As more people hit Columbia River Gorge trails, search and rescue calls flood in

By Alex Hasenstab (OPB)
Sept. 21, 2022 12 p.m.

After years of lower visitation, search and rescue crews are seeing more people venture, sometimes unprepared, into the local wilderness

Five years ago, the Eagle Creek Fire swept through the Columbia River Gorge, limiting access to trails in the area. Visitation took a hit once again when the COVID-19 pandemic closed in-person services, and made crowded areas dangerous.

“Over the last several years, the Gorge has opened up more and more, and people are getting out, and I think we’re just seeing an increase in visitation,” said Sgt. Brian Gerkman, the county’s search and rescue coordinator.

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This increase in visitation brought an increase in calls to Multnomah County Search and Rescue. Already this year, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office has responded to more search and rescue calls than in any other year since the Eagle Creek Fire, Gerkman said.

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office search and rescue volunteers on a mission in Corbett along the Columbia River Gorge in June 2022.

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office search and rescue volunteers on a mission in Corbett along the Columbia River Gorge in June 2022.

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office

Finnegan McCarthy started volunteering with Multnomah County’s search and rescue three years ago when he was 16. He said hikers need to be aware of the hazards they may encounter while hiking in the burn area.

“We’re seeing a lot of trails opening up,” McCarthy said. “But those have totally and radically changed since the fire.”

The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team covers the Columbia River Gorge from Scappoose all the way to the Eagle Creek trailhead. So far in 2022, they have responded to 18 search and rescue calls in Multnomah County and 14 in the Gorge.

“It’s been a lot of injured hikers, but we did also have two fatalities in August from falls,” McCarthy said.

While these numbers aren’t high compared to pre-pandemic numbers, they are the highest seen in the past several years.

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“A lot of our calls that aren’t injury based are a lack of preparedness going into the woods,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said people can better prepare themselves for emergencies by bringing the 10 essentials, a list of life-saving items that includes a light source, food and water and first aid supplies.

Gerkman also said that hikers should plan their trips, bring the proper clothing and footwear and tell someone when to expect them back.

“I think a lot of people see the Gorge as a park, and it’s really a very cliffy, rocky wilderness that just experienced a wildfire,” Gerkman said. “There’s downed trees and other types of rock slides and things that you might encounter.”

With the increase in calls, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office is looking for volunteers to join search and rescue. Anyone 14 and older who can commit to weekly training can join.

" We have adult volunteers, but we’re largely a youth-based program,” Gerkman said.

While the positions are time consuming, Gerkman said many volunteers stay with the program for decades.

“If you’re being driven to serve others, you’ve got to pursue that,” he said.

The search and rescue program does accept donations, but Gerkman said there are a lot of avenues to help.

“You don’t necessarily have to be able to go out and hike 20 miles to assist us,” he said.

While volunteers can help respond to calls, it’s also important to prevent them in the first place. McCarthy said search and rescue have been posted in popular areas to make contact with hikers on their way to the wilderness. The team can offer supplies, advice and ensure hikers are prepared for what’s ahead.

He said prevention comes down to “a lot of interpersonal interaction, small conversations with hikers.” People interested in volunteering can find more information on the MCSO search and rescue website.

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