A group of local Boy Scouts and their leaders played key parts in rescuing an 80-year-old Florida woman who got caught in a thunderstorm on her way down Maine's highest mountain in July.
The woman, Loretta Copeland, had been hiking the Appalachian Trail in sections for 12 years. She was less than 2 miles from the end when she ran into trouble on Mount Katahdin, the highest in Maine.
She and two women in their 60s, who were hiking with her, spent more than 24 straight hours hiking up, then part-way down the mountain, most of it during a thunderstorm.
At that point, dehydrated and bleeding, Copeland ran out of strength to continue.
"It was raining and storming, and it was just really bad," Copeland said in a telephone interview this week from her home in Ocala, Fla. "I kept falling, and my legs just gave out on me."
She and her friends had begun hiking at 6 a.m. July 18. They reached the summit at 4 p.m., then started down the mountain.
"I never dreamed it would take so long, and I never stopped for 24 hours," she said. "But I was so tired and going slow."
At about 7 a.m. July 19, when the three elderly women hadn't returned to the base, Baxter State Park rangers launched a rescue operation.
Pressed into service
Five boys and two leaders of Ellington Boy Scout Troop 96 - along with two guides from the High Adventure Boy Scout Camp in Millinocket, Maine - were planning to hike to the peak that day. They were pressed into service as the main rescue team.
A helicopter rescue was ruled out because of bad weather and fog.
"We were pretty shocked when the rangers asked us to take part in the rescue," says scout Andrew Slicer, 14. "But we were like, hey, we're Boy Scouts, let's go."
For their efforts, the scouts gained more than a merit badge. In an upcoming ceremony, the local Volunteer Fire Department will present the five Boy Scouts and their leaders with awards for meritorious service, Fire Chief Michael Varney says. It is only the second time the department has given such an award in 20 years.
The five scouts to be honored are Eric Dinse, Keith Durao, Dan Hodgdon, Slicer, and Mike Stauffer. The leaders are Ted Kenyon and Tom Stauffer.
The rescue began in earnest after a hiker coming down the trail confirmed that Copeland needed help. Rangers called for an ambulance, and the Scouts headed up the trail, which Ranger Rodney Angotti describes as "long, steep, and grueling."
"She was pretty banged up and couldn't walk on her own," Kenyon said of Copeland. "But she was in good spirits, and she was an experienced hiker."
The Scout group carried Copeland to a relatively flat area of the trail and applied first aid to cuts on her legs, caused by multiple falls. They also gave her food and dry clothes.
Rangers then brought up a "basket stretcher," in which the patient is surrounded by a metal frame, and Copeland was strapped in.
"The Scouts were very enthusiastic to help," Tom Stauffer said. "They weren't kids pushed off to the side. They were a major part of the rescue."
The nine-person Scout group and five other people, including rangers and hikers, began carrying Copeland down to the base in the stretcher. The effort to descend the 5,300-foot mountain was complicated by the difficulty of the terrain and bad weather. It ended up taking seven hours.
"There were some points where it was really narrow and steep," Mike Stauffer said. "It was raining, so everything was slippery, and the trail was pretty rough."
During the rescue, rangers recruited more than 20 additional hikers to help in the effort. Seven-person teams took turns carrying Copeland's stretcher as far as they could before handing off to another team.
At times the trail turned into steps cut into nearly vertical granite, and the stretcher had to be passed hand-over-hand along a line of rescuers.
Hospitalized only briefly
When they finally got Copeland to the bottom, she was taken to a local hospital, treated overnight, and released.
The rescuers helped her two friends down the mountain, but they didn't need to be carried.
In a typical year 35 to 40 rescue operations are conducted in the park, Angotti said, adding that 39 people have died on the mountain since 1950. Only two weeks before Copeland was rescued, an 83-year-old man was carried off the mountain, and another hiker was crushed to death by a falling rock, the ranger said.
The park rangers were impressed with the Boy Scouts' efforts. They took them out to a celebratory dinner and wrote them a congratulatory letter.
Hodgdon said the experience gave him a new respect for older hikers - and an awareness of the importance of being prepared to deal with emergencies.
"It really changed a lot about me, and it gave me a lot more respect for older people," he said.