CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Looking for a person lost in the wilderness is often compared to looking for a needle in a haystack.

In reality, it’s far more difficult than that.

“When you think about the total square footage of a person’s body — whether they are lying down or standing up — and you think about trying to find that in a space of this size, it’s a far more challenging task,” said Marc Keller, a volunteer with Franklin Search and Rescue. 

At least you can take apart a haystack and know the needle is actually there. You can’t disassemble the wilderness the same way, search and rescue experts agree.

Needles also don’t have friends and family waiting, worrying, wondering — agonizing — about where their loved one went, whether they are dead or alive.

For 10 days now wardens and volunteers have been searching for Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay, a 66-year-old from Tennessee, who was reported missing by her husband when she failed to meet him at a prearranged point on Route 27 in Wyman Township. 

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Most lost hikers in Maine are found within the first 24 hours of being reported missing, Warden Lt. Kevin Adam said. Adam, the inland search coordinator for the state, has been overseeing the search for Largay.

A Warden Service synopsis of search-and-rescue operations from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, shows that 95 percent of those reported missing were found within 12 hours, and 98 percent were found within 24 hours.

The synopsis shows the state was involved in 452 searches at a total cost of $533,000. The top category for searches was lost hikers in 2011-12 with 93 searches, or 21 percent of search operations. Searches for AT hikers also were up from 11 in 2010-11 to 23 in 2011-12.

Search data for the most current year were still being compiled by the Maine Warden Service.

Timeline and anatomy of a search

The overall anatomy and timeline of every search for a missing person will vary depending on the circumstances involved, but many of the actions wardens and trained volunteers take are common to any operation.

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Often the search area is determined by first gathering information from others who had contact with the lost person.

In the search for Largay, for example, a process of elimination is ongoing and was based first on information obtained from other AT hikers who reported seeing Largay in the hours before she disappeared.

Some of those hikers have even come back to the region to aid the wardens in pinpointing where they last saw her.

The search started with wardens and other trained rescuers looking along the section of the AT Largay was last believed to be on. It then fanned out to about a 100-foot corridor on either side of that stretch of trail.

From there, the search expanded to all immediate side trails connecting to the AT. Each of the search areas are documented at the end of the day with findings.

Searchers are now focused on what they define as “linear features.” These are topographical areas that include stream beds, drainage ditches, logging roads, and ATV and snowmobile trails. These are areas where a lost person might logically be found based on the lay of the land and ease of travel.

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“But she is not in any of those areas, because we have searched just about every one that we can find on a map,” Adam said earlier this week.

Wardens and professional search volunteers who are certified with the Maine Association for  Search and Rescue are expected to continue a ground search Sunday.

That search will again include dogs that are trained to sniff out people or human remains, said MASAR President Deb Palman, a retired warden and dog handler. Palman and her dog, along with other teams, have been used in the search for Largay.

Trained riders and horses from Maine Mounted Search and Rescue also have been employed in the search.

Horses, in the right terrain, can aid a search tremendously, Palman said. They not only allow quicker movement, but because they have heightened senses of smell, sight and hearing, the animals can alert searchers to things that may be out of place in the landscape. A horse is also quieter and doesn’t as easily spoil possible clues like footprints or signs left behind by human passage that can be destroyed by a rider on an all-terrain vehicle, Palman said.

The search for Largay has involved an airplane and a helicopter. All of the types of searches contribute information to the overall effort.

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Even when searchers don’t find a specific clue connected to the lost individual, they are helping to build the story of what may have become of her, Palman said.

“At the very least, you look in a lot of places where the person isn’t so that somebody else can find the person where they actually are,” Palman said Friday.

Adam, the state’s inland search and rescue coordinator, has said the operation would be greatly reduced and less effective without the trained volunteers.

Stationed at the command post, Adam’s work would be similar to a field commander in a military operation. His work involves communications and command of those in the field. He also serves as the logistics chief, ensuring those going out on the search have the supplies and provisions they need to get them through the day.

With an overall staff of 60 to more than 100 people, it can be a daunting task.

