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VOL. 45 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 2, 2021

From Alaska to Yellowstone to back home

Knoxville native Hall follows picturesque path back to Smokies

By Nancy Henderson

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One day during her five-year tenure at Yellowstone National Park, emergency program manager Liz Hall was dispatched to a tiny town in Cooke City, Montana, in the northeast corner of the park’s jurisdiction. When the rescue team arrived at the site, they discovered a snowmobile rider who had sustained multiple, traumatic injuries in the steep, snowy terrain.

The thick, falling snow prevented the rescuers from flying him to the hospital. So, with the critically hurt man strapped to a sled attached to the back of an emergency snowmobile, Hall worked to keep him alive as they headed down the slope. The team eventually reached the nearest town and lifted him into the ambulance, but the medical facility was still a four-hour drive away.

“I was concerned,” Hall says. “Here we are six hours into this incident, and I still don’t have him to the hospital. That was very challenging to continue to take care of that patient to the best of my ability with the tools I had available to me.”

HIPPA regulations block Hall, now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s first emergency manager, from knowing whether the patient made it or not, and she couldn’t share the information even if she had it. But she did her job as best she could under the circumstances; she’s sure of that.

These days, the fast-talking Hall, 32, is building from her office next to Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg a new preventative search and rescue (PSAR) program. She is compiling and assessing years of data, figuring out exactly what leads to injuries in the GSMNP and coming up with a plan to proactively help visitors be better prepared for their hikes and keep them from getting injured or lost.

Since coming on board last summer, Hall has been seeking answers to these questions and more:

• Is a particular spot on a trail causing problems?

• Are people tripping and twisting their ankles there?

• Is dehydration a factor?

• Are they neglecting to bring enough water, the right gear or other supplies?

• On what days of the week are SAR professionals receiving the most calls?

“When I got here, rangers anecdotally told me some of these things, but I wanted to make sure that [the new PSAR effort] was grounded in fact,” Hall says, noting that she will soon share the findings with staff members in an effort to keep visitors safer.

Admittedly driven to a fault, she says she won’t stop until she’s satisfied with the outcome.

“My husband [Travis, also a park ranger] is the kindest, most patient person probably on the face of the earth, and he puts up with my drive sometimes because not everybody does. He’s a really great moderator for my enthusiasm for my work.

“When I get on a project, I’m going to get it finished no matter what gets in my way, and there are pros and cons that come along with that. … That can be challenging for other folks who don’t view the problem the same way that I do. I can kind of bowl people over sometimes.”

Liz Hall with her search and rescue dog Reu, who is a rescue himself. She is a licensed paramedic, law enforcement officer and now the GSMNP’s first emergency manager, overseeing all search and rescue operations and public education.

-- Photographs Provided

Steve Roper, supervisory park ranger for the Little River District of GSMNP, also worked with Hall at Yellowstone. His colleague, he says, is constantly trying to improve the ways things are done.

As an example, he points out the innovative Best Practice Medicine training vehicle – a full-sized ambulance simulator based in Bozeman, Montana – Hall introduced for the EMS team at Yellowstone.

“She is self-motivated and is always looking outside the box for solutions to problems,” Roper says. “When she receives friction due to the changes she is trying to implement, she stays on track and follows through to make those positive changes happen.”

Hall’s dad, Dr. Russell Blakeley, a Knoxville cardiologist and avid outdoorsman, is at least partly to thank for her lifelong connection to the wilderness. She was just 4 when the two started backpacking the Smokies together. Her mother, Julie Blakeley, might have nudged her in that direction, too.

“If we ever used the word ‘bored,’ we would be immediately locked out of the house and told to come back for dinnertime and we would play outside,” Hall says. “So, it kind of came from a familywide love of nature and enjoyment of freedom outside.”

Inspired by the James Herriot book and television series, “All Creatures Great and Small,’’ which recently made a comeback on PBS, Hall wanted to be a country veterinarian and care for large animals. For a while, she considered following her dad into medicine.

“And I realized that if I became a doctor, then I would be working inside a hospital and that wasn’t really something that appealed to me all that much. But if I were a frontline EMS provider, either an EMT (emergency medical technician) or a paramedic, then I would be able to still play outside and help people in the medical field.”

In her senior year of high school, Hall took a ski patrol outdoor emergency care class, earning her certification at Cataloochee Ski Resort in North Carolina. Donning the trademark red vest with a white cross sewn on the back, Hall helped bring injured skiers down to safety.

“One of my very first calls was a potential spinal fracture,” she recalls. “I was sitting there at 17 years old, going, ‘I know exactly what to do right now.’ It was incredibly empowering to have that skillset and be able to help this person out who was obviously having a very bad day.”

It was during that time that a ski patroller who was also a law enforcement ranger sat her down and explained what his job entailed, essentially “charting my course” as a future park service professional, she says.

Hall, here at age 4, got an early start in the Great Smoky Mountains, camping and backpacking with her father, Knoxville cardiologist Dr. Russell Blakeley.

Throughout her studies in conservation science at the University of Redlands in California, Hall continued to work with the ski patrol at Snow Summit in Bear Mountain in that state and, just after graduation, at Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort. She also interned at Zion and Yosemite national parks.

