Floods and hurricanes focus media attention on search-and-rescue (SAR) functions performed by state wildlife agents and local law enforcement officers. Far more frequent are SAR operations for lost or missing outdoorsmen.
Frankly, I wonder why we don’t have more missing outdoorsmen requiring SAR in Louisiana; maybe it’s the skills most of them possess. The marsh and coastal areas are a vast maze of twisting bayous and canals. Shallow flats await the confused boater who may easily run aground after losing his way.
Travel north of the coastal area into swamps where lakes and bayous meander through cypress and tupelo timber, all looking the same. And the hunter or hiker on foot isn’t immune to getting lost either. Upland areas can be just as confusing, with dense thickets, bayous and creeks.
While woodsmanship and familiarity with surroundings keep most of us out of trouble in the backcountry, mechanical failures, injuries or just plain bad luck can leave anyone lost and alone with dark closing in and temperatures dropping. Other than Mr. Murphy, no one else is ever around when things go bad.
That’s when wildlife agents and deputies begin SAR. They won’t quit until those in distress are located. When things go well, it may not take that long. More often than not, it goes well, and knowing how to make that happen is the result of training, experience and a thorough knowledge of the country wildlife agents and rural deputies patrol.
A perfect example of such a SAR professional is Ross Mire, a detective lieutenant with the St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s Office, Marine Division. After a 23-year career as a wildlife enforcement agent, Ross retired from LDWF and joined SMPSO three years ago. No one knows Atchafalaya Delta WMA better than Ross, and he performs frequent, successful SAR operations on this vast and treacherous expanse. He was happy to offer some tips on how to stay out of trouble on the Delta. His sage advice is of value to anyone boating in remote places anywhere.
First, avoid making poor decisions. Check weather forecasts and heed warnings, paying particular attention to fog, wind, and tide advisories.
For example, the weather forecast last Dec. 18 called for high winds that typically push water off the shallow flats in the Delta. Ross and his fellow officers anticipated problems due to weather and were ready. They responded to seven calls for assistance from boaters on the Delta and Wax Lake Outlet who knew the conditions but went out anyway.
As we all know, weather can change quickly so even when conditions are good, make sure your boat is ready for bad weather. Know its limitations and don’t exceed them.
Ross explained that small, shallow-draft boats are great for navigating the shallows in good duck hunting areas. But boat trips to the Delta are 15 to 20 miles long, often in fog and always in swift, deep water. Consider using a larger boat and avoid overloading. Equip the boat with navigation lights, and be sure to have extra dry clothes, food and water on board. Carry flashlights, signal flares and survival gear.
Know the area and travel routes. Those new to the Delta often become disoriented and lost. GPS units are great but, as Mire said, “Don’t bet your life on one.” He does encourage having and knowing how to use a GPS to determine coordinates for SAR responders. A search with known coordinates in hand is a “smart search,” and expedites rescue.
Running aground is the most-common cause of stranding in the Delta. What to do next is a critical decision. Should one get in the water and try to push off or call and wait for rescue? If temperatures are mild or a change of dry clothing is on board, then an attempt to push off may be considered. Otherwise, Mire said it’s better to call for help and wait.
This brings us to communications gear. Carry a VHS radio and use it to hail another boat. Bring along the cell phone, but Mire advises that cell coverage is poor on the Delta and only fair around Wax Lake Outlet. Satellite phones are great if you have one. When using a cell phone to call for help, call 911 since emergency systems have the ability to determine coordinates on the location of a cell phone. And be sure to have battery chargers for all communications gear.
Mire’s final advice to those returning from the Delta to a boat launch is to get off the water well before dark, allowing 90 minutes of travel time.
Remember that in a SAR situation, the lives of the rescuers as well as the victims are in jeopardy. So plan and prepare well for your next outdoor adventure and always use good judgment while afield.
Got a question? Ask Keith!
If you have a question about wildlife and fisheries enforcement, shoot a note to Keith LaCaze at firstname.lastname@example.org.