For an outdoor enthusiast, Lauren Guillebeau wasn’t a total novice. She’d been hiking to the Sipsey Wilderness three times before and was confident that she and the friend she had gone out hiking with could handle themselves. But on the morning of Oct. 26, Guillebeau tried to cross a ravine on a log when she slipped and fell below, severely fracturing her leg in the process. However much experience she’d had, nothing could have prepared her for suffering such a serious injury, isolated in the wilderness.
Fortunately for Guillebeau, the other hikers she and her friend had encountered — the only people they had seen all day — were still within shouting distance. One of the hikers stayed behind to help with Guillebeau’s wound, while a second went to a ridge in search of cell phone service and a third found a volunteer wilderness ranger, Kim Waites, who was in the middle of leading a hike.
Drawing on her background in mountain rescue and communicating with Wild South Alabama Program Manager Mark Kolinski on the opposite side of the Sipsey via two-way radio, Waites coordinated Guillebeau’s evacuation from deep within the forest. Waites’ team carried Guillebeau in a Stokes basket more than three miles to an ambulance waiting at the trail head, clearing a path with hand tools all the while.
“I just kept telling myself that I was going to say, ‘Thank you,’” Guillebeau recalled. “‘Don’t forget how grateful you are in this moment.’ You can be in the woods alone for hours and hours before you ever see anyone; what if it had happened at night?”
On the evening of Thursday, May 15, Guillebeau will try to make the most of her gratitude with a fundraiser at Avondale Brewing Company. The benefit, which will last from 5:30–8:30 p.m., will feature a raffle and music from Ben Trexel and Friends, Ben Walker, Amacio Favor and Krymson Wyte.
Wild South, a nonprofit that seeks to protect and preserve Southern wilderness areas, was formed in 2007 from a merger of grassroots environmental organizations in Asheville, N.C., and Moulton, AL. Since 2011, they’ve partnered with the USDA Forest Service in Alabama to train volunteer wilderness rangers, like Waites, to “provide all the services of a Forest Service wilderness ranger except law enforcement,” according to their literature.
There are 41,450 acres of wilderness in Alabama, with only one part-time Forest Service ranger to cover the area. Even if it’s just for one or two days a month, volunteers like Waites provide services both to hikers and to nature, trying to maintain a balance between the two in the pristine wilderness.
According to Waites, rangers “pick a three-or-four mile section of wilderness…picking the trails that are most frequented by hikers, so we can maximize hiker interface, maximize the amount of work that can be done, naturalize fire rings, pick up trash, clear trails. … We document everything, too, for when we apply for grants.”
Though it is not a rescue organization, Wild South and its rangers are also trained in CPR and first aid, and some, like Waites, are also certified as wilderness first responders, providing aid in cases where medical attention will be delayed.
Guillebeau’s accident and rescue illustrate the necessity of having trained rangers like Waites on hand. “The idea of wilderness is supposed to be a place where you go, but leave no trace,” Waites said. “It’s supposed to be a place ‘untrammeled’ by man — that word is pulled directly from the Wilderness Act of 1964, and that word is subject to interpretation, but the idea is that you go, and there’s a footpath, and beyond a footpath should look pristine. With the rise in recreation…it starts looking more like an established campground.”
The allure of the wilderness is that, unlike a national park, it provides serene isolation from the outside world. That isolation can prove dangerous, however, without the reliable presence of wilderness rangers. Even factoring in Guillebeau’s remarkable resilience and presence of mind — she intuitively set her own broken leg for a splint made of sticks and duct tape — Waites’ expertise and level-headedness were critical factors in stabilizing a crisis situation.
The event at Avondale is specifically dedicated toward raising funds for first aid training among the volunteer ranger corps. “Wilderness rangers are supposed to have training in first aid and CPR,” Waites said. “There are different levels, though; there’s wilderness first aid, and there’s wilderness first responder, which has more training in how to handle evacuations. Ideally, we’d all be first responders, but that training, which certifies you for two years, is $800. Wilderness first aid is more like $75. Raising money, especially for this event, we could conceivably get everybody trained in first aid.”
Guillebeau and Waites also hope that the benefit will serve as a recruiting tool. The corps of volunteer rangers is clearly undermanned, as volunteers’ busy schedules prevent many of them from going out to the wilderness even once a month. According to Waites, the community of wilderness hikers predominantly hails from Birmingham, which could help in the recruiting process.*
In addition to the need for training and new recruits, Wild South’s volunteer rangers are frequently misunderstood as well. Their authority can be difficult to explain, and their insistence on adhering to the principle of Leave No Trace can seem overbearing to novice hikers who have yet to develop the proper respect for the wilderness. This event will allow Wild South’s rangers an opportunity to explain their role in the wilderness, and the ways they serve both hikers and nature, all over a pint or two.
Raising money for first aid training, finding new recruits and communicating the rangers’ mission makes for a tall order for one night at the pub, but if Guillebeau and Waites have proven anything, it’s that they know a thing or two about handling adversity.
The Wild South benefit at Avondale will require a $5 cover. For more information, visit wildsouth.org.
Correction (5:09 p.m., 5/1/14): Copy updated to clarify Waites’ statement.