The Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association's Search and Rescue team began at the 2013 ALDHA Gathering in response to the disappearance of northbound Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine "Inchworm" Largay in Maine. Both this incident and the murder of Meredith Emerson on the A.T. in 2008 have greatly affected our hiking community. Untrained hikers and concerned citizens who showed up to aid in both of these searches were turned away. At times this resulted in frustration and misplaced anger toward those conducting searches.
Mike "Wing-Heart" Wingeart, former ALDHA coordinator, organized a group of members to help the Maine Wardens Service in the Largay search. Conceptually, a group of experienced hikers would provide a perspective not present with "non-hikers." The following spring, after the primary search was abandoned and after the snow melted, ALDHA was permitted to search for her remains…without success. Two years after her disappearance, a second excursion was planned in an attempt to locate any trace of her or her equipment. This mission was canceled when a surveyor working near the A.T. found her off-trail campsite.
At the 2014 Gathering in Williamstown, Mass., "Wing-Heart" presented an update of ALDHA SAR activities that included the concept of having ALDHA members receive formal training by local SAR groups. At the time, no one involved with ALDHA SAR had been through formal SAR training or certification. Ken "Nimbus" Bunning took up the challenge and became the first ALDHA member to become fully certified.
During the 2016 Trail Days in Damascus, Va., the reins of the SAR program were passed to "Nimbus," who has subsequently worked to develop a cohesive foundation for the program. Efforts have focused on establishing formal relations with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The concept, mission statement, operating manual, membership guidelines, equipment requirements, web page and ALDHA SAR Advisory Council have also been developed and documented. We will continue to work closely to formalize relations with our trail partners; however, with the basic SAR foundation in place our efforts to recruit and develop qualified members will increase.
Annually, scores of Appalachian Trail hikers go missing or become lost. Most of these issues are rapidly resolved either by self-rescue, first responders, or through involvement of local Search and Rescue resources. However, there are cases where hikers are not found in a timely manner, found deceased, or cases remain unresolved. The case of Geraldine "Inchworm" Largay, in Maine, is a prime example of where additional trained resources may have changed the outcome.
"Inchworm" was an experienced long-distance hiker who loved camping. She started the 900-mile northern half of the trail in April 2013, and was about 200 miles from Mount Katahdin when she went missing on 23 July 2013. Over 2 years later, October 2015, her remains were found 2-3 miles from her last known point, the Poplar Ridge Lean-To. There was no evidence of foul play and the medical examiner reported that she died in her sleeping bag within her zipped up tent. Her journal indicates she survived 26 days… waiting for rescue.
The Maine Wardens Service was the Authority Having Jurisdiction for her search. A spokesman for the MWS stated that they could only do three dog searches in the area where her remains were found, "because there weren't enough volunteers physically fit for a ground search on the difficult terrain." Cross-country searching in this terrain is significantly more taxing than trail hiking. The MWS did not need the additional risk of inexperienced searchers becoming lost or injured.
If ALDHA SAR, as a professional resource, was in place at the time of the original search the additional manpower may have made the difference. In either case, the AHJ has responsibility for all aspects of a search; and a basic tenet of SAR is that teams serve only at the request of the AHJ. Undeterred, ALDHA saw the need for a trailwide resource that could be deployed to augment local resources. ALDHA SAR became a program under development.
We do not envision activation during the initial operational period of a search, nor do we intend to in any way to usurp existing SAR groups. Rather, we intend to be a cost-effective professional life-saving secondary resource that could be made available to augment a search should the situation dictate. Our team will arrive with fully trained personnel, extensive hiking experience, and knowledge of the A.T. We also intend to reduce the need for searches by providing Preventative SAR education to both hikers and the public.
We believe ALDHA SAR is a mutually beneficial plan for all. It encourages expansion of local SAR groups and provides an expanded professional resource to the AHJ/Incident Commander. Above all, it promotes the well being of hikers as we seek to preserve life through search and rescue.
Team members need to continue to do the things they love such as staying fit and hiking. We recommend continued activity with their local SAR groups and ALDHA. As a volunteer organization, members are not required to participate in every SAR operation. Local SAR operations take precedence over ALDHA SAR operations. Distances, weather, family and work considerations all affect members availability. We do ask that team members maintain a "Ready Pack" with the basics for a 48-hour search.