John Harrigan: Voice of experience reflects on rescue tabs

JOHN HARRIGAN June 22. 2013 2:30AM

AROUND THE TIME I went from the Nashua Telegraph to the New Hampshire Sunday News, by then with a good bit of hiking the White Mountains under my boots, I came upon a flock of would-be hikers at the butt-end of the Falling Waters Trail, in Franconia Notch.

Having done that loop often, from that starting point to Haystack and then along that breathtaking spine of ridge to Liberty and Lafayette, I knew full well the time required, which was at least 10 hours, unless you were young and unencumbered and hiked like a goat. I'd run that ridge many times. You had to leave the trail head at 8 in the morning to be back down to the valley floor before dark. It was a dawn to near-dusk trip.

This encounter was at 4 in the afternoon, and the flock I encountered had no packs, and as far as I could see, no extra clothes or any gear whatsoever. "Where are you headed?" I asked, and they said up the Falling Waters Trail to Greenleaf hut and back down to the notch road, to me always Route 3 but now 93.

The Falling Waters Trail and the resultant hike along the backbone of the Franconia Ridge Trail, between Franconia Notch to the left and the Pemigewasset Wilderness on the right (if you're going north) is my favorite hike in the Whites and always will be, but it's not for the frivolous, or anyone starting off at 4 in the afternoon. Somehow, I dissuaded them, with statements like, "You're out of your minds," and maybe, "You morons."

What prompted this recollection was a news item that appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader about two teenagers who got lost between Milford and Brookline on the Milford Rail Trail. They lost the trail and called 911. To quote from the story, "Fish and Game Officer Todd Szewczyk brought them home." The headline was "Lost hikers found safe, but with no map or compass."

First, how do you lose the trail on a railroad track, and second, why do you need a map and a compass on a railroad bed, and third, why call 911?

Not that I'd sanction leaving home without a map and a compass, even on a railroad track. I'm a Luddite, particularly when it comes to GPS. Ergo, I always carry a map and compass, even on the way to the grocery store.

Who funds search and rescue in such silly cases as well as the more drastic? You and I who pay for hunting and fishing licenses, that's who. Even though people who hunt and fish are rarely the ones who prompt searches and rescues, we pay for the people who do.

I've been on a bunch of commissions and committees looking into this dichotomy, and to date nobody has been able to figure out how to live up to the outdoor recreation credo: "Let the user pay."

In Europe, membership in a climbing club carries an automatic insurance rider for search and rescue. We are not that regimented here, nor are we inclined to be, and in fact I won't be. When it comes to that, I'm leaving for Alaska.

Awhile back, I asked an insurance friend about whether one can take out a policy covering search and rescue.

I've yet to hear back, but to me it's an intriguing question. Could avid and constant hikers pay to save their own bacon? Fortunately, I never had to ask that question, or answer for my own stupidity.

The fairest way would be for purchasers of hiking and climbing gear and, for that matter, anyone buying canoes, tents and packs to pay an excise tax, as we who hunt and fish do, generating funds that help pay for search and rescue and, by the by, also help keep wild lands wild and protect and enhance great swaths of countryside for all to enjoy, not just those who fish and hunt.

Having a picnic or bird-watching or berrying on conserved land? You're on our dime, and welcome to it, but step up and pay up.

Finding a way for other outdoor recreators to help fund search and rescue would be fair, in my opinion, but I'm not holding my breath until "Let the user pay" becomes more than just a credo.

John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook, NH 03576. Email him at

John Harrigan

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