The panic level rose a little higher still. I deemed it best to stop where I was, rather than wander in the darkness and get myself hopelessly lost. I pulled my Z-pad out of my backpack, along with my down quilt, and lay on the ground to wait for the light of dawn. All the while, the worst-case scenarios were filtering through my mind; what if I couldn’t get my bearings; what if I couldn’t recognize my surroundings. I had no compass and wouldn’t be able to orient myself on my maps. I might be able to get a location reading from my GPS, but that was iffy.
I prayed and I prayed hard; first to keep the fear and panic down, and secondly, to ask for help and assistance in recognizing my surroundings once it was light and then being able to discern
directions towards the trail. I haven’t walked far, so I can’t be far from the trail; I just had to be able to find where I camped last night and go from there. Being lost in the wilderness is the thing I fear most. I had noted many times as I’ve walked through the forests, that if I were to walk a hundred feet into the woods, close my eyes and turn around several times, then open them and try to retrace my steps, I would be utterly and hopelessly lost.
I tried to sleep so that the time on the ground would pass quickly. At 5:30 a.m., it was light enough to start looking for familiar landmarks. I carefully surveyed the forest and the underbrush, and in the distance, I thought I saw the sandy floor where I had spent the night. I started towards it, to inspected it for footprints, just to make sure it was my campsite – it was. I set my pack on the ground and turned and faced the slope I walked down the evening before and retraced my steps to where I thought the trail should be. It was hidden by vegetation, but I found it. I then walked back to my backpack, turning around every few feet to memorize a landmark that I would be able to see and recognize once I’m back at my pack.
After retrieving my backpack, I looked back up the hill I had just descended and picked out the landmarks I needed to follow to get back to the trail. Once on the trail, I give thanks and express much gratitude to my Heavenly Father for assistance in a very difficult situation.
I know it sounds incredulous for me to think I was lost being less than a 100 to 150 feet from the trail, but walking just that short distance with the smug attitude that I’ll just backtrack in the morning when it was time to return to the trail without paying close attention to where I’m placing my feet, without observing which of three downed trees I was crossing over, which of three standing trees I was passing between, or if my descent went off at a slight angle, could have had serious consequences.
When I started back for the trail the next morning, in the dark, the angle at which I anticipated intersecting the trail was off by several degrees, and just like in a rail yard where a switch that moves only several inches can send a train speeding off in a different direction and ending up miles away from where the switch was thrown, had I been foolish enough to continue plowing ahead, the angle would have increased, and I never would have reconnected with the trail.
Feeling relief that I’m back on the trail, a memory came to my mind as I reviewed the situation of becoming lost or nearly so. Each spring, before the boating season began and the customers arrive, I would spend several weeks training the company’s new river guides. Critical to whitewater rafting is knowing where to position the boat before entering a rapid, and I emphasize the word “before” because if the position is off by just a few feet, it can mean a flipped raft and passengers getting hurt
Every major rapid was scouted, which meant that the boats would be pulled ashore above the rapid, and the guides would walk down to it to observe it and determine the correct path through it. Together we would study the rapid, and I would detail for them the safest route through. The critical element to scouting is to know where to position the boat before starting the run.
The thing about rapids is that they descend, so when setting up for the run, the guide needs to understand that the rapid cannot be seen from upriver. To avoid the potential of flipping a boat, it’s crucial that the boat be in the right position before dropping into the maelstrom. I would point out to the guides that there was always a characteristic about the water – a small wave, a rock, a rise in the water as it flowed over a rock that could be used as a marker for positioning the boat, and I stressed that it was imperative to be able to recognize that marker rock or wave from way upstream.
My coaching to the guides was for them to turn around every so often as they walked back to the boats, to make sure they could still locate the marker, as it would look different the farther up the trail they went. With the marker firmly established in their minds when they pushed their boat away from the shore and moved out into the current, as they approached the rapid, they could spot the marker and adjust the position of their boat accordingly.
And so it is with the trail; whenever leaving it, pick out a marker – a rock, a tree stump, a fallen log, and as you walk away from the trail, turn around periodically, and reconfirm in your mind that you can still see the marker. Once away from the trail, all the trees look the same and directions become confusing.
Within a quarter of a mile, I passed Runs-with-Elk’s tent; there was no movement. I was sure she was still sound asleep, but we reconnected at Mazama Village later in the day. Jenna, which was Elk’s real name, was an intelligent girl with a solid college education. I don’t know if she majored in geology, but she certainly understands it and it was enlightening to walk beside her and listen as she explained the composition of rocks, their attributes, their characteristics, and how they were formed.
The Central Oregon Plateau is known as the High Desert, which is somewhat of a misnomer, as the average height is four thousand feet and rainfall averages fifteen inches. Scrubland might be a better description of the region. Within a few miles of leaving camp, the trail skirted around the west end of the desert, which extended east, all the way to the Idaho border. Water was scarce in this high desert region, and there were no additional, on-trail water sources to be found until leaving the trail at Highway 62 and descending to Mazama Village, which I reached by one o’clock in the afternoon. Mazama Village had a large RV campground, convenience store, post office, and restaurant.
By trail, it was seven miles from the facilities found at Crater Lake itself. As I entered the grounds surrounding the convenience store and post office, I found a dozen or more hikers sitting at the picnic tables in front of the store or milling about inside the building. They were either eating or repacking their backpacks with foodstuffs from their resupply boxes. I knew everyone present with the exception of a couple of new faces, and I introduced myself to them. They went by the trail names of Samba (male) and Tallywa (female).