Snowmobilers who make poor decisions are a source of frustration for Vernon Search and Rescue volunteer Leigh Pearson.
A member of Vernon SAR since 1987, Pearson says the bulk of the volunteer organization’s call-outs this time of year are for lost or missing sledders. And, with the Family Day weekend around the corner, an uptick in snowmobile activity is not out of the equation.
“This time of year, snowmobilers are the ones we get called out to the most. It’s sort of been a thorn in our side,” said Pearson. “In the Vernon area, snowmobilers are a considerable problem due to poor decision-making on their part: going places they shouldn’t go and being unprepared.”
While search and rescue teams throughout B.C. face similar issues, Pearson says the Okanagan Valley sees an overwhelming number of snowmobile-related incidents.
So far this season, Vernon Search and Rescue has been called out a total of nine times for lost or missing snowmobile riders in the area. Five of those calls were received in one day.
They included eight injured riders, two who had gotten stuck in unfamiliar terrain and one who had gotten lost. Several required helicopter rescue.
Shuswap Search and Rescue (SSAR) search manager John Schut said his team has been called to seven incidents involving snowmobiles since December. Of these, three involved injuries and one resulted in a fatality. He said there have been more snowmobile-involved incidents this winter than last in their coverage area.
Pearson said that though all teams in the area are busy during the winter months, Vernon tends to have the most “tasks.” He added last year was an exception with Vernon SAR receiving 50 calls and Salmon Arm and Kelowna both getting more.
All authorities interviewed agreed that while incidents are often unpredictable, people can work to better prepare themselves.
Gord Bushell, general manager of the Eagle Valley Snowmobile Club, said many of the snowmobilers who get lost in the Shuswap’s backcountry do so because of poor judgment in the hours leading up to nightfall.
“Nine times out of 10, it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and they decide to do something stupid. Three o’clock in the afternoon is the time you should actually be going home,” Bushell said.
Pearson said while awareness of safety precautions has increased in recent years, people often go out unprepared.
He said people need to take precautions and “expect to be out all night, even if you were only planning on being there for 20 minutes.”
Pearson suggests riders bring extra clothing, warm water in a thermos, food, no alcohol, a plastic tarp or anything that can be used to make a shelter, and supplies to make a fire. He also advises people to check the weather in advance, tell someone the planned route and travel in groups.
He also suggested riders download of a new app recently launched by the federal government: AdventureSmart Trip, which allows backcountry adventurers to plan out their trip beforehand while providing users useful tips.
Along with avalanche beacons, shovels, probes and other safety gear, Bushell said a means of person-to-person communication can be an invaluable piece of gear to pack before a trip into the backcountry.
He said more and more sledders are purchasing GPS units which allow them to send text messages via satellite.
Bushell noted one group of sledders hunkered down and got a fire going after communicating they were lost but safe. They were located by snowmobile club members the following morning.
Schut and Pearson also praised the effectiveness of communications devices for assisting searches. Schut recommends sledders carry a GMRS radio or a satellite transceiver device like the Spot or inReach.
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