Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

ACE Achievers

Before the movie was out on the big screen and the reviews in, the Madison County Communication Center and Laurel Volunteer Fire Department on the west tip of North Carolina were prepared for a possible influx of hikers on the now even more famous Appalachian Trail (AT).

The recent movie—“A Walk in the Woods,” starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte—is based on the book of the same name and chronicles writer Bill Bryson’s venture to hike the 2,144-mile trail. The characters are out for adventure, and much like AT hikers in real life, they get much more than they bargained for.

“That’s why we walk the trail,” said Franklin Emerson, Chief, Laurel Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s much easier to find someone if you can see in your mind where things are and the best way to get there.”

Emerson routinely walks sections of the 35-mile stretch of the AT in his jurisdiction, and he regularly recruits about a dozen other public safety volunteers to join him. Emerson and his crew don’t stick to the main footpath since that’s not the likely place to locate people lost or missing on the AT. Hikers are more likely to get turned around on the main trail and go off trail or accidentally take a side trail winding deeply into the densely wooded Pisgah National Forest.

A hiker might become disoriented, especially as darkness seeps through the canopy of leaves shrouding the trail, making it nearly impossible to navigate which direction leads out. Most hikers carry cellphones, although not as the end-all safety device or as a replacement for essential gear. Cellphones are an additional tool and do come in handy in case of an emergency, depending on reception.

Overall reception on the AT is best on the ridges and in towns, and hikers have reported getting a bar or two even in remote locations. A “lost hiker” in Madison County calling 911 is in good hands. A 120-foot cellphone tower on top of Rich Mountain in Pisgah National Forest in Madison County went into service in 2006, enabling reception in the community and along the highways and AT.

A Madison County dispatcher can use a hiker’s cellphone to determine coordinates through cellphone tower signals; a hiker able to provide a voice or camera shot description of surroundings—think landmarks—further aids in rescue.

Emerson said the hiker might be directed to the nearest hut along the well-marked trail and told to stay put until response arrives. If an injury pre-empts the ability to walk out, Laurel firefighters—who are either EMT or medical responder certified—provide first aid and transport their patient out of the woods on a big wheel equipped with a transport litter. Deaths from accidents and murder are relatively rare, considering the millions of people hiking the trail each year.

Sometimes, a missing hiker report involves search and rescue. Maybe the hiker failed to contact a friend or family member at a time specified or suffered an injury complicating a call for help. Emerson rallies his volunteers and, depending on the situation, enlists the aid of other local agencies. Madison County dispatchers gladly pitch in to coordinate radio communications during a subsequent ground or air (helicopter) search.

Six years ago, Madison County communication center Director Teresa Ogle was the radio contact on scene when two hikers went missing.

Ogle said it’s an experience she’ll remember for a long time.

“They got turned around,” she said. “It got dark. The trail isn’t wide, and the family called. We couldn’t get a plot on them because they hadn’t tried to contact us.”

A helicopter search located the two men, who were dehydrated and out of food and decidedly ready to give a second try another time.

Emerson said the two men were their own worst enemies.

“They kept moving on us,” Emerson said. “We couldn’t get a fix on them. They thought they could hike out.”

Not too long ago, a 15-year-old boy was found after a three-day search that had crews hunting the forked trails and walking a mile of ridge.

“He got lost, and we found him in Tennessee,” Emerson said. “He was good and thirsty, but besides that, OK. We were all relieved after that one.”

Emerson has lived in the county all of his life. He is a founding member of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department and has been chief for the past eight years. The sections he has hiked as part of his commitment to search and rescue might add up to the 2,149 miles of trails, but he’s not interested in hiking the distance incrementally or through one long trek at the average of seven months on the trail.

“I hike in sections,” he said. “I get out and walk. I observe stuff. I take mental note. It saves a lot of time knowing what to expect. I’m not interested in hiking the whole trail and never have been.”

County Manager Forrest Gilliam is also a section hiker, in his own way. He spends a lot of time on the road away from the county’s government seat in Marshall visiting the county’s two other more populous cities—Mars Hill and Hot Springs. The trail runs down the center of Hot Springs so, in essence, walking on Main Street is the same as hiking that section.

“That’s about the extent of my hiking,” he said.

The same goes for Ogle.

“We have four seasons, and they’re all beautiful,” she said. “I go on vacation and am glad to come home to the mountains.”

How about hiking the Appalachian Trail?

“Not me,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but that doesn’t mean I want to hike the Appalachians.”