Lost Baxter hiker sparks dialogue on safety, responsibility

Last Wednesday, the day before a man went missing in the mountains of Baxter State Park, I received an email from a man who was planning on hiking the park’s Mount Coe-South Brother Mountain loop. He had seen my blog post and video about completing the hike in August 2012, and he wanted to know if I had any advice. Furthermore, he wanted to know if while hiking the loop, I had noticed an old overgrown side trail to the nearby Fort Mountain, the site of a 1944 plane crash.

A cool view from somewhere near the summit of the first mountain on our loop hike.

A view from South Brother Mountain in Baxter State Park, not far from where John Lyon was found.

I hadn’t come across any trail to Fort Mountain, I replied to the man. I didn’t think it was an official park trail, I added, and if he was looking for it, he should bring a GPS and extra batteries.

“It would not be fun to get lost in the woods of that park,” I wrote.

I ended the email by telling him that I’d check some guide books and get back to him with more information. 

The next day, a man went missing while hiking the Mount Coe-South Brother loop with friends.

When I first heard the news, my head started to spin. Was my email correspondent the lost hiker?

It didn’t take me long to figure out that, no, he wasn’t. They had different names. It was simply a coincidence.

But as you can imagine, I followed the story of the lost hiker, 78-year-old John Lyon, with interest. I hoped that Lyon would be found alive and well, but as the search stretched over three days, the likelihood of his survival quickly diminished.

The trail starts to become steep, but we try to laugh it off.

On the Coe-South Brother mountains loop in Baxter State Park.

On Sunday, after 72 hours lost in the woods, Lyon was spotted by a helicopter on a rockslide near Fort Mountain, according to a BDN story. While dehydrated and a bit beat up, he was in pretty good physical condition — and he was in high spirits, according to the report.

The helicopter pilot spotted Lyon because he was in an open area and he was waving a stick, capped by one of his hiking socks. He was smart, but he was also quite lucky. Not every hiker lost in the vast wilderness of Baxter State Park is found in time.

In 1995, Jeffrey Rubin, 53, of Newton, Mass., died while near North Brother Mountain, which is also in the confines of Baxter State Park, according to a BDN story. And in 1974, Augustus Aldrich, 86, of Vermont, died after going missing by the park’s Chimney Pond Campground.

Fortunately, these large searches for missing hikers are rare in Baxter State Park. “Only about seven people in 100,000 visitors to the park will need a litter, a helicopter, or both to get them safely out of the park,” according to a recent post on the official Baxter State Park Facebook page.

That’s one reason why when things like this happen, it creates such a buzz. It’s rare.

But I think it’s more than that.

Oh hi, ridiculously steep part of the trail. AND the rocks were kind of slippery. We had to navigate around black scum to stay safe.

An example of how steep the terrain gets in the Mount Coe – South Brother area.

When a person becomes lost in the woods in this day and age, there’s something so fascinatingly primitive about it. Nowadays, most people spend the majority of their time indoors, enjoying the comforts of modern living. Yet a lost person is forced to remain outdoors, open to the elements. To many, their situation seems terrifying and otherworldly.

Then there is the mystery of it. Even if the hiker is found alive, the public rarely gets all the details of the endeavor, the days and nights of struggling through underbrush, drinking from streams and hoping to stumble upon a campground or road. And so we’re forced to speculate. It’s as if we can’t help ourselves.

The first question we try to answer: How did the person become lost in the first place?

Maybe he was dehydrated, became disoriented and wandered off trail. Or maybe he purposefully left the trail in an effort to make a “shortcut” back to the trailhead.

One of Lyon’s rescuers speculated that Lyon might have come of the OJI-Coe-Marston Trail loop onto “a bushwhacked trail” that takes hikers to an airplane crash site and got turned around, according to a BDN story. (The same old trail I had been emailed about a few days prior.)

For many people, this problem of losing the trail is not hard to imagine. Almost every person I know who hikes has become confused while exploring a trail system. Either they come across a trail intersection that isn’t marked or the painted blazes marking the trees suddenly disappear. But usually, things turn out OK. You can refer to your map or backtrack to the last trail marker.

Derek and Uncle Bruce heading from the first mountain of our hike to the second mountain.

Hiking between South Brother and Mount Coe.

For Lyon, that wasn’t the case.

After losing the trail, Lyon bushwhacked 7 or 8 miles through the forest to get to the rockslide where he was found, according to the Baxter State Park Authority.

Maybe if he’d stayed put, the search teams would have been able to locate him sooner. But that’s the most finger wagging I’m prepared to do. According to the Baxter State Park Authority, Lyon was an experienced outdoorsman, having successfully hiked the entire 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. And while lost, he “worked to save himself.”

