MILLINOCKET, Maine — An Ohio hiker whose decision to leave a Baxter State Park trail led to the largest park search in more than 40 years during Memorial Day weekend will not have to pay for the search that saved his life, park Director Jensen Bissell said Monday.
“We have done this before,” Bissell said, referring to charging someone for a search. “It’s in our rules that we could. It’s just a matter of determining what’s reckless.”
It will probably take several weeks before the costs of the search are tallied, Bissell said.
Michael Hays, 41, of Stow, Ohio, ended the search when he stepped into a small clearing in steep, densely wooded terrain a half-mile south of Helon Taylor Trail and waved an orange poncho at a passing Maine Forest Service helicopter at about 3 p.m. May 31.
Hays last had been seen by other hikers the afternoon of May 28 on Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail, a narrow, rocky ridge between 4,919-foot Pamola Peak and 5,267-foot Baxter Peak. The search began the next day after he did not sign out on a trail register.
Hays’ rescuers flew him to Millinocket Regional Hospital for treatment before he was transferred to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor for surgery on his shattered left kneecap on June 1.
Hays said he decided to leave Knife Edge in search of a shortcut that would allow him to bypass Pamola Peak and got lost.
“It was the stupidest decision I ever made in my life,” he said in an interview at EMMC on Wednesday.
After discussing the situation with other park officials, Bissell said he opted not to charge Hays. Hays seemed to be an experienced hiker, was properly equipped and made several smart choices to save himself after making a bad one, Bissell said.
Hays’ actions lack “that kind of egregiousness we would look for,” Bissell said.
Since changing park rules in 2006 to allow park officials to make visitors pay search costs, only two have had to pay, Bissell said. He could not recall how much those searches cost.
In one instance, a search for a missing teenage boy around 2006, the group sponsoring the hike in which the boy participated paid for the search because the group’s leaders disregarded specific recommendations from a park ranger and became separated from group members, Bissell said.
They also went farther than the ranger recommended. The teenager’s smart decisions to stay near a clearing, where a search aircraft spotted him a day after his disappearance, saved him, Bissell said.
In the second case, a visitor drove a vehicle along a state road to Tote Pond this spring, before park snow had melted. Rescuers had to use equipment to rescue him and extricate his vehicle. The man was charged for park time and equipment because he was clearly reckless, Bissell said.
Park officials aren’t eager to charge park visitors because they recognize that part of the allure of Baxter State Park is its rough nature and the desire that creates in hikers to test themselves against the wilderness, Bissell said.
“In most cases, it really has to be pretty egregious,” Bissell said.