Her first permanent gig as a National Park Service ranger sent her to Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, Alaska, in 2011. Living alone in the back country, she knocked out her master’s degree in public administration (with a concentration in natural resources management) at night, online. And each year, she helped with search-and-rescues (SARs) during hunting season in Denali.

Hall describes the spectacular Alaskan scenery as “unmatched. There’s so much land up there that is just untrampled and unpaved. It’s just incredibly beautiful.”

But the terrain came with challenges. The closest doctor was seven hours away by ferry, which only ran a few days a week. “It was constantly a logistics game to figure out how to make things work in a rural town like that,” she says.

There was another issue, too. She and Travis, who was assigned to a different national park, were living 15 hours apart, and that was just too far to manage. So in 2015 the couple transferred to Yellowstone, where she initially worked as a law enforcement ranger in the Lamar River District.

“I nearly walked into a bison one night, in the middle of the night when I didn’t have my flashlight on,” Hall says. “All of a sudden, everything was real dark in front of me and I realized that it was a big bull bison I was about to walk into. Yellowstone is oftentimes called the Serengeti of America, and it’s absolutely true. The wildlife there is just breathtaking.”

The park’s 10-ambulance EMS program was one of the busiest in the country, with about 1,100 calls a year, most in the summertime, she notes. Over the years, tourist visits began to exceed capacity, creating problems with traffic and damage to resources. Then, for a while, the park shut down due to the pandemic.

After her promotion to emergency program manager, it wasn’t unusual for Hall to hop on a snowmobile and ride four hours to deliver medications or supplies to staff members living in remote areas of the park inaccessible by road for five months of the year.

By 2020, Hall and her husband were ready for a change. Not really believing she was a strong candidate, she applied for the new post at GSMNP. “And all of a sudden I got a call …” Her voice trails off as she jumps up from her desk, distracted.

“Sorry, a lot of rangers just went running by my window,” she apologizes. “I’m trying to debate whether I should go out there. It is actually somebody injured outside.”

Satisfied that her co-workers are sufficiently handling the problem, Hall picks up where she left off, explaining how she and her husband flew to Gatlinburg with their 10-month-old son Brooks the day after she got the job offer, in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. A Minnesota native, Travis had never been there before.

“After he had seen the area,” she says, “he was like, ‘Water and green trees. OK, I think we could probably do this.’”

Hall is wrapping up her painstaking PSAR analysis and is about to launch the public education portion of the plan, which will most likely include knowledgeable volunteers positioned at trailheads and a social media campaign to remind visitors to bring a map and supplies. Already, she has plenty of advice for hikers:

• Stop by the visitor center and ask questions about the trail you want to take.

• Make sure you understand the topography and elevation.

• Spend some money on the proper equipment.

The most common injury in GSMNP, she notes, is a twisted ankle, usually associated with flip flops and other improper footwear.

“It’s really easy to be driving along and say, ‘Oh, that’ll be a quick hike. Why don’t we hop out here?’ You don’t bring your water bottle. You don’t bring a first-aid kit with you. And then all of a sudden somebody twists their ankle a half a mile in on the trail, which typically isn’t a big deal until it gets dark and cold. And then it is a big deal.”

Just like in Yellowstone, the SAR load is high at GSMNP, America’s most-visited national park. At the larger sites where she has worked, guests often study the area for years to make sure they’re prepared. Not so with GSMNP.

“I don’t think people really recognize that the Smokies can be just as treacherous as Denali. … We have a lot of folks that come from other areas that underestimate the topography. We have folks that underestimate the mileage. Maybe they used to be able to easily hike 5 miles in a day, but a few years later and not really looking at the elevation getting onto that trail, it’s not quite as easy.

“One of my staff members was out last week and saw people in UGG boots in snow, hiking to go see Clingmans Dome, which is a 7-mile trip.”

Although her new job requires more policy-writing than rescues, she helps with the latter when possible.

“Liz is approachable and can be found taking EMS calls in the field with other staff,” Roper says. “She loves going out on EMS and SAR calls as a provider and stays grounded in the daily life of our staff. She is a hands-on type of instructor and constantly looks for unique ways to train.”

To sharpen her rescue skills even more, Hall has volunteered across the country with her certified SAR dog Reu, a rescued dog she adopted in Alaska.

“He was named Ruger, and I wasn’t really interested in having a gun-named dog, being a police officer,” she says, noting that “Reu” is a biblical moniker that means “shepherd.”

“He can find people who are missing on land or in water or under snow. … He found several people who had passed away and we were able to give their families some closure. That’s been a really special part of my life.”

When asked why she devotes her valuable spare time to the same thing she does in her day job, she jokes, “I’m driven to the point that I apparently don’t get enough of it at work every day.”

Hall, who is expecting her second child in June, is looking forward to introducing her 2-year-old to rock climbing and boating. She’s thankful, she says, for the chance to return to her roots.

“Being able to take my son back to some areas where I have great childhood memories and expose him to those and take him on the trails where I hiked as a child has been really, really special for me.

“I’m so incredibly fortunate to be in a new position and create a lot of change in the park and build on some things that were already happening here that were working great. I’m honored to be able to be the first one in the job.”

As a park ranger, she says, “I get to be outside in some of the most special places in our country that have been set aside for public land. Sometimes I’m seeing somebody on the worst day of their life and I have the opportunity to help make that a little bit easier for them. It’s a real honor to take that on.”

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