“He will be the first to tell you that he will never hike again without a map,” the Baxter State Authority stated in an update on Facebook earlier today. “Although he made a few bad judgments, he also continued to work to save himself. After three nights in the most difficult terrain and vegetation Maine has to offer, Mr. Lyon continued to try to be seen by a helicopter and move through the forest to get to a trail or facility. His actions were an important component of his rescue.”

The search efforts included about 50 park rangers, a crew from the Maine Warden Service, pilots and crews from the Maine Forest Service, teams organized by the Maine Association of Search and Rescue, dogs and handlers from the Maine Search and Rescue Dogs organization and volunteer pilots from the Maine wing of the Civil Air Patrol.

Ma (Joyce) hiking on a cool, mossy woods path to the second mountain of our hike.

Hiking through a dense forest near the top of South Brother Mountain.

Furthermore, the New England Outdoors Center provided free lodging to the members of Lyon’s group and family, and food was donated to the search effort by local Millinocket vendors, including Hannafords, Angelos Pizza, Dunkin Donuts and the Sawmill Bat and Grill.

If this isn’t a show of community support and cooperation for a good cause, I don’t know what is.

I was pleased to see the majority of comments on Facebook were compassionate, encouraging and congratulatory to Lyon, his family and his hiking companions, and supportive of the many people involved in the search effort.

I’d like to join those positive commenters, because if I were ever lost in the woods of Maine, I’d prefer people to look for me, pray for me and support those I love rather than point out the mistakes that got me there… unless those mistakes are being pointed out so people can learn from them.

The following are a few lessons I’ve taken away from Lyon’s ordeal, reflecting on his mistakes and my own.

  1. I need to carry a GPS with extra batteries and a map and compass while hiking. My father gave a Garmin eTrek GPS for Christmas a few years ago, and I rarely use it. I don’t like looking at technology when I’m enjoying the peacefulness of the woods. But that little device could help tremendously if I ever wandered off trail. If Lyon had a GPS with him, maybe he could have navigated back to the trail.
  2. As a hiker, you’re responsible for your own safety. I’ve read many Facebook comments about the Lyon search, and a select few commenters have stated the belief that Baxter State Park rangers should ensure that hikers are prepared for the trails of the park. Frankly, I think that’s bogus. Park rangers — of any park — cannot take on that responsibility. Rangers aren’t babysitters. If you want one, you have to pay for one — and it’s called a Maine Guide. There simply aren’t enough rangers stationed at any park to check every hiker’s pack for sufficient water, food, first aid and emergency supplies. The rangers of Baxter State Park, from my many experiences in the park, are knowledgeable leaders who work hard to educate visitors while allowing them a certain amount of freedom to enjoy the wilderness. And this idea of hiker responsibility isn’t something I came up with. Check out the hikeSafe Hiker Responsibility, posted on the Baxter State Park Authority website.
  3. Clark cousins and significant others. July 13, 2013.

    A hiking group atop Katahdin. July 13, 2013.

    Hike with a group as much as possible. This most recent search effort in Baxter has made me reevaluate my decision to hike alone so often. Lyon left three hiking companions behind on the trail, then became lost. If he’d stayed with his group, it’s safe to say that he probably wouldn’t have become lost. After all, his three companions completed the hike successfully that day. But can I blame him for striking out on his own? I’ve done that plenty of times before. In fact, I hike alone all the time. Yet this Lyon’s story really drives home the idea of there being strength in numbers. If you’re hiking with a group and you get injured, you have someone who can help or at least go for help. If you lose the trail, it’s easier to relocate it as a group. And if your group truly becomes lost, it’s likely you have more resources and skills among you. Plus, you’d be more visible for a search team than a solo hiker would be.

A neat forest near the trailhead.

A neat forest near the trailhead for the South Brother – Mount Coe loop.

In the days to come, as I think about Lyon and his three days lost in the Maine woods, I’m sure more “lessons” will come to mind. But I encourage you to share you own trail lessons (in a positive and constructive way) in the comment section below.

What words of wisdom do you have for fellow hikers? What gear has proven indispensable to you in the woods? Where did you acquire your navigational skills? Have you ever lost the trail, and if so, what did you do about it?

Yesterday, I received another email from the man who originally emailed me about the Mount Coe-South Brother loop. He had been following the media coverage of the search and rescue of Lyon.

“That an experienced hiker could get lost like that in BSP is remarkable,” he wrote, “and a well-timed reminder that these aren’t a trifling woods … I will stick to the guidebook trail.”


Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.