Sunday, July 15, 2012

Lost in the Woods / Learning from my Mistakes

In my high school days, I enjoyed hiking a great deal.  Mt. Rainier National Park, the Olympic National Park, and the San Juan Islands (short hikes as we island-hopped aboard a rented sailboat in my youth) were a few favorite areas.  As my weight came on, though, my hiking adventures became less and less frequent.  This summer I've been trying to change that.  Sometimes, though, it's good to just pause and remember some of the basics.

First, here's the somewhat embarrassing account of yesterday's hike--a day in which my daughter and I walked about fourteen miles of trails--including one section of the roundtrip route TWICE.  You can see our route here, if you follow the Walkmeter link.  (To see our last route, go here, and our first adventure is shared in an earlier blog post.)

So, our day began with the four of us (myself, wife, son, and daughter) leaving the Lake Pamelia trailhead and walking into the Willamette National Forest.  Less than three miles later, we stopped and had lunch on the banks of the lake.  Other than the occasional distant rumbles of thunder, it was a pleasant day to be there.  We enjoyed watching a lone duckling traverse up and down the lake in front of us looking for insects and other food sources.

Finishing lunch, my daughter and I decided to hike around to the east side of the lake and see how close we could get to the Pacific Crest Trail.  My wife and son opted to stay behind and relax beside the shaded lake.  We had no concerns about finding them again.  The two of us had a blast as we forded several streams and headed up a steep and narrow trail towards the valley's rim.  Fast forward about an hour later, however, and my wife and son were nowhere to be found when we returned to the lake.  We went to the site where we thought we had left them, but there was no sign of them.  We called out and walked around the lake for a few minutes before mistakenly deciding that they must have returned to the van parked at the trailhead.

Imagine our frustration when we did not find them there an hour later!  Evening was fast approaching now, and there was absolutely no cell service in this area.  (No emergency phone either.)  We picked ourselves back up, and returned to the familiar trail.  Every so often, I'd ask passing hikers if they had seen anyone matching their description, but we had no luck until we almost were back at the lake.  A friendly younger couple remembered seeing them and gave us a general idea of where they were on the lake-- the described location sounding strangely familiar.  

About this time, my fatigue hit hard, and I gave in to Sarah's request to run on ahead and look for the two of them.  I knew this was not a great idea, but, I was exhausted as well as dehydrated (having left most of the drinks in the pack with my wife and son).  Ten minutes later, I plodded out of the forest and to within sight of the lake.  My heart sank, because there was not a sound.  I called loudly into the air, but there was not even a faint response.  

A couple hikers happened along, and I explained the series of events that had taken place.  We decided the best thing for me to do at that time was to sit myself squarely on the main trail in order to ensure we not pass each other in the trees on parallel trails).  They agreed that the trails were less than clear on the west side, and it was easy to get a little turned around.  Just after we had decided that they would go ahead and notify the Detroit Ranger Station, Sarah responded in the distance to one of my calls.

It was with great relief that I saw all three of them appear, heading for my direction in the soft evening light.  I collapsed onto the ground and rested for a while before we undertook the journey back (again).  Where had they gone?  We learned to our astonishment that they had never moved.  It wasn't until that evening that I realized that I must have turned right when I should have turned left when we came back out of the trees at the lake after trying to connect with the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Moral of the story--for newer hikers anyway?  I'd say there are a few that come to mind.  

1.  Invest in backpacker whistles.  Voices just don't carry in the thick woods and brush.  In retrospect, I realized that I called very loudly within probably fifty feet of where my wife and son were sitting, but they didn't hear anything.  (Author Cheryl Strayed writes about using one to discourage a charging bull on the trail, but that's not exactly recommended usage.  I plan to review her book, From Lost to Found, in the near future, by the way.)

2.  Have a plan.  It's best to stay together, but, if you decide to separate temporarily, have a clear plan for re-connecting.  I think our problem was we second-guessed the plan we knew had been in place.  (If you do realize you are truly lost, stay put!)

3.  Before doing something risky (like hiking back), it's best to double check the entire area should you find yourself in a similar situation someday.  If the brush is thick, you may be able to wade out a foot into the lake or stream and check the area from that vantage point, too. 

4.  Ensure you spread around the food and drinks between different people's packs.  Besides balancing weight, this ensures that everyone has emergency drinks available.

5.  Always pack more food and drinks than you think you will need.  Fortunately, we did this--although they were not with us until the end.  Don't forget the small first aid kit, too!

6.  In case you have to hike out at night, it's always a good idea to carry a flashlight or two.

7.  If you're going into an area with poor trail marking, be sure to bring maps or guides for your hike.

8.  Dress for the weather of the day, but, if heading into the mountains, it's always good to bring some extra clothes or jackets in case of sudden weather changes.

9.  It's a good idea, especially for smaller groups, to have someone with whom they check-in when they return from the backpacking trip.  You don't want people guessing as to where you went, if something unforeseen happens.

10.  As Cheryl Strayed laments in From Lost to Found, make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes!  Avoid making beginner errors on your boots.

Another Top 10 List for Hikers 

"Bonus" Feature!  

It's not every blog that provides bonus content...but here are a couple photos of an Orange bellied Taricha granulosa which we happened across along the trail around the lake's eastern edge.  Although I handled this newt without any problems, apparently it is poisonous if one tries to eat it.  (Thankfully, I wasn't even tempted a little.)

New:  You may also enjoy "Injured and Alone."  

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