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Managing an Emergency with Kids in the Backcountry

IMG_6767On June 6, 2016, I took my 10 year old son, 8 year old daughter, 12 year old niece, 10 year old nephew and a friend on a backpacking trip to Tunnel Falls, a 200 foot waterfall along the Eagle Creek Trail in Cascade Locks, Oregon. Instead, our trip was cut short and I found myself in the middle of near death accident, managing children throughout the experience.

The Incident

Managing children while in a crisis situation is difficult, to say the least. Doing so in the backcountry, with limited resources and support can be a gut wrenching ordeal leaving you torn between offering aid and managing the children’s safety and sanity.

It was an unusually cool northwest summer day. So surprisingly cool that we found ourselves scouring weather maps and guide books, searching for conditions more suitable for a backpacking trip with kids. Ultimately we would settle on Eagle Creek / Tunnel falls, just east of Portland. The Eagle Creek trail winds through a lush canyon visiting numerous waterfalls along the way.

Excited for the chance to visit this beautiful area, we loaded up. Cousins visiting from out of town necessitated the rare use of the third row in our family SUV. With a deficit of space, gear had to be stowed between passengers and under foot. In the front seat sat reinforcements, a friend who my kids knew as Teacher M.

We pulled up to the trailhead about 2pm. As I opened the door, kids and gear spilled out onto the ground. Just before heading down the trail I rounded up the kids for a briefing. Knowing the steep and winding nature of this trail I reminded them to stay close and always keep their distance from the trail’s edge. Our plan to hike 5 miles and set up camp. The next morning, we would hike the remaining mile, visit Tunnel Falls, and return to pack up camp; before heading back out. The events that transpired would ultimately vary drastically from our plans.

IMG_6769Around 5:30 pm, we passed over High Bridge. Sitting at least 100 feet atop the canyon, it marked mile 4 on the trail. After spending a few minutes admiring the bridge and taking in the view, we pressed on knowing we had only a mile to camp. About a half mile past the bridge, we came across an available campsite. Having hiked this trail before, I let the group know there were better campsites ahead. A little further down the trail, we discovered a campsite on the canyon side of the trail. We stopped for a moment to check it out.

While the kids explored the campsite,  Teacher M meandered toward the nearby fast flowing creek. Awestruck by the view, she called me over. As I made my way down the short makeshift trail toward the sound of water, I could see the top of the waterfall but not the bottom. Pausing a safe distance away, I pulled up my camera and zoomed in to snap a couple shots. As I watched Teacher M continue  around the cliff’s edge toward the creek, my anxiety grew.  . “You should probably…”, the words seemed to crawl off my tongue like thick molasses. As she turned, time seemed to stand still. Her feet seemed to kick out from under her as if she had landed on a spinning treadmill. Before I could finish my next word she started sliding. Her arms flailed about as her hands tried desperately to grab hold of the slippery, algae covered rocks to no avail. She grasped for anything that might hold her. As the creek carried her over the edge of the falls and out of view, I screamed out, “No, No, No!!” It was all I could do. I screamed as if somehow doing so might have the faintest chance of reversing the events I had just witnessed. As I stood there helpless, I felt as though my chest was going to implode.

Before I continue , I want you to know Teacher M survived and with minimal injuries. This post is not intended to be a suspense filled drama, but to offer advice on handling a crisis situation  while managing children in the backcountry. 

IMG_5415-1Four hours after I sent the first SOS message using my personal locator beacon, something I consider a must have when venturing into the backcountry with children, I was watching a skilled rope team extract Teacher M  from the canyon. The rope team and EMT’s arrived at the trailhead at 9pm and were to us by 10:15. Within 30 minutes of their arrival, she was pulled to safety and covered in coats and sleeping bags while a paramedic looked her over. She was able to walk out on her own that night, escorted by a dozen rescuers. I cleaned up camp, hung our food bag, tucked kids in for the night and attempted to get some rest.

Decision Time

After my friend was swept over the waterfall, I ran toward the small campsite that originally caught our attention. The kids were standing there unaware of the events that had just transpired, confused and and wondering why I was screaming. I yelled for three of the kids to stay put and not, under any circumstance, move away from the fire pit area and I told my son to follow me. FullSizeRenderWe ran out of the camp site, to the trail and back in the direction we came from. I was desperately searching for a way down to the creek below. The canyon was just getting deeper and deeper,there was no safe way down. Eventually, I realized my searching was futile and we ran back to camp. By this time, the kids were terrified.  I told my son to sit with the other kids and I  carefully started walked thru the campsite, toward the cliff edge yelling her name. After a few seconds, I could hear her yelling back. I carefully scrambled down to a small ledge which gave me a view of her without putting myself at risk of falling. She had worked her way to the canyon wall and had climbed up a four foot by four foot moss covered rock outcrop. She was pinned to this rock and if she were to slip she would fall about twenty feet down the second tier of the falls. She was only about twenty-five feet below me, but the walls were vertical and covered in wet moss. We hollered back and forth, she indicated she was cold and thought her arm might be broken and that she may have a head injury. I told her I would call for help and be right back.

