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The High Cost of a Backcountry Rescue – Who Pays?

Posted on July 12th, 2019

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High water levels on Lake Michigan have doubled the cost of retrieving injured visitors along the shoreline dunes of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore this summer. In this Trail Talk blog, Jim DuFresne wonders why are the rescued so shocked at the cost with many refusing to pay the $2,800 tab. If they don’t pay, who should?

By Jim DuFresne

Fourth of July was unlike any other for Chief Bryan Ferguson of the Glen Arbor Fire Department this summer. He did not have to participate in a rescue at the Number 9 Overlook along the Pierce Stocking Drive in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Jim DuFresne

“It’s the first time ever we didn’t have to rescue anybody,” said Ferguson whose department has stations in Glen Arbor and Empire and handles most of the rescues in the popular park.

The spot is also well known by the National Park Service. Number 9 Overlook is a short walk from the parking lot and provides a sweeping view of Lake Michigan from the edge of a towering, shoreline dune. Most visitors just take in the panoramic scene of water, shoot a photo and then move on.

But a large number – usually on impulse – ignore the warning signs and run down the steep, sandy bluff to the water 450 feet below. As if it’s the famous Dune Climb in reverse. On the way down many lose their footing and sprain an ankle or worse. Others make it to the bottom only to realize they’re never going to be able to climb back to the top.

That’s when somebody calls 911 and Ferguson’s rescue team and park rangers head to a situation they know all too well.

Number 9 Overlook is not just Michigan’s most common backcountry rescue – there are no trails or roads to the bottom of the dune – it’s one of the worse in the country.

A national park study revealed that in 2014 Sleeping Bear Dunes ranked 13 out of more than 100 national parks for the number of search and rescue operations. There were 47 rescue operations conducted that year to aid 61 people, the vast majority at the overlook.

The top of the shoreline dune at the Number 9 Overlook along Pierce Stocking Drive.

Shockingly, that was more than was performed at Yellowstone National Park (37), Olympic National Park (45) in Washington or Glacier National Park (34) in Montana. Grand Canyon topped the list with 324.

The report and the increasing cost of the rescues prompted the park staff, the Glen Arbor Fire Department and the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes to create the Preventative Search and Rescue Program in 2017. PSAR calls for a park ranger and trained volunteers to be stationed at Number 9 Overlook and the Dune Climb, the start of the Dunes Trail – the park’s other major rescue area – during peak use times.

PSAR volunteers are stationed under a shade tent with sunscreen, energy bars and lots of ice water. But their main mission is to talk as many people as possible from running down that dune. It has been highly successful. In 2016, there were 56 calls to 911, with 36 dune rescues performed. The next year there were 24 calls with 17 dune rescues; in 2018 there were 27 calls and 15 rescues.

But this year Mother Nature threw a monkey wrench into the effort.

In terms of cost and manpower, the most efficient method to rescue visitors was to send a beach cart from Empire along the shoreline to bottom of the dune, a run of 3.3 miles. But record high lake levels have eliminated that avenue.

A beach cart rescue at Number 9 Overlook.

Injured visitors are now rescued by boat if the conditions allow it or are pulled to the top of the dune. Both are labor intensive. It requires 15 to 20 rescue workers and a system of ropes and winches to stretcher a person to the top of Number 9 Overlook.

Utilizing a boat requires eight to 10 rescuers but either one costs $2,800 per rescue, that’s up considerably from the $1,200 when the Glen Abor Fire Department can use the beach cart.

So along with the PSAR volunteers, a new “in your face” warning sign was installed at the overlook that said, among other things, “Don’t risk injury or rescue fees by going down.” Rescue fees are set in bright red text.

But despite all the preventative measures and verbal warnings, people still run down that dune and the injured ones are stunned when rescue workers pull them back to the top.

“They have to sign a form at the top that says they will pay the rescue fee and most of the time they are shocked at the cost,” said Ferguson.

What is even more shocking is less than half of them have paid the Glen Abor Fire Department who foots the $2,800 bill for saving their life.

“I guess they think they’re on vacation and they shouldn’t have to pay it,” said Ferguson.

A warning at the Number 9 Overlook in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

That brings up the often-debated issue of who should cover the costs for outdoor rescues. Not just at Number 9 Overlook but the ice fisherman on Saginaw Bay who suddenly realizes he’s floating away or backpackers on Isle Royale who leave established trails and head cross country only to get hopelessly lost in the swampy lowlands of the park.

Who should pay; the people who didn’t take heed to all the warnings or the rest of us?

I’ve always contended it should be the clueless who we have to rescue and said to Ferguson the first thing his teams should ask injured visitors when they reached the bottom of the dune is “which credit card are you using?” And then pull out a Square payment device.

“Well, it would put our people in an awkward position,” said the fire chief. “People don’t understand (the rescue fee) is break even for us.”

But a pretty good deal for anybody who doesn’t heed to common-sense warnings. Whether they pay or not.

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