MILLINOCKET — In a rare move, the Baxter State Park will request that a hiker pay the $10,000 it cost to search for him earlier this month.
Two men from Ontario, Canada, spent several days camping in Baxter State Park in early December but did not register, as is required. On Dec. 8, one of the men hiked back to a car, while the other man decided to climb Mount Katahdin alone, according to Jensen Bissell, the Baxter State Park director. Overnight campers must have reservations, while day-use hikers are required to sign in when they arrive at the park.
When the hiker did not return from Katahdin that evening, a search was mounted on the morning of Dec. 9, as a storm approached. Bissell declined to identify the hikers.
“Most folks who are camping, you have to have camping reservations, so we know you are there,” Bissell said. “That helps us know where you are, and if you don’t come back, we know where to start looking.”
Guests can self-register at a number of sites in the park during the winter months, including at Togue Pond Gate, according to Bissell. The Ontario men walked right past the gate, the director said.
The ensuing search for the man, which included the use of an Army National Guard helicopter, cost about $10,000, according to Bissell. The park is seeking to recoup those funds.
According to Park Rule 2.2, “The Baxter State Park Authority may request reimbursement of search and rescue costs in case of reckless hikers.”
“The rule says we can request,” Bissell reiterated. “There is no legal requirement (for someone to pay), but it seems reasonable here.”
Bissell said this is only the third time the park’s overseers have chosen to seek reimbursement from hikers. In 2006, in the wake of a summer incident, the park recovered about $2,500 from a hiker. The other incident, which Bissell said happened around 2010, resulted in a negotiated settlement.
“Most people don’t cross the threshold of true recklessness in our minds,” Bissell said. “We don’t like to do this. It’s not something we seek to do. Most of our users are conscientious and thoughtful.”
This case, he said, was different.
“People usually have to make two or three really bad decisions to get into serious trouble,” he said. “But these people made far more than that. We’re just really lucky that he survived.”
The two men parked behind a vacant ranger camp near a gate, according to Bissell, and walked into the woods. Their car wasn’t found until a ranger returned after a weekend away.
He found a man in the car.
“One of the two individuals decided, wisely, that it was not a good decision to hike up Katahdin in the face of this storm, and he walked out,” Bissell said.
The National Guard responded with a Black Hawk helicopter with forward-looking infrared sensors, but the aircraft was only able to be used for two hours before the weather worsened as the storm front approached.
The hiker who had decided to climb Katahdin was found on Dec. 9, after he had left the Helon Taylor Trail, traveled down the slope through the forest and spent a night in the woods.
“We just happened to stumble upon him [on Roaring Brook Road],” Bissell said. “The ranger was just heading in to start his part of the search.”
About 8 percent of the total camper-nights in Baxter took place during the winter months during the 2013 to 2014 season, Bissell said. Summer campers accounted for about 50,000 camper-nights, while winter campers accumulated about 4,000.
Bissell said most hikers take safety seriously, but said those who don’t put others at risk.
“We feel if you’re hurt in the park, we’re ready, without question, to come to your aid,” Bissell said. “But it’s really hard for me to put rescue crews at risk for people who didn’t even care to try to do the right thing.”