IMG_5427I scrambled back up the hill to grab my locator beacon and activated the SOS emergency rescue alarm. While activating the device, I grabbed the rainfly from my tent, thinking she could use it as protection from the  freezing waterfall spray. At this point two backpackers happened to pass by. The kids told them that someone had fallen and they jumped in to offer assistance. They just so happened to have an actual tarp and were willing to lower that down to her instead of the tent rain fly.  Aside from sending down the tarp and later some hot water, all I could do was occasionally check in and reassure her that help is on the way.

The Crux

After returning from lowering the tarp, I was finally able to stop and catch my breath. My daughter was crying hysterically and begging me to stop moving and hold her. I pulled her close and she just balled her eyes out. She was shaking so much and nearly hyperventilating. I looked up at the other kids, they were in shock. They didn’t witness the fall but they were close enough to hear Teacher M’s cries for help.

IMG_6779Thirty minutes had passed since she fell and it was now 7pm. After giving each child strict instructions  to keep within a small designated area, I began to focus on the well being of each child individually. At all times while managing this emergency, I made the well-being and safety of the children my top priority. While I care for my friend and wanted to do everything I could do to help her; I could not, at any time, allow doing so to put the children at risk. This includes risking injury to myself, because by doing so I would not just be risking my safety but that of the children

The Steps

These seven steps were the main steps that stood out to me during this situation. Each were implemented and reevaluated throughout the night.

  1. Maintain Control: Regardless of the choices made, you need to maintain control of the situation as best as you can. In my situation, I needed to manage the four kids, their location, and well-being before attempting to communicate and offer assistance to my friend. Kids need to see that you are in control in order to feel secure in an insecure situation.
  2. Devise a plan: Once you have established some control over the situation, determine what your plan is going to be. This is critical to first consider the safety of children that are with you. If this incident would have happened without kids, my plan would have been completely different. However, based on the needs of the kids, the time of day, and the fact that I had sent for help using my beacon; I determined it best to stay at camp, communication regularly with my friend, and tend to the kids until rescue efforts arrived. Leaving the kids and running for help was not an option, because their safety would have been compromised. Hiking out with the kids would have posed a safety concern as the canyons were dark and the potential for getting hurt on the trail was too high.
  3. Set Physical Boundaries: Every situation is different and you as the parent or caregiver will know what the physical boundaries should be. In this particular circumstance, I made the boundaries a very limited area next to a fire pit. The boundary was a large log, which they were instructed not to cross. This boundary kept the kids at least thirty feet from the cliff edge and clearly it defined the area they were not allowed to pass. As the sun began to set, and light was fading, the tents became the new boundary. This ensured that no kids were moving around in the dark.
  4. Focus on children’s needs: The basic needs of children must be given attention. Shelter, food, first aid, warmth, etc. are paramount. Within minutes of the incident, I determined that we would be here as a group for the night. Once I determined this I had the kids set up the tents. Eventually, we realized we needed to eat. This was difficult for me. I was sick to my stomach knowing my friend was sitting below, trapped on a rock freezing, and could not bring myself to eat. However, children were hungry and did need to eat. Ironically, water was at a premium, as it was not safe to approach the creek to filter water and thus we conserved the water for meals and chose to feed the kids pre-made sandwiches that they would have eaten the following day.
  5. Keep the information flowing: Given the right situation and the maturity of the children, sharing information may be critical. While I was running to the lookout ledge and back, running 30 feet down the trail trying to get better signal for the beacon, and stopping to respond to information requests on the beacon, I initially was reluctant to share information. Eventually, I realized that sharing information would calm some of the kids. I then kept the kids updated on my friend’s condition and responses from the SOS texts. Informing the group of the text reading “Paramedics at the trailhead” or “Teacher M is ok, she is just really cold” were very reassuring and comforting.
  6. Talk about what you are doing: Based on maturity level and understanding of the children, try to talk through what you are doing. This has very similar benefits as keeping the information flowing. My daughter was especially sensitive to the chaos and felt far more comforted when I would talk through what I was doing and why I was doing it. When responding to an information request on the beacon, I would tell her who I was texting and when I was boiling water, I would explain to her that I was filling a water bottle with hot water to send to Teacher M to warm her up. Being informed made a big difference in my daughter’s sanity.
  7. Offer distractions: If you can find something for little ones to focus on besides the emergency, this will help settle their nerves (and likely yours as well). During our emergency, my son and his cousin decided to sit by the fire pit and attempt to dig up a giant rock. Sure….go ahead. This kept them less focused on the main event. With my daughter, I asked her to find our string of tent lights and decorate our “Help” sign. This activity helped distract her and allowed her feel a little bit of control in a very out of control situation. Eventually, I sent all the kids the bigger tent to just chat. This allowed them to decompress together.

When an tragic event or an emergency happens in the backcountry, with limited resources, managing the scene is a daunting task. Stress levels peak and it’s easy to become narrowly focused on the victim. With the added responsibility of caring for children, priorities and focus must be balanced. Hopefully, our story brings better understanding of how to manage children in a crisis situation in the backcountry. Or even just when out of cell phone range and valuing the complexities of caring for children. Knowing ahead of time how you will manage these situations, and having a plan of action, will be invaluable should you find yourself in such a situation.

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