Cell phones don’t equal safety in wilderness

Published 10:43 am Friday, July 27, 2012

A month or so ago, Minnesota’s Court of Appeals sided with a cell phone company that wants to build a 450-foot transmission tower on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Wilderness enthusiasts fear the tower’s lights will be visible on lakes as distant as 10 miles.

The decision led the Herald to publish an editorial suggesting that, having won the right to build, the cell phone company would be wise to magnanimously build a shorter tower, or build one elsewhere, in order to appease the BWCA’s many friends.

Most editorials do not garner results in a large reader reaction and this one received only a single on-line comment, from a reader who suggested that if we were ever to have an emergency in the BWCA we might be glad for good cell phone coverage.

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That comment was a perfect illustration, perhaps unintentional, of a couple of different views on wilderness. For many, it’s a place to escape daily life and enjoy beautiful views of the outdoors. For others, it’s a place to hone and test personal skills. And, of course, lots of people fit into both groups.

From the latter perspective, cell tower lights might not be as much of an issue as the presence of cell service. It’s probably not smart to plan a wilderness trip, some would argue, without realizing that there is risk involved, including the risk of being far from medical help. Nor should one believe that it is OK to paddle for three days into a remote area, get into trouble, and then simply call 911 and wait for the rescue parade.

Those who can’t make a better plan should, perhaps, stick to metropolitan area state parks.

Lots of people would not agree, because the prevailing assumption — as illustrated by our commenter — is that carrying a cell phone somehow entitles one to complete safety and security. That, in turn, stems from a belief that someone else will always be there to take responsibility for our mistakes, a phenomenon of 21st century American life.

A week or so ago, I was parked at a popular trailhead in a Black Hills wilderness area, bemused by the lack of preparations that many people had made to hike up a nearby mountain.

Small compared to its cousins in the Rockies, this peak nevertheless required several miles of strenuous walking in extreme temperatures, despite which some hikers — including a couple of families with pre-teen children — were taking to the trail without a map or any other preparation, not even so much as a water bottle. No doubt, however, they had cell phones as their ultimate and perhaps only safety precaution.

The flaw with that thinking is that technology is inherently prone to failure and the more complicated the technology the more likely it is to fail. An extremely simple tool, a knife for example, is virtually failure-proof. Turn that knife into a more-complex folding pocket knife and it is much more likely to break. A cell phone, dependent on so many, many things going right, has an extraordinarily high likelihood of failure.

That cell phone could, for example, break when it is dropped on a rock. The battery could die. It could get wet and ruined in a sudden rainstorm. It might not have service in a remote semi-wilderness area. What is more the failure modes, almost too numerous to count, are likeliest to occur in the exact same circumstances that people are in trouble.

Describing the impracticality of cell phones as a back-country insurance policy leaves aside the moral question of whether travelers put an unconscionable burden on rescue workers and others when their lack of preparation gets them into trouble that planning, knowledge and preparation could easily have avoided. Is there a responsibility, as well, to accept responsibility for the risk being taken — the possibility of breaking an ankle, getting lost, getting sick? Or is there an expectation that someone else, somewhere, will make it all better and, indeed, is responsible for doing so?

Given the choice of traveling in the BWCA, or any other wilderness, either with someone who was prepared or someone who had a cell phone, I’d take the prepared companion every time.

So while I’m not equipped to argue the legal merits of cell phone towers on the edge of the BWCA, I do know that I’d just as soon leave the wilderness intact in every respect as enjoy the perhaps-imaginary safety and convenience of having cell service there.

The Friends of the Boundary Water Wilderness, by the way, last week asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to take up its challenge to the cell tower, so there is likely to be more to the story before long.