When hiking in the wilderness, one’s fortunes can change in a split second, and that’s what happened to a Sipsey Wilderness hiker on Saturday, Oct.26. It was late morning when a backpacker on an overnight excursion fell six feet from a log crossing a small tributary of Sipsey Fork and suffered a compound fracture of her lower right leg. Miles from the nearest trailhead and without cell phone reception, the victim was fortunate that three other backpackers from Mississippi were close by. Two of them went for help in opposite directions, while the third stayed with the victim and her friend and splinted the leg.
Kim Waites, volunteer wilderness ranger
About a mile from the accident, one of those who went for help encountered Wild South volunteer Kim Waites, who just happened to be in the area leading a group hike in her capacity as a volunteer wilderness ranger. Kim is a trained wilderness first responder, and one of her hikers also had that training, as well as being a paramedic. The lucky coincidence doesn’t end there.
Kim had her Forest Service radio with her, as did another Wild South volunteer crew who had been working all morning on one of the Sipsey Wilderness horse trails. The trail crew also had weak cell phone service and was able to call 911 and report the incident, directing emergency responders to the closest access point to reach the victim, who was located 4 miles from the nearest trailhead.
The ambulance crew and members of the Pebble Volunteer Fire Dept. were joined on the trail by two Wild South volunteers from the trail crew, who had stayed in radio contact with Kim and knew exactly where to go. The emergency responders arrived to find the injured hiker responsive and in good spirits, thanks to the timely care she received. She was lashed to a backboard and placed in a Stokes basket in preparation for the grueling 3.2 mile carry out of the wilderness over rough terrain and one river crossing. The victim was loaded into the ambulance at the trailhead about 15 minutes before dark.
Preparing the injured hiker for transport
Considering the location of the accident, the response time was amazingly rapid, thanks to volunteers from Wild South’s Volunteer Wilderness Ranger program and their Helping Hands program both being in the Sipsey Wilderness that day. Except for that, it would have been well past dark before the rescuers could have transported the victim from the Wilderness, complicating an already difficult rescue.
Forest Service budgets have been inadequate for years to provide for a professional wilderness ranger in the Sipsey Wilderness. In the absence of volunteerism, wilderness visitors are left to their own devices in the event of emergencies like the one just described. With ever increasing numbers of visitors on the wilderness trails, volunteers like Kim are desperately needed, not only to provide and promote stewardship of the land, but to also provide emergency response in a delayed help context.
Wild South’s Volunteer Wilderness Ranger (VWR) program is conducted in partnership with the Forest Service through a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2011. The equipment, training and supervision by Wild South staff are funded in part by a grant from the National Forest Foundation (NFF). We are grateful for the support the grant offers, yet it is still not enough to fund the training that our VWR’s desperately need. Ideally, all VWR’s would have Wilderness First Aid and/or Wilderness First Responder training. Please consider a donation to Wild South to help us expand and improve this much needed stewardship program.
The positive outcome of last Saturday’s wilderness rescue was enabled by the volunteerism of many individuals. You can volunteer, too! The invitation to new Volunteer Wilderness Rangers in the Sipsey, Dugger Mountain and Cheaha Wilderness Areas is always open! Please contact us to learn how you can join and become a part of our ranger team.