An Unexpected Night on the Trail

(c) September 15, 2003 Tom Lum Forest

On Saturday September 13th, 2003 I spent an unanticipated night out, alone in the Badger Creek Wilderness. I left the house at 6 AM, with a note to Carol saying I would be hiking the Douglas Cabin trail to Flag Point, then on to Palisade Point on the Divide trail. I also told her she would see me, or at least hear from me, by 10 PM. It was a 12 mile, 2000' gain itinerary, and I expected to have a leisurely 10 hours of daylight to complete it. My maps say there is a gate, 2.4 miles from the trailhead, seasonally open 5/1 - 10/1. It was closed on my arrival at 9:30, but I can handle 17 miles in 10 hours and a not-so-leisurely pace. I got to the trailhead at 10:30; the sign I saw there was one of only two I would see all day. Douglas Cabin trail starts in ponderosa pine/oak woodlands, with lots of Dougs and grands and a few redcedars and white pines. It is infrequently maintained, and there is a lot of wood down in the trail. The trail itself is in most places hardly distinguishable from elk trails (and doubtless gets more use by them than by people). I saw no signs of any humans having been there in the last 30 days.

With too few pink tree ribbons marking the "trail", I found myself doing more bushwhacking than trail following, especially as I enjoyed the many clifftop vistas of valleys and rock spires. Larches soon appeared. Saturday was so clear that I could see all the way to Diamond Peak, s. of Three Sisters. I carried two guidebooks (Sullivan & Barnstead) a map of Mt. Hood Nat'l Forest, and two compasses. Heading NW, Gordon Butte had a fair number of Engelmanns on it. Turning N towards Flag Point, though some spraypainted blazes appeared there was so much down wood I gave up on the trail altogether and followed the ridge line up through silver and subalpine firs, and lodgepole and whitebark pines. I arrived at Flag Point at 2:30, and gave up on the extra 2 miles to Palisade Point, heading back down just past 3 PM. That gave me 5 hours to slog back through 4 miles of the worst maintained and marked trail I've ever seen (out of over 100) in the NW. The first 1/3 down was better blazed on the downhill side, and I followed it well (though not easily) through a fatiguing battery of fallen timber. At that point the "trail" turns east, but I went SW to catch some views. Realizing my error, I cut back to the SE. But I had also dropped 1000' of elevation, and instead of following the gentle ups-and-downs of a ridge line found myself climbing up and down three large ravines. At 6:30 Gordon Butte came back into view, and I realize I was due south of it a mile or two instead of that far east of it. So I turned due east, figuring to hit the road downhill of where I'd left it. But I burned up a lot more energy climbing in & out of ravines. By sunset at 7:30, I knew I was going to be there for the night, having spent two hours bushwhacking, climbing E/W ridges when I should have been going higher and climbing the N/S ridge. So I went further downhill until the light failed at 8 PM.

I had a flashlight, but was on a 30 degree slope nowhere near a trail. In 1999, I hiked with a friend from Mt. Hood Meadows to the Timberline Trail, Newton Creek and Elk Meadows, recrossing Newton Creek at sunset and hiking back to the car in moonlight. We got off the trail at 10 PM. She is still a friend, and refers to that now rather fondly as our day/night hike. But that time, there was a clear, well-maintained trail to follow, and there were two of us. This time, had I reached the road by dark, I'd have kept going. I was concerned about rolling an ankle or tumbling over a cliff. Discretion being the better part of valor, I pulled up a Ponderosa and parked myself. Maybe when the moon came over the ridge at midnight, I could walk out.

It cooled down quickly, and I found myself shivering with cold. Pulling my sweatshirt up over my head helped. Dinner was leftover Fritos from lunch and humble pie: no topo map, no thermal blanket, navigational errors... If I'd known which way my car was I'd have gone right to it. I had a cry realizing the consequences of my actions -- a cold night of rough sleep; hunger; and a lot of distress for Carol. I'm regular about telling where I'm going, and when to expect me. So by 1 AM she had contacted the Forest Grove police; by 3 AM my smoke jumper/pararescue brother Tim. She slept hardly at all. But because of my regularity and her urgency, she convinced the authorities not to wait 24 hours to look for me. Wasco County search & rescue was at the trailhead by 4:30 AM. Carol knew my car had been found at the trailhead by 6:30 AM, so I wasn't in a traffic accident as she feared; but neither was I in the car sleeping because I was stuck with car problems as she hoped.

