CUYUNA, Minn. — A nearly fatal mountain biking incident on a remote backcountry trail near the city of Cuyuna, Minnesota, prompted action to improve emergency responder access to the system.
In September, a cyclist traversing the expert level Cruser’s Kettle trail fell near a ravine and suffered serious injuries. With sparse signage and the inability to get much closer than the trailhead parking lot with an ambulance, personnel from Cuyuna Regional Medical Center struggled to first locate the site of the crash and then to extract the individual to get him the medical care he needed.
The cyclist, identified as Todd in a story by WCCO, had luck on his side when an off-duty Hayward, Wisconsin, emergency room doctor happened upon the scene and performed an emergency tracheotomy that likely saved Todd’s life. Another local cyclist made several trips between the ambulance and the injured cyclist to shuttle equipment.
But Bob McLaughlin, manager of emergency and ambulance services at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, doesn’t want to rely so heavily on luck and good Samaritans to provide medical care to cyclists using the trail system, should they need it. He said from the time his crew received the call for service until they loaded the cyclist to be airlifted, three hours passed.
“Our EMS (emergency medical services) access is nonexistent,” McLaughlin said during a phone interview last week. “Basically, we could be going back there 7 miles to get a patient if need be. It being a trauma, you know, we just can’t really feasibly do that and really have good outcomes.
“ … With this guy, yes, the doctor was there. If for some reason if he wouldn’t have been there, this gentleman probably wouldn’t be here, with my staff and the doctor — what they had to do. My staff was really great on this call. Great is great, but we need to do better for our community.”
McLaughlin said the lack of access to the black diamond-rated trail system that opened in October 2020 was a surprise to him and something he felt needed to be corrected immediately. With the recent incident in mind, he organized a meeting with a number of stakeholders in the same room to discuss solutions, including area fire chiefs, sheriff’s office leaders and dispatchers, county government officials and representatives of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew.
"Basically, we could be going back there 7 miles to get a patient if need be. It being a trauma, you know, we just can’t really feasibly do that and really have good outcomes."
— Bob McLaughlin, manager, CRMC emergency ambulance services
Although in proximity to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, the expert-level 8-mile singletrack loop, Cruser’s Kettle, is within Crow Wing County-managed forestlands — the first mountain bike trail in the area constructed outside state property. Its remoteness was a selling point when the addition was announced.
“Once you are on the trail, there are no other trail intersections, no shortcuts back, no bathrooms or benches — even cellphone reception can be spotty,” said Joshua Rebennack, construction co-chair and volunteer trail designer, in a 2020 news release. “It’s just backcountry, beautiful forest, and even a lost lake.”
Crow Wing Sheriff’s Capt. Adam Kronstedt, who bikes on the trails himself in his free time, said the recent incident was a tipping point but there have been other crashes involving serious injuries this year as well.
“The trails are built by professional trail builders. They’re safe trails, but there’s an inherent risk we take as riders when we go on those trails,” Kronstedt said. “ … They’re modifying some of the trails where they call it, essentially, a proving grounds or a filter, if you will. But the start of the trail, if you can’t get past this first 40 yards of trail, you shouldn’t go any farther. … It’s just a matter of a whole bunch of new miles of trails with expert terrain that we’re trying to make sure we have access to when the accidents do happen.”
Crow Wing County Commissioner Doug Houge, who represents the Cuyuna Range area on the county board, reported to the other commissioners Sept. 28 the meeting a night earlier was fruitful. By Friday, Oct. 1, a group including a number of the same people along with state Rep. Dale Lueck convened on a snowmobile trail near Cruser’s Kettle to evaluate potential improvements to forest roads that would allow responders much closer access to difficult trail sections.
"It’s just a matter of a whole bunch of new miles of trails with expert terrain that we’re trying to make sure we have access to when the accidents do happen."
— Capt. Adam Kronstedt, Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office
During an interview after the county board meeting, Houge said the need to improve communication between the four jurisdictions responsible for emergency calls in the bike trails area was one key takeaway, along with installing more frequent trail markers on the county trail. If people don’t know where they are on a trail, it’s very difficult for county dispatchers to direct responders to the right location.
“I think it’s very important that we keep both trails, regardless of who, you know, if it’s the state or the county that kind of maintains or manages the property, that we keep them consistent,” Houge said. “So there isn’t a set of rules over here that varies from a set of rules here. … It was great to see all of the players there in the same room, nodding their heads the same direction that, yeah, we need to improve on this. Again, we’ve added miles and miles of trails and maybe we haven't kept up with some of the potential safety concerns that go with that. So, like I said, at least on our end, we’re going to be moving pretty quickly on it.”
Aaron Hautala, president emeritus of the mountain bike crew who helped raise funds to build Cruser’s Kettle, said the exponential growth in visitors to the recreation area — about 500,000 of all kinds were recorded in 2020, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and 160,000 cyclists — means continuing to evaluate and adapt. The trail system now contains about 55 miles of trails, compared to 25 miles in the earlier years.
“Where we’re at right now, with that many miles and that many participants, we’re doing well,” Hautala said. “But as you know, with anything, sitting still is not a place to be. How could we do better? … To have all those stakeholders in one room, it was really cool. And there was a lot of everyone’s aligned, everyone’s excited. And how do we make this even better? What’s the goal?”
Hautala said one thing riders or hikers could do to help is to download an app called what3words. Available on iOS or Android, the phone app divides the entire world into approximately 3-by-3-yard squares identified by three unique words, not duplicated anywhere else.
The location of the trailhead parking lot, for instance, is identified on the what3words map as “prepare.brightened.doorway.” If a cyclist calls 911, rather than trying to remember which feature they just cycled by or which half-mile marker they last saw, they could instead tell the dispatcher almost their exact location by stating “pocketbook.doorframe.fairly” or “freshest.umpires.raucous.”
"But as you know, with anything, sitting still is not a place to be. How could we do better?"
— Aaron Hautala, president emeritus, Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew
“Maybe you do know (which trail) — ‘OK, I’m on Galloping Goose.’ And then the next question would be, ‘OK, good, now what was the last mile marker you went by?’ Now the chance of you remembering that becomes even more limited,” Hautala said. “I mean, it’s all signed for that reason, which is good and needed, but the precision of it is going to get even better, which is really good.”
More about what3words
Street addresses weren’t designed for 2021, according to creators of the application what3words.
“They aren’t accurate enough to specify precise locations, such as building entrances, and don’t exist for parks and many rural areas,” according to the website. “This makes it hard to find places and prevents people from describing exactly where help is needed in an emergency. … Many emergency services around the world now accept 3 word addresses from callers who would otherwise struggle to say exactly where they need help. what3words has helped find many people in need of emergency assistance quickly and easily.”
For more information, visit what3words.com.