Responding to missing or injured hikers this time of year is expected in Macon County, where the Appalachian Trail winds through the mountains and the Nantahala National Forest makes up another substantial portion.
“Some years, at the peak (of thru-hiking) on the Appalachian Trail, we’ll get as many as three or so calls in a month from early spring for three or four months,” said David Key, director of Macon County Emergency Services.
Key said that it is easier to get lost, even on a well-marked trail such as the famous AT, than many people might believe.
“People say, ‘How in the world do you get lost?’ But it really depends on the signage. It’s hard to find your way around when you get disoriented,” Key said.
True, the trails are blazed with painted spots on tree trunks every few hundred yards along the trail. The AT is blazed with white paint spots, and the side trails in blue. But without signs of trail names, simply seeing the blazes isn’t much help.
“It’s like going into a town and all the street names are the same,” Key said. “Off the AT, all is blue, and that’s all you know. Everything is blue.”
Warren Cabe, Franklin’s fire chief, held Key’s position for many years. He too described responding to lost hiker calls, mainly involving the AT, as routine in nature. The cost, he said, isn’t easy to calculate.
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“The biggest thing is time,” Cabe said. “But the real intangible thing in Macon County is the volunteer help. It’s not a tangible cost. You’re talking time away from families and time away from jobs.”
Cabe said that fortunately most searches in Macon County that he oversaw did not last more than one, or at most two, operational periods, meaning that county staff was on the job anyway without running into overtime pay issues.
“It seems they’d almost always come in or we’d find them at about dark,” Cabe said.
The most disturbing case of a missing person on national forest lands in Macon County that Cabe remembered didn’t even involve an actual hiker.
It was a man with Alzheimer’s disease who went missing one day in the Nantahala National Forest. Search parties later found his car, burned with the body inside, tucked away on a forest service road. Cabe believes the fire was from some sort of mechanical malfunction with the vehicle, though questions obviously still remain unanswered.
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Additionally, he said, Macon County over the years has lost one or two hikers to hypothermia in the Highlands area, where the elevations can pose a problem, and quickly, for those unprepared for the weather challenges.