Lost and found ... for a price
Who should pay the bills for Arctic rescues?

by Ian Elliot
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 29/97) - If someone needs to be rescued while tackling an admittedly dangerous wilderness activity, who should have to pay for the rescue?

It is one of the most controversial issues surrounding so-called extreme sports, and more and more, public sentiment says thrill-seekers themselves should pay for their own bad luck or poor planning.

The news regularly spotlights mishaps involving people engaging in activities which they know are risky going in, whether it is heli-skiing, whitewater rafting, around-the-world yacht racing or mountain climbing. Sometimes search and rescue teams have to be called in to retrieve lost, injured or even dead adventurers.

In the NWT, trekkers to the North Pole, kayakers trying to navigate the Northwest Passage, boaters on Great Slave Lake, hikers on remote trails and canoeist on challenging rivers have had to be rescued -- at public expense -- in recent years. The cost for such rescues ranged from thousands of dollars into the hundreds of thousands.

And as more people play on the edge, the costs grow and the arguments get louder. Several proposals have been made calling for people engaging in such risky pursuits to take out insurance to cover the costs of any potential rescue or post a bond which they can redeem after their adventure if they do not require help.

Parks Canada, for example, is moving towards what the Americans have been doing for several years, which is to bill adventurers personally for the costs of rescues, if they take place within park boundaries.

Details of the charges have not been determined -- for instance, if they will be levelled against everyone entering the park or tacked on the cost of backcountry overnight permits -- but some sort of user-pay system to cover potential rescues could be implemented as early as April 1, 1998.

Currently, Parks Canada will only bill back the costs of a rescue in one of their parks if the mishap was caused by a person who was unprepared or failed to follow Parks Canada guidelines governing use of the park.

Brian Keith of the Canadian Alpine Association says members of that group's American chapter have been able to buy insurance for some years to protect themselves against ruinous rescue costs.

"It is new for Canada because we have never been in a situation where the bill for a rescue is just tucked into someone's pocket," he said.

He expects the policy will be expanded beyond mountaineers to cover rafters, cyclists, hikers or anyone else who needs to be rescued in the outdoors.

"The boaters off Vancouver Island sometimes need to be rescued too, but they are not as distinct or as identifiable as we are," he said.

"But I don't think there is any question that these fees will eventually apply to them also. What we're looking at is a function of government cost-cutting and debt recovery and they are going more towards user fees."

Capt. Dan Chicoyne is with the Canadian Forces' search and rescue unit based in Trenton. That unit responds to boats in distress in federal waters and airplane crashes, but only gets involved in searches for missing individuals upon the request of the police or other authorities.

He said he is unaware of any move to begin charging people engaging in activities outside national parks for emergency assistance the way some fire departments, for example, have begun doing.

"We are not in the position where we would present bills to people for the cost of their rescue," he said.

"If we are rescuing someone, they have already paid for the rescue in their taxes and the argument goes that they shouldn't need to pay again."

He notes however, that this argument does not hold if it is a foreign tourist being rescued and says it is one of the knotty problems in the current debate.

He says, however, that the use of a personal locator beacon, which sends out an emergency signal and pinpoints a person's position in the even of trouble, is the very minimum level of safety gear a person should pack before venturing into the wilderness.

Emergency insurance is available for people travelling to other countries from several highly specialized Canadian insurance brokers. Climbers going to other countries can purchase insurance at a flat rate or choose a policy tailored to the height of the mountain they are going to be climbing.

A summer of rescues
The summer of 1997 saw several dramatic rescues in the NWT, from both land and water.
July 13: Dwayne Williams, a 32-year-old Calgary man missing for several days, was found alive clinging to a buoy in Great Slave Lake's East Arm while three-metre waves boiled around him. The rescue involved the combined efforts of several RCMP detachments, First Air, Air Tindi, the Coast Guard and the co-operation of civilian marine and air traffic in the area. Williams' boat was not equipped with a GPS unit or locator beacon.
July 30: Canadian Forces pilot Jim Hrymack and his dog were plucked by a helicopter from a ledge near water level on a river near the end of the Canol Trail in the western NWT. Twenty-four pounds lighter than what he was 23 days earlier at the start of the journey, Hrymack ran intro trouble when high water levels slowed his progress on the gruelling trail and he ran out of food.
Aug. 17: Two Danish canoeists activated their personal locator beacon when their food supplies ran low at the mouth of the Horton River. A military plane in the Arctic was diverted to look for them and medical personnel were flown to the site from Inuvik. The pair were not in any immediate danger, however, and had merely gotten the pickup date confused with the Inuvik airline. The incident prompted discussions on the use of locator beacons.