsible party.

This one-page form will give officers key information including your route, amount of supplies you have, date of the trip and more.

“If you fill out one of those plans, that way you know that we’re going to come and get you,” Morrisett said.

If you do not have anyone to give it to, bring the form to the Alaska Wildlife Troopers office, located in the old city offices.

If you plan on heading out when the office is closed, call the Cordova Police Department at 907-424-6100.

The forms can be found at the Alaska Wildlife Troopers office or online at https://dps.alaska.gov/getmedia/826bb224-2870-43a8-a10e-32cf9526a7b1/wildernesstripplan;.aspx

If you are headed out on the water there is an Alaska Float Plan you can fill out.

Be sure you inform the party with whom you left the form with when you return.

Morrisett also recommends carrying a mode of communication that is more reliable than a cell phone as coverage may be limited in remote areas and the battery may not last.

Depending on where you are traveling, investing in a satellite phone or spot beacon may be worth the cost.

One of the newer communication devices is the global satellite technology, inReach.

This device, available online from $250 to $450, tracks your location in real-time, allows for sending and receiving messages and can send out an SOS alert.

If you don’t have the money for such purchases, at the very least, fill out one of those forms Morrisett said.

Communication devices, wilderness trip plans, and correct safety equipment can be instrumental in locating a missing person safely and efficiently.

According to Morrisett, basic supplies hiker supplies should include food, water, space blankets (for warmth and shelter), a first aid kid, tools to make a fire, and bright flagging tape to signal for help in case of emergencies.

In such cases, including being lost, “it’s better just to hang out right where you’re at and make yourself visible as best you can,” Morrisett said. “Flag up a big area so you can see it from a distance.”

In 2017, there were 428 search and rescues throughout Alaska, according to Malia Miller, search and rescue program coordinator for the Alaska State Troopers.

If a person becomes lost in Cordova, the quick response team from the volunteer fire departments is sent out immediately.

“They’re one of the best departments around the state by far,” Morrisett said, noting a recent search and rescue.

“This last fall we had a lost person out (around the 20-mile area),” he recalled. “I was told about them and boom, within 10 minutes I was notified again, ‘Yup they’ve already been found.”… here in this town, they’re just that good.”