Reading Sweet Mom’s article on the missing hiker reminded me of my own frightful experience of being lost in the outdoors. I shall relate the story of these adventures and the precaution I now take to prevent future occurrences.
November 23, 1979, was a cold and dreary day. We were camped in Kisatchie National Forest, a land of mesas, boulders and waterfalls. This is the area known as the Grand Canyon of Louisiana. It resembles the Grand Canyon of the Colorado the way that an Eiffel Tower at a miniature golf course would resemble the tower in Paris. Here we were, with the big kids, enjoying frozen feet and the splendor of the west (western Louisiana that is). While Sweet Mom prepared dinner, I decided to explore the woods behind our campsite. Through some quirk of fate, we had embarked on this trip without a compass or flashlight batteries.
Keenly aware of these missing essentials, I took account of my whereabouts. I took a fix on the location of the sun and made a mental picture of the roads and property boundaries. As an added precaution, I would follow a creek, ensuring a clear return path. All went well until at some point on my return, things looked wrong. The creek had branched and the sun was below the trees. I could tell I was lost because my heart wanted to pound out of my chest. It seemed that my Boy Scout training had gone out the window, because all I desired was to run. Trying to get my breathing under control, I referred to my mental map and calculated the worse case scenario. I would have to pick a likely direction, and hike in a straight line until I reached a landmark. I forced myself to line up two trees ahead of me, and repeat this at every tree I reached. Leaving the creek behind and traveling cross-country, miraculously I reached a road. My choice now was which direction to proceed. I chose what I perceived was west, as this was the nearest boundary direction. If I chose wrong, I would just have to backtrack. After crossing a rise, I discovered my campsite only two hundred yards from where I emerged from the woods.
Davey Crockett once stated that he had never been lost, but had been a mite bewildered for three days once. In my case, I had been a mite bewildered for twenty minutes. Arriving back at camp, Sweet Mom was still cooking, and I had not been missed. Ever since this incident I carry two or three compasses into the woods, and each family member carries at least one. Prudent as this may be, it turns out that a compass can be quite useless in the mountains where it is impossible to maintain a heading.
The next incident happened in Joshua Tree National Park. Sweet Mom and I set out for a short hike carrying M in the backpack and E in utero. The trail seemed clearly marked, but concealed a maze of side trails that would disguise the trail just as the branching creek did. At some point on the return leg, it became apparent that nothing looked right. Lost in the desert? Don’t worry, Mr. Wizard had a great idea. As the spring near the trailhead continued its course underground, we would just follow the greenest vegetation back to civilization. As we trekked cross-country, we noticed movement at some distance behind us. It turned out to be a lone woman tracing our path. Her bright idea it seems was to follow our path to safety. In such rugged terrain it became impossible to follow the greenery. At some point we turned away from our course and intersected the proper trail. As for the woman, I don’t know.
After this episode, I swore to never to hike without a GPS in my pocket. Now we carry two. Shortly after our adventure, an incident occurred that illustrates the ruggedness of Joshua Tree. A 60 year old man and his 40 year old son decided to take a short loop trail. Each would go the opposite direction and meet up in the middle. The father didn’t make the rendezvous. After a massive five day search, he was found close to the trail where he had fallen and sustained a broken ankle. He now has a story to tell!
The third and hopefully final adventure occurred in Olympic National Park. Next to the visitor center was a short nature trail. Posted at the trailhead was a warning that a mountain lion had been spotted on the trail the previous day. Nonchalantly we entered the rainforest, carrying no gear. All we brought with us was small children, the cougars’ favorite food. M&E, at 4 and almost 3 years old, were already experienced hikers. At some point during this simple stroll, the trail didn’t look like a nature trail any more. The trail narrowed, and we climbed a slick section where we found fresh cougar tracks crossing the muddy trail. Finally we broke into a clearing and found the park headquarters. Still having some pride, I allowed Sweet Mom to go inside and get directions to the visitor center. Never get out of your vehicle without a GPS.
Lost, thirst, hunger, injury, or fatigue in the outdoors can all produce a hiker’s greatest enemy, panic. Panic produces misjudgment, its most dangerous effect. Since the feeling of panic really annoys me, I always try to be true to the Boy Scout Motto “Be Prepared.” You may have already read “What’s in M & E’s backpack”, now I will tell you what’s in mine.
What’s in Grandpa Davey’s Backpack:
- Extra trail food
- Map or trail guide
- Light sticks
- Fire starter blocks
- Bear spray
- Writing material (for notes)
- Spare boot laces
- Wire type saw
- Signal mirror
- 100’ climbing rope
- First aid kit
- Survival blanket
- Flagging tape to mark trail
- Hat & gloves
- Fleece jacket
- Water filter
- Rain poncho
- Survival knife
- 2-way radio
- Insect repellent
This gear is always in my pack and I feel somewhat naked when I decide a walk is too short to require it. Recently I took such a hike. A familiar three-mile hike popular with the tourists did not require it. At the far point of the trail, past the other people, my bear spray would have made me comfortable. The mountain goats were a little too aggressive with their newborns around. Though a bit tense, nothing happened. On the way back we encountered what I’ve always considered the most hazardous part of the t rail. Covered in deep snow the trail narrows to a footpath barely clinging to the side of the mountain. A simple misstep would send one on a very long slide to the valley below. Not that it would do any good, but I like to have my rope with me. At this particular spot we witnessed panic in two other hikers. One, a man, had made the hike, passed the treacherous spot, and was now frozen in fear unable to proceed down the sweeping snowfield. His companions went ahead, leaving only his wife to coax him forward. The other was a woman, who quite prudently feared the slippery narrow path leading to almost certain death. Her husband and toddler son had made it and now she couldn’t move. “That’s okay,” I said. “It scares me even in the summer.” Being July 12th , I sometimes wonder what she thought of me.