“There are multiple disciplines involved,” Adam said from the command post for the Largay search set up at Sugarloaf Mountain. “You’ve got to get the food, the water, the transportation — a place for people to sleep.”

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Some of that work, with the help of the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency, has involved setting up communication towers for radios, both at the mobile command area near the base of Sugarloaf and near the mountain’s summit, Adam said.

Physical and mental fatigue

The longer a search continues, the more draining it can become for those involved and the more difficult it becomes for officials to muster the human resources they would like to have.

Going into the seventh day of the search for Largay on Wednesday, some of the wardens were going on as little as three hours of sleep per night.

Adam paused some of the most physically demanding parts of the search operation to take another hard look at the information they had collected so far, but also to allow the wardens and volunteers a chance to “recharge.”

“Some of these guys have not seen their families for days,” he said. 

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He and other wardens are the key liaisons with the lost person’s family, keeping them informed of the details of the search. Adam also has been the contact for any on-site news media.

Ultimately one of his biggest concerns is for the safety of the wardens and volunteers in the field, so ensuring they are rested, healthy and fit enough to continue is important. Keeping spirits up during a long, ongoing search is also a challenge.

“You’ve just got to mentally stay strong and keep plugging those holes, is what we talk about with searchers,” Adam said. “That’s what the incident management team does and then the search teams go out and plug the holes.”

The hazards for searchers go beyond the physical dangers of getting hurt in rugged terrain, Palman said. Many involved in searches, especially those in which a victim is found dead as the result of a crime, can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for months or even years.

Adam, who has been involved in state search and rescue operations for the past 21 years, remembers most of the names of those he’s helped look for and find. Those that have taken longer to find stand out, he said.

“I remember a lot of searches by name,” he said. “If I don’t remember them by name, I remember where they were, what the deal was and what the critical points were and what the turning points were.” 

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Maine has 15 certified search-and-rescue organizations with about 130 total members, Palman said. Those organizations, which are called on when needed by the Warden Service or local fire and rescue crews, largely evolved from the search for a lost boy nearly 38 years ago, Palman said.

In September 1975, Kurt Newton, a 3-year-old boy went missing from a campground in northern Franklin County’s Chain of Ponds area. Newton was never found, despite a lengthy search for him by thousands of people.

And while the days have ticked off in the search for Largay, Adam and others involved say they will continue to hope for the best. In the end, wardens and others involved don’t ultimately care how she is found — only that she is found, Adam said.

“That’s what matters,” Adam said. “We have to have an organized search, because we just can’t have people running willy-nilly out there. I wish that our search efforts had come up with something, but it doesn’t seem we have yet.”

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Lost in the woods; what now?

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Most experts agree a better question is, “What can you do to prevent yourself from getting lost?”

Here are a few key things.

1. Learn basic map and compass skills and carry both with you on any extended wilderness outing. While modern GPS systems are fantastic, they depend on batteries and often on being able to get to an opening in the forest canopy that will allow them to connect to the satellites they depend on for positioning information.

Carrying a cellphone is a good idea, but you can’t depend upon it. Many parts of Maine are beyond the reach of a cell tower. Also, it’s wise to turn off the phone when not using it to conserve battery life. Also, carry a portable recharging device.

2. Leave a note detailing your travel route and when you expect to return.

3. Avoid traveling alone in unfamiliar terrain. If you do become lost, two heads are usually better than one.

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4. Don’t panic. Once you realize you are lost, stay put if you are not in any immediate danger.

5. Carry enough extra gear to get you through at least 24 unexpected hours in the woods. That means a little extra food, spare water, a change of clothing that’s appropriate for the season and something lightweight, like a waterproof tarp or space blanket, that you can use to craft an emergency shelter.

6. Many search-and-rescue experts also teach the acronym STOP.

S – Stop moving. Don’t get yourself any more lost or make the situation worse.

T – Think about your situation. How did you get there? Try to remember the route to where you are.

O – Observe. Does anything look familiar? Look for something that matches your map. At this point you may realize that you’re not really lost.

P – Plan your next step. Figure out where you want to go and how to get there. This may involve using your map and compass skills.

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