- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Laramie resident Bryan Shuster loves everything about being outdoors in Wyoming. Vedauwoo in Medicine Bow National Forest is one of his favorite places in the world.

For the last 25 years, Shuster has been an enthusiastic participant in winter outdoor recreation. During that time, he said he’s never been stuck during a snowmobile trip. But that doesn’t mean he’s never prepared for the possibility.

“I carry to be stranded, but I have never been stranded,” Shuster said.

During a snowmobile outing with his son, Shuster said there were blue skies and sunshine as far as they could see. But as soon as they climbed to higher elevations and eventually breached the tree line, the conditions were significantly different.

“We were cruising up the trail, and as soon as we got above the tree line, we found out there were 40 mph winds and a snowstorm,” he said. “After about a quarter-mile, we wanted to go back.”

There are several risks associated with recreating outdoors in Wyoming’s rural areas, including in and around Albany County.

As the Front Range area becomes more densely populated, more people are choosing to access southeast Wyoming’s outdoor amenities in winter months.

“We’ve been discovered,” National Forest Service Laramie District Ranger Frank Romero said. “A lot of people go to places like the Snowy Range or Pole Mountain because the Front Range is crowded.”

Romero said credit for the increased traffic is also due to the efforts of the office of Wyoming Travel & Tourism and the Albany County Tourism Board.

“They do a great job of advertising what’s available,” he said.

In the Laramie Range, Romero said there are numerous popular activities. Whether Nordic skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling, the Snowy Range is a very popular area, he said. Tie City Campground and Happy Jack Recreational Area are also popular, but more so for non-motorized sports, Romero said.

“There are a lot of great resources for each of those,” he said.

While there are a number of great benefits to the recreational areas being used by locals and tourists, public safety officials have had their hands full this season assisting recreationalists who find themselves in dangerous situations.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Office is statutorily required to handle all search and rescue missions in the county, and Sheriff Dave O’Malley said they are involved in such operations “all the time.”

“There is a compilation of issues - particularly in winter time as far as snow(mobiling),” O’Malley said. “You can get on a snow (mobile) in 30 degrees with the sun shining and see for 100 miles. But two hours later, it could be below zero with a complete white out.”

The associated risks, Romero said, depend on what a recreationalist is trying to accomplish. Hazards such as dead trees buried in snow, slick roads and wildlife can pose risks during winter outings for different activities. But one factor that runs the gamut is changing weather conditions, Romero said.

O’Malley said some recreationalists don’t prepare by bringing supplies such as food and water or gadgets to help in tricky situations. Sometimes, those preparations can be the difference between life and death, he said.

“Oftentimes, we don’t get reports of missing folks until late in the day or the next day after they’ve already spent a night out,” O’Malley said. “It’s pretty critical we get the information as soon as possible.”

Albany County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue is a civilian group that assists the Sheriff’s Office in finding people who are in need of help.

Matt Allshouse is an active member of the group who has been on the board of directors and is a previous vice president. In addition to participating in local fundraising events and volunteerism, Allshouse said he participated in two active searches this winter season.

He said when people plan to recreate outdoors, they have to include risk as part of their planning process. Even experienced recreationalists who prepare extensively are still in danger of encountering unexpected hazards, Allshouse said.

“One of the main things in the dynamics of search theory is that people who are more prepared tend to put themselves in situations with more risk,” he said.

The key to doing the most a person can to prepare is to have a plan, stick to the plan and communicate, Allshouse said. Recreationalists perform what he called a journey management assessment.

“Assess where you are going and have detailed maps, whether that’s GPS or whatever, so you know where you are at all times,” he said.

Communication is the most important piece of preparing, Allshouse said.

“You need to communicate to somebody who isn’t going to be with you what your exact plans are, including how long you expect to be gone and when you’ll be back,” he said. “When you leave, let them know. When you arrive, let them know. When you leave the location you are, let them know. It can seem like a lot, but it’s as simple as a text message.”

One of the most important things to practice is knowing when to turn back, Allshouse said.

“Knowing that weather in the mountains is unpredictable is important, as well as knowing when to call it off,” he said.

“Just because it’s your only day off that week doesn’t mean you need to do something. It’s worth it to know when to call it off.”

Telling the person back home where a party is parked gives search teams a good start to know where to look when they start a mission, O’Malley said. Including details about who they are looking for also helps search teams, he said.

“That’s important information for us to have,” he said. “People calling in to report overdue parties would hopefully be able to provide information on age, physical condition, pre-existing issues that might make the search more urgent - any bit of information we can get would be helpful.”

In preparing for a snowmobile trip, Shuster said he always brings several items to prepare for the worst, including a transponder, a shovel with a probe, a bungee device to pull stuck sleds out of snow and technology for food.

“I have the goofiest thing called a Hotdogger,” he said. “It’s spring-loaded and hooks to the exhaust manifold. I can put chicken in there, ride for two hours and have freshly cooked chicken.”

Shuster said he also travels in groups, usually of six, for security in numbers.

Of the many calls the Sheriff’s Office and civilian rescue crews have responded to this winter season, O’Malley said they had one fatality.

“It is really hard, primarily on the family, but also on our deputies and search and rescue volunteer group,” he said. “Our guys take those things extremely hard.”

The Sheriff’s Office and civilian rescue crews are there to ensure people’s safety, but O’Malley said it’s hard to tell “how the cards will fall.”

When Shuster was a child, he said he remembers being hurt during inner tube sledding trips.

“I was hurt, but as soon as I was better, I was hurting to get back on the slope,” he said.

Even though there are risks associated with outdoor recreation, he said he would never discourage anyone from the experience. Even if people do get into trouble while recreating occasionally, he said it shouldn’t stop people from going outside.

“You can’t put everyone in the world in a bubble,” Shuster said. “It’s 100 percent personal responsibility.”

To help recreationalists prepare, Allshouse said the Albany County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue website includes a list of items to pack at www.albanycountysar.org.

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Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com

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