If you mess with the sun, the sun will win - and the sun is not particular about who the victim is. Several people know that all too well after a series of rescues conducted in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park this past Fourth of July.
According to Chief Ranger Dean Wyckoff, heat that day resulted in multiple rescues and the eventual closing of backcountry trails to hikers. The first indication that trouble was brewing in the backcountry, where miles of hiking trails are available for visitors, came early in the afternoon of July 4. The park office received a weak cell phone call and then text messages that revealed a party of three hikers was in trouble.
The trio, two men and one woman in their early 20s, were lost in the Achenbach Hills Wilderness Area. The texts said they were dehydrated and had very little water remaining. The temperature at the time was 90 degrees with 88 percent humidity and no wind.
Despite GPS coordinates and brightly spread out camping items, initial attempts to locate the stricken hikers were not successful. A rescue team was dispatched on foot and a medical helicopter called to the scene from Dickinson. The ground team located the hikers and prepared a landing zone for the helicopter. A Park Service emergency medical technician determined that two of the hikers would be taken to a McKenzie County ambulance that was stationed 2 miles away and that the third person would be airlifted to the hospital in Dickinson.
While those preparations were under way, a member of the rescue team fainted due to heat exhaustion. It caused a change in plans. It was decided to fly all members of the rescue team out of the area as well as the three hikers. The rescue team member who was ill would also be airlifted to a Dickinson hospital.
The operation necessarily took some time, during which a third problem arose. A party of four hikers encountered the rescue team and alerted them that one of their group was dehydrated and could not make it up a steep hill.
Rescuers responded by using a wheeled litter and rope to transfer the man to a waiting ambulance. While the search and rescue team was wrapping up their operations, a call from North Dakota State Radio advised that they had received a weak cell phone signal from the same general area. It was later learned that a 20-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man, both from Minot, were also lost and dehydrated.
The woman was carrying signal flares that greatly helped the rescue team in finding the pair of hikers, directing the helicopter to their location. At that point, park personnel determined that the Achenbach Trail system would be closed to hiking. It would remain closed until July 6 when cooler weather prevailed.
That day at T.R. National Park should serve as a vivid reminder that sun and heat are not to be taken lightly. While hikers exert energy and thereby raise their body temperatures, similar conditions can occur in outdoor work environments, fishing boats and even while doing chores in the yard.
Anyone spending time outdoors should drink plenty of water, even if not thirsty. Wearing a covering of light clothing for protection is also advisable as prevention against heat stress or heat stroke.
While heat stroke is the most serious heat-related disorder, heat stress and exhaustion are not far behind. Anyone who develops symptoms of heat-related problems should be treated immediately by removing the victim to a cooler area, using water to cool them down and to let them drink slowly. Fainting episodes can also result from too much exposure to the sun. Some symptoms include dizziness, muscle spasms, chills, fatigue and heavy sweating.
In summary, respect the power of the sun. If you are going to be outdoors for a long period of time, take proper precautions to protect your health. Drink plenty of water, avoid caffeine and consider wearing clothing labeled SPF, or sun protection factor.
Our summers are short enough. There's no reason not to enjoy them, but do so in a safe manner to avoid the lasting and dangerous consequences associated with heat stress and heat stroke.