Emergency responders know that good training can be half the battle when it comes to coordinating an effective response — even more so when the area is remote and rescue resources are scarce.
That’s why Chief Ranger Joseph Hughes of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula has been working closely with the Coast Guard to stay semper paratus for the emergencies that inevitably result as more and more visitors discover the lakeshore’s dramatic landscape along Lake Superior.
Michigan’s annual Ice Fest, for example, draws more than 10,000 visitors to the area to climb ice formations on the spectacular cliffs that run along the shore. An accident in some areas can drop people directly into Lake Superior, or onto a narrow beach along the water’s edge, or require a long snowmobile-and-snowshoe hike for rescuers through harsh backcountry.
And in the summer the area is a magnet for paddlesport enthusiasts who sometimes get in trouble along the shores of the notoriously changeable lake.
That’s why training sessions like one held Feb. 5 at the airport in Marquette, Mich. — featuring an Air Station Traverse City’s MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, boat crews from Coast Guard Station Marquette, park rangers, and members of the volunteer group Superior High Angle Rescue Program, or SHARP — are such a valuable learning opportunity for all involved, Hughes said. Participants went over communications, aircraft capabilities, and the basic procedures used by helicopter crews in various types of rescues, including the high-angle rescues that happen during cliff- and ice-climbing events.
All are important in his rapidly growing area of responsibility, Hughes said.
“We’re at 1.32 million people coming to the park each year, and to put that in perspective, Yellowstone, a much larger park, sees about four million. Basically, in the last 10 years, we’ve added about a million visitors a year,” he said. “We evacuated about 50 people from the park over the last year, off the water and on the coastline.”
Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Brandon Skelly, one of the pilots who took part in the training, said the experience was valuable for all participants.
“We were able to discuss capabilities with agencies that could be working together on a case,” Skelly said. “Any time you’re working with someone you don’t frequently train with, having a shared understanding of each other’s strengths and the best way to use assets will significantly improve the chances of a favorable outcome.”
Chief Petty Officer Mike Twito, the officer-in-charge of Station Marquette, agreed. The station is located about 45 miles west of the National Lakeshore, and because it takes nearly an hour for the station’s truck to get there, Station Marquette’s ice rescue team will be staging its crew at the National Lakeshore during Ice Fest.
“We’re going to take care of the horizontal ice, and they’ll handle the vertical ice,” Twito said of fellow responders. “It was pushing the easy button for us to be out there — it made the most sense.”
Twito said area agencies have been working hard to re-establish close working relationships that were hard to maintain during the pandemic. His members are already sharing information about search patterns and techniques with other government agencies. More joint training is planned after the weather breaks, Twito said, including two-boat training and cross training with the National Lakeshore’s 32-foot ranger boat and the boats of other local agencies. Hoist training with Air Station Traverse City is also in the works, Hughes said.
The ultimate beneficiaries of the emphasis on cooperation are park users, who can count on rescuers on the water and in the air who are familiar with each other’s procedures in the event of a mishap.
“We work really closely with the small boat station in Marquette, so it seemed natural to reach out to Air Station Traverse City for this joint training,” said Hughes, whose staff of five rangers is made up of military veterans — including a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer set to arrive this summer. “We really enjoy working together.”