Cell phones don’t equal safety in wilderness

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.

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.

Mower County

Honor those who served this Memorial Day

Education

‘Light the world on fire:’ Pacelli graduates the Class of 2024

Education

Signing ceremony a first step for students hoping to get into education

Education

Hook, line, and sinker – Lyle students made the best catch

Mower County

Austin Stormwater Resilience Plan – Open House slated for Tuesday

Mower County

Mueller awarded fellowship to attend leadership institute

Mower County

Nominations to open June 1 for APS Distinguished Alumni

Mower County

Great River Energy donates fire test hose station to Dexter Fire Department

Mower County

In Your Community: Austin Masons donated to area fire departments

Brownsdale

In Your Community: Brownsdale Study Club

Mower County

In Your Community: Duplicate Bridge

Education

Education Briefs:

News

National Guard joins search for 2 missing canoeists in BWCA

Crime, Courts & Emergencies

Convictions: May 13-20

Crime, Courts & Emergencies

Austin man charged with possessing child pornography

News

As Walz signs $30 million for rural EMS, providers worry it’s not enough

Education

SMEC graduates tell their own tales of success

Business

Company that owns Austin radio stations lays off on-air personalities, part of sweeping move

Mower County

Institute dedicated to moving forward despite missing out on bonding dollars

Mower County

Institute Community Outreach and Education manager receives grant to expand STEM education offerings

News

Tornado devastates Iowa town, killing multiple people as powerful storms rip through Midwest

Mower County

Unmarked grave of Civil War veteran who fought at Shiloh, among other battles, gets memorial plaque

Mower County

Tuesday storm knocks out power to many, downs trees and branches

Business

Going hog wild for ice cream