It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but a visitor to the Buffalo National River probably has second thoughts about an ill-advised attempt to jump from a bluff to a nearby tree. The man likely owes his life to a combination of good training and hard work by local rescue teams and modern technology.
The Buffalo National River in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas includes some dramatic bluffs along one of the premier canoeing rivers in the country, but that rugged terrain can pose some serious challenges for rescuers when things go awry.
Awry would be an understatement in describing the misadventures of a 22-year-old man who was visiting the park last week.
Just before midnight on April 3, 2009, rangers at the Buffalo National River were notified that a man had been injured in a fall from a bluff in the vicinity of Hemmed-In-Hollow Falls. Known as “the tallest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians,” the area is also the site of numerous past search and rescue incidents. According to a park report,
Rangers, other park staff, park volunteers, local first responders, and AirEvac medics assembled at the Compton Trailhead. Two search teams headed down the trail with a wheeled litter and other rescue equipment and located the victim, Tyler Kerr of Bedford, Indiana.
Kerr had fallen approximately 50 to 75 feet after attempting to jump from a bluff to a nearby tree and had suffered a broken arm, broken elbow, dislocated hip, broken hip socket, bruised heart, and bruised lung. He also had several deep lacerations causing a significant loss of blood.
The rescue teams packaged Kerr in the wheeled litter and transported him toward a suitable landing zone. The trail accessing the falls drops more than 1000 feet and extrication via the trial was impractical.
I've made that hike myself, and will second that conclusion. An outdoor activity website describes the hike into Hemmed-in-Hollow as "a quick trip down hill but the hike out will be a real test for the greatest of hikers." A second site calls the hike out "difficult and exhausting..."
Even via an alternative route, transporting the victim "toward a suitable landing zone" was far from easy in this terrain.
During the transport, low-angle belays were used to traverse the steep and narrow trails. The AirEvac helicopter landed in a deep ravine approximately two-and-a-half miles from the falls, the closest suitable location for a landing. Kerr was transported to the Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for treatment.
Over 25 people responded to assist with the rescue. Rangers and other SAR team members had completed a three-day swiftwater rescue course the afternoon before the rescue. The course was instructed by Rick Brown, retired NPS assistant chief ranger and chief of field operations at Great Smokies. Brown, who had worked at the Buffalo in the early 1980’s, assisted in the rescue.
Modern technology also played a big role in this successful rescue. In addition to the evacuation by helicopter, good communications with the aircraft and various team members was a major plus. The rugged terrain and remote nature of the area pose a major challenge for radio systems, and not very many years ago that communication wouldn't have been possible.
Buffalo National River recently upgraded its radio system, adding several new repeater sites, upgrading both portable and mobile radios, and converting from analog to digital. During the incident, radio communications were exceptional and played a pivotal role in the overall success of the incident.
Here's one example of "your tax dollars at work" that paid off, and both visitors and the park staff will continue to benefit from that investment in the years ahead.