Search teams rescue UM student who was hiking on Katahdin trail

Posted Feb. 20, 2011, at 12:33 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 20, 2011, at 10:12 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — A Madawaska man snowshoeing in Baxter State Park on Saturday spent the night alone in the woods after being separated from his three friends, Park Director Jensen Bissell said Sunday, just hours after the man was found.

Chris Dubois, 23, a University of Maine student, hiked Mount Katahdin’s Pamola Peak on Saturday with three friends from Colby College and became separated from them as they hiked down the mountain on Helon Taylor Trail, Bissell said.

“He became separated at around 4 p.m.” Saturday, Bissell said. His hiking buddies “spent some time trying to locate him and couldn’t and began to become concerned about their own safety.”

The group, who were just above tree line on the Helon Taylor Trail in very windy conditions, decided to call for help around 4:30 p.m. using a cell phone.

Dubois tumbled down a slope into trees during the 10-mile hike. By the time his friends realized he was missing, they were unable to locate him or hear him because of limited visibility and high winds, Bissell said.

The Colby students, in hopes their friend would show up, stuck together while waiting for park rangers to arrive and set up a lean-to to protect themselves from the wind, Bissell said.

Lincoln Search and Rescue volunteers found the three snowshoers Saturday night and hiked down the mountain trail with them to a heated camp at Roaring Brook campground, he said. The group arrived just after 1 a.m. Sunday.

Around a dozen search and rescue personnel scoured the area looking for Dubois on Saturday night to no avail.

With the amount of snow on the mountain, the group of hikers was essentially blazing a new trail, the park director said.

“No one had been down the trail in a month,” Bissell said. “They were breaking trails in snowshoes.”

A larger group of searchers hit the trails early Sunday. Air searchers were called in to assist, but were unsuccessful because of the high winds and cloud cover around Katahdin, Bissell said.

A Maine Forest Service helicopter based in Old Town picked up a team of forest rangers and Baxter park rangers at Millinocket Regional Airport and took off toward Mount Katahdin just after 7 a.m., John Crowley, Maine Forest Service chief pilot, said Sunday.

“The visibility encountered by [MFS] ranger pilot Chris Blackie, along with significant downdrafts exceeding 45 miles per hour, made a helicopter rescue at that time impossible,” he said.

A second flight was attempted later in the morning, but high wind gusts forced it to return to base, Crowley said.

Lincoln Search and Rescue and Mount Desert Search and Rescue were at Baxter conducting a training session Saturday and quickly volunteered to help park rangers, he said.

Wilderness Search and Rescue team volunteers were called in to help Sunday, as was a medical evacuation helicopter from the Maine Army National Guard’s 126th Aviation Regiment in Bangor.

“Our ground search teams located this person right around noon, and the Army National Guard came in with their helicopter and were able to drop down a litter” to pick up a very cold Dubois, Bissell said.

The helicopter took him to Millinocket Municipal Airport. From there he was taken by ambulance to Millinocket Regional Hospital for evaluation and treatment of leg cramps and possible frostbite, he said.

Park officials are still looking into how Dubois became separated from his friends, Bissell said.

Happy that Dubois is safe, Bissell offered advice to anyone hiking in Baxter State Park:

“We really recommend people hiking in the park stay on trail and stay together and pack a cell phone, turned off and stowed in their pack, as a piece of emergency equipment.”

This weekend, Dubois was traveling last in the pack of hikers, Bissell said, and was the only one in the group of college friends without a cell phone.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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