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Volunteering to Keep Hikers Safe in the Canyon

Education, self-assessment and planning are guidelines voiced repeatedly by the Grand Canyon National Park Service to ensure that hikers “Hike Smart” and understand the meaning of the adage, “Down is optional; up is mandatory.” Helping to ensure safety are Prevention Search and Rescue (PSAR) volunteers stationed on the trails. 

Implemented in 1997, PSAR was created as a result of increased heat-related illnesses on Grand Canyon trails.

“District Rangers from south, north and inner canyon were having to leave their posts for distress calls along the trails,” said Meghan Smith, acting PSAR supervisor. “The PSAR program was created so we can be stationed at precise areas. We’ve grown into a group of five to seven seasonal rangers with one year-round permanent supervisor. When the program started, we had 30 volunteers and now have 75, with a waiting list.”

PSAR volunteers must attend an annual two-day training and have a current CPR and Wilderness First Aid Card. “They carry basic medical supplies, water, electrolyte powder, salty snacks and a radio,” said Smith. “They are not medically qualified by NPS, but the seasonal staff do carry diagnostic kits to check blood pressure, sugar and oxygen level.”  

Volunteer PSARs also shadow rangers as part of their training and are required to do seven hiking patrols per season.

PSARs talk to hikers on the trail, answer questions, offer advice and make recommendations as to how far to hike. Smith says the PSARs also offer information on weather and heat conditions and provide hiker assist.

“Hiker assist is when we take action and do something for someone. For example, a hiker might have separated from the group and is feeling a little anxious,” said Smith. “One of our volunteers will stay with that person and give emotional support.” 

Ann Scott is in her fourth year as a PSAR volunteer. “When I visited the Grand Canyon in 1988, I fell in love with it. All I wanted to do was come back. It was like a magnet. I love talking to the visitors on the trail and offering advice on how to have a safe and enjoyable hike below the rim. It is like an extension of my first summer job as a lifeguard. The main difference is that lifeguards rescue people after they get in trouble, but PSAR rangers try to give them information and advice so they don’t need to be rescued.”

Retired NAU Physiology Professor Stan Lindstedt says his background was ideal for the PSAR program. “I had a very active research program working on muscle physiology. This was a good head start for the PSAR program. I always said my job as a professor was the best in the world. Now that I’m a PSAR volunteer, I feel I have the best second career.”  

Lindstedt is often exhausted leaving the trail at day’s end but calls it “a wonderful kind of exhaustion.” He says the NPS staff in charge of the program is outstanding. “They are probably the best administrators I have had the privilege of working with. It is apparent that everyone involved in this program is visitor-centered. Our collective goal is maximizing the enjoyment of all visitors.”

The volunteer PSAR season runs from April through October. Volunteers patrol the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails and, when possible, patrol North Kaibab, Hermit and Grandview trails. “We cover them all when we can, but when we can’t, we focus on the more populated trails,” said Smith.

One of the main supporters of the PSAR program is the Grand Canyon Conservancy (GCC), which outfits rangers and volunteers with top-of-the-line gear. “We provide radios, backpacks, sleep kits and other equipment,” said Mindy Riesenberg, director of marketing and communications for GCC.  

With summer almost here, Smith is adamant that hikers understand the dangers of heat illness, know the warning signs of dehydration and their limits when hiking. “Headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, cramping and decreased urine output are signs of heat illness.” FBN

By V. Ronnie Tierney, FBN

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