PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As soon as Matt Harris and Alan Dudley reached the spot atf Aroostook State Park’s South Peak Trail where a hiker had fallen 40 feet, the first thing they thought was: we’re going to need more people.
Zara Gillis, 37, of Caribou had hiked a half mile up the trail on Friday afternoon with her sister and two children when she slipped on snow-covered leaves. Presque Isle firefighters and paramedics Harris and Kasey Blue rushed to the park after receiving a 911 call and shortly met up with Dudley, a Maine game warden, and park rangers.
Though Dudley requested helicopter assistance, he and Harris knew that the strong winds and blowing snow would make visibility impossible for the Maine Forest Service or Maine National Guard.
Soon, the men were joined by volunteer firefighters and several police officers from Presque Isle. The rescuers got to work finding a creative solution to get Gillis down Quoggy Jo Mountain safely.
But snowy, wet conditions on the trail that day made their mission all the more challenging.
“The South Peak Trail is very steep and there are a bunch of leaves. The wet, heavy snow made the leaves extra slick,” Harris said. “It was very slow going. Even our crew had a few slips while going up.”
Gillis suffered from a possible broken hip and could not walk, Harris said.
By that time, Harris’ sister, who had stayed with her until volunteers arrived, had taken Gillis’ children to the ambulance to keep them warm.
Working through strong winds and blowing snow, the crew brought a stokes basket — a metal carrying device — up the mountain and secured Gillis in it. The climb down proved just as treacherous, with rescuers tying ropes to nearby trees to prevent slipping and sliding down the slope with the injured woman.
Throughout the descent, Harris spoke with Gillis, who had remained conscious and had received pain medications.
“I talked to her and tried to keep her at some sort of ease,” Harris said.
The entire rescue, from the time the first crew members arrived to the final steps off the trail, took an hour and a half. Once Gillis was safely at the ambulance, she said something that Harris won’t soon forget.
“[Gillis] looked up and said, ‘I’m sorry for ruining you guy’s day.’ And I said, ‘To be honest, this is my job, so you’re not ruining my day. I’m just sorry your day was ruined,'” Harris told her.
A former flight medic for the Maine National Guard, Harris said that last week’s rescue was only the second time he’d been involved in such a dangerous hiking-related rescue and the first one he experienced at Aroostook State Park.
“Everybody stayed focused on the goal. No matter what obstacles we came up against, we had to get her down,” Harris said. “In times like that, you put your own comfort aside to help somebody.”
Gillis was transported to Northern Light AR Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, where she has since been in recovery. Gillis declined to comment.