Covid seems to have enhanced two existing trends in the Western US, through what we might call “Covid-Enhanced Recreation” and “Covid- Enhanced Migration”. The two trends are certainly related, as in-migrants often move for better access to outdoor recreation opportunities.
This NY Times article focuses on the Search and Rescue folks dealing with CER.
It is exactly the sort of place to which locked-down Americans have flocked during the coronavirus pandemic. In a trend reflective of wilderness areas across the West, out-of-staters have pushed deep into remote areas like Sublette County and the Winds, searching for a chance to get outside their homes while still social distancing. With offices embracing remote work, treks to remote areas seem more viable.
The influx has accelerated a trend that search-and-rescue professionals say was already underway in places like the Winds. Garmin inReach devices — satellite-powered beacons that can ping emergency dispatchers in the event of problems — have grown popular, and have given many aspiring hikers false senses of security. And social media posts and location tags have made remote areas of the backcountry appear easy to reach.
“They think, ‘All I’ve got to do is hit this button and help is going to be there immediately,’” said Milford Lockwood, a Tip Top volunteer who helps lead helicopter rescues. “They see too many television shows that glamorize it, that’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll be there in a minute.’”
If you’d like details of some of the rescues, there’s a local piece here.
The evidence of inexperience is there, in ways big and small: Discarded trash that out-of-town hikers do not pack out; emergency beacons pressed accidentally; piles of human excrement along trails, improperly buried. Kari Hull, a resident of the area and an avid hiker, said she had to constantly watch her young children on the trails to ensure they do not stumble on used toilet paper or other waste.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said, acknowledging that the crowds have made it safer to hike alone. But, she added, “I don’t want to feel like I’m in a Target toy aisle in December.”
The 2020 ‘Blowdown’
It was 11:47 p.m. on Labor Day last year when the calls started coming in to Tip Top, first a trickle, then dozens. The holiday weekend had sent throngs of newcomers into the Winds to camp — and around midnight, a spectacular wind storm swept across the range, downing a staggering number of trees and sending temperatures plummeting.
Over the course of the week, Tip Top went on eight separate missions to help 23 people, Ms. Tanner said. The calls came in one after another: lost hikers, injured hikers, hikers unsure how to find the trail, hikers without cold weather gear. It would be the busiest week in the group’s history.
Tip Top volunteers say it is a miracle that no one was killed during the incident that has come to be referred to as “The Blowdown.” Volunteers visited trailhead parking lots every morning to record license plates and find out who had not yet returned from the backcountry; it took nearly a week before every hiker had been accounted for.
The storm is spoken of in Sublette County with a sort of reverence. It underscored just how wild and unpredictable the Winds can be, and how serious inexperience can become.
“If people are going to do this, then they’ve got to prepare themselves and we’ve got to do more public education to try to prepare these people,” Ms. Tanner said.
No one expects the eventual end of the pandemic to stem the flood of newcomers to the Winds, which people grudgingly admit have been discovered. Property values continue to soar in Sublette County, and even this winter, locals say out-of-state plates were more common than Wyoming plates in trailhead parking lots.
“You can’t stop it,” said Chris Hayes, who works at an outdoor retailer in Pinedale and also runs a fishing guide service. “There’s no secret place anymore. They’re all gone.”