British Columbia

'Thinking ahead to the worst-case scenario': How a 3-page trip plan helped save a lone hiker

Bruce did everything he could to avoid a rescue during his trip around Indian Arm. When he ended up needing one anyway, crews said they were surprised by his level of planning.

Bruce's detailed outline of his multi-day journey into the backcountry was crucial for search and rescue teams

One of Bruce's camps. The hiker said it would have been difficult to find a clear, flat spot for a tent — but plenty of trees were suited to hammocks. Bruce called for rescue after falling and fracturing two ribs seven days into his hike, with search and rescue teams praising his level of preparedness. (Bruce/Submitted)

Bruce really didn't want to call for a rescue.

He was standing in a clearing in the forest above Indian Arm with two fractured ribs and 20 kilograms of gear on his back. He'd been hiking for seven days, the last four in a downpour.

He'd planned his hike from Buntzen Lake to Mount Seymour for weeks, leaving a meticulous three-page trip plan with his wife before he left home.

A view of Indian Arm from along Bruce's route. (Submitted)

The plan was supposed to reassure his wife and to avoid a rescue — but also to make it easier for search crews to find him, if he did run into trouble.

"I did that sort of, 'in the one per cent event of requiring a rescue, what information is going to be useful to them?'" said Bruce, who didn't want his last name published.

Despite all his planning, Bruce did need help in the end. Search and rescue crews met him in the clearing and hiked him down to the water to be picked up by boat.

Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue crews dropped off Bruce and Coquitlam Search and Rescue members at Rocky Point Park in Port Moody after picking him up near Granite Falls. (Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue 2/RCMSAR02)

The team who brought Bruce home praised his preparedness, saying the plan was a prime example of what hikers need to leave behind when they go into the backcountry.

Crews say a few minutes of extra contemplation and consideration can save hours — and even lives — perhaps otherwise lost.

The hike

The Indian Arm trail is more of a rough route than a clear path; a hacked-out suggestion as to how to hike from Buntzen Lake to Mount Seymour around the long sea inlet.

The vegetation rises taller than a hiker on the way north to the inlet's head, and ropes are required to navigate steep cliff-side sections coming back down south. Rain can make it impossibly slippery.

Hiking forums describe it as "a wonderful experience for those capable, a nightmare ending in a helicopter ride (if lucky) for some."

There are often downed trees along the route. Bruce said hikers are lucky if they spot an orange trail marker that indicates the proper route. (Bruce/Submitted)

Bruce, an avid hiker in his late 40s, knew it would be a challenge — but he spent weeks crafting the plan to leave with his wife of 18 years.

"She's not a hiker. She worries," he said.

There are three route markers visible in this photo: one stuck to the tree, at the base of the tree and one on the ground to the right of the tree. Bruce said aged, faded, fallen markers are common along the route. (Bruce/Submitted)

His trip plan noted where he would be hiking on which days, which equipment he'd be carrying, where he'd have cellphone coverage and what he'd be wearing in painstaking detail — down to what his boot print would look like in the dirt.

He also packed as much emergency supplies as he could stuff in his pack, including an extra cell with a spare battery pack.

Bruce gave himself seven days to finish the four-day trip. His wife was to phone 911 at 2 p.m. on the seventh day — a Saturday — if she hadn't heard anything from him by then.

Then the weather made the going "extremely tough" as Bruce was coming back to Buntzen.

"I realized I wasn't going to make it on time," he said.

Bruce packed his own ropes to come down steep, slippery slopes. (Bruce/Submitted)

Wanting to prevent that seventh-day 911 call, Bruce went off route to try to find cell reception. He slipped on a rock in the process and fell nearly two metres onto a boulder, fracturing his ribs.

"I heard this loud crack and realized I was in trouble," he said.

"Fortunately, at that point, my adrenaline was still going and I was able to pick up my pack and walk."

Bruce found the clearing with "a tiny sliver" of reception and dialled 112 for help.

See the map below for the place Bruce was found:

The rescue

Unbeknownst to him, rescuers had already been dispatched. His wife had thought to call early.

North Shore Rescue, Coquitlam Search and Rescue and the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue teams were all part of Bruce's rescue.

Michael Coyle, Coquitlam's team leader, was expecting a multi-day search — there's not much information available on Indian Arm and the terrain is difficult.

Coquitlam SAR, North Shore Search and Rescue and Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue Station 2 all responded to rescue Bruce. Rescuers were expecting a long search — until they saw Bruce's trip plan. (Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue Station 2/SAR)

He knew it would be cut mercifully shorter when he saw Bruce's plan. They found him with a combination of the plan and his cellphone signal.

"It was great to know what he was thinking," Coyle said. "Suddenly we were like, 'OK.'"

Searchers reached Bruce in the clearing and hiked him to the water to be taken home by boat.

The plan

Coyle said rescuers wish every operation started with a trip plan like Bruce's.

"You have to think, 'What if I am wrong? What if I can't handle this?' And that's what [Bruce] did with a trip plan: he was thinking ahead to the worst-case scenario — which is basically all we ask people to do."

A North Shore Rescue helicopter flies over the search area as the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue ship waits in the water. (Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue Station 2/RCMSAR)

Bruce said he left a trip plan thinking entirely of his family and rescue teams.

"As a hiker ... I accept the risks," he said.

"My concern is not for me. It's for family and it's for other people who don't need to be out there. It's kind of the guilt of putting other people in a situation they don't want to be in because of decisions I've made."

Bruce is happy to be home — though his ribs are "excruciatingly sore" — and able to thank rescuers, on behalf of himself and his family.

"My wife and daughter, they're still so overly blown away by just how supportive and how great these people really are," he said. 

"It's important for people to understand: if they are involved in a rescue, there are a ton of people that are behind the scenes ... sacrificing their own time. It's mind-blowing."

Coyle recommends filling out a trip plan template like this one to leave with friends or relatives before heading into the backcountry:

About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk is a staff writer for CBC News. She is based in Vancouver with a focus on justice and the courts. You can reach her on Twitter @rhiannaschmunk or by email at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

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