I also imagined the embarrassment of being out for a couple of days with a manhunt on: "Executive Director of Cascadia Wild, Forest, lost in the woods" sent my stomach churning, thinking much, much more humble pie was coming. Plus, how would Cascadia Wild's move take place on Monday without me to rent the truck, meet with the new landlord, direct the movers, etc.? Not good. I had matches and a lighter and could've set a fire to warm myself. But it's the end of the dry season and I was nowhere near a road. I couldn't decide which would be worse -- starting the fire or having my brother jump in to put it out. No good either.

Spend enough time in the woods on solo hikes, and there will eventually be problems. But a leg injury seemed a more appropriate excuse. However, when the moon came up at midnight it seemed to deepen the shadows and sharpen the hazards of my walking out. I stayed put and ate some more Fritos. They also made a passable pillow.

It was hard to enjoy being there, but I tried. In the previous couple of months, I'd been thinking I should do a test-run day/hike/ emergency overnight to test my readiness: "Well, I guess that thought manifested itself while I procrastinated." So this was that test -- my first accidental wilderness overnight. I meditated a lot. The stars were nice early on, but the moon washed them out before long, and there was a surprising dearth of sounds. I heard a lot of crickets and cicadas, of course; a couple of rodents; and a whippoorwill or two. But there were no owls, coyotes, or other animals to be heard. I have seen a lot of bear sign (and bears in the flesh) in Badger Creek wilderness, and cougar sign as well. It occurred to me that I might end up as carnivore feed. It also occurred to me that, though freezing level was 10,000 feet, I might still get hypothermia and fail to survive the night that way. Tents and sleeping bags seem somehow substantial and protective (which they certainly are against cold; and cats seem to be mystified by prospective targets without identifiable heads or necks to bite, even in Africa). So even though I expected to survive the night, I wasn't sure and that was humbling also. But like my trip to Africa, I felt OK if I died that way, doing what I love to do and literally with my boots on.

Thankfully, it wasn't my time yet. At 6:20 AM it was light enough for me to see where I was going. The wobbly late-night leg shivers quickly abated, and after 10 minutes I was plenty warm. I had hiked to within half a mile of Badger Creek, and had a few ridges to cross to get back to my car. After two hours I came to a road, which with the National Forest map I identified as road 140: I was two miles south of where I intended to be. But I was sticking with human roads, following it for a couple of miles before doubling back 0.6 miles by 9:45 AM to my car -- and a greeting committee. At the double-back point there was caution tape labeled "area closed -- crime scene." A Wasco County sheriff and a couple of Search & Rescue people were at the trailhead. I said "hello," they asked my name, I told them, and a "hooray" went up. They called in their other rescue people and told me about Carol's actions. They also said that they were concerned that I had been the victim of a shooting accident (I heard a number of shots fired during my 24 hours in the area), which with Carol's report had motivated a prompt search. I thanked them for coming to look for me, and told them I had rested easier in the belief they were coming.

The rescue guys fed me water, Pepsi, and a donut. "Donuts!" said the sheriff, the only plump person there. "You've had donuts all this time, and didn't tell me?!?" he said, reaching for them. Thankfully, I was too tired to let go the laughter I felt bubbling up. The rescue guys then recommended that I not hike alone (who else would want to do a nutty hike like this?), that I carry a cell phone (not reliably useful where I go), and carry a GPS (it had occurred to me). They then gave me a demo of theirs, and extolled their virtues. I pretended that I remembered nothing from last year's Wolf/Lynx Tracking Project, and thanked them for the advice.

On the way home, I stopped at Burgerville to get a burger and a huckleberry milkshake. I got home around quarter to two, had a fatigued reunion with Carol, and washed up. We were in bed sound asleep by 5:30 PM, and I stayed there until 5 AM yesterday so I was rested for Cascadia Wild's move [I was Acting Executive Director at the time]. I have many things to be thankful for: surviving the experience; Carol's love and concern; and Wasco Co. Search & Rescue being foremost among them. There is also the learning to be thankful for: take the thermal blanket, poncho, extra food & water foremost among those. It would be good if Carol could find Cascadia Wild personal phone numbers (my bad). And at 6:30 AM Monday I ordered from a Garmin Geko 201 GPS and a Garmin PC Interface Cable. See you on the trail!