Lesson learned: Beware of the sunset

Nice sunset

Nice sunset

I remember the only time I actually felt panic while in the wilderness. While reading Backpacker I got some inspiration from a segment they have where true stories are told and they point out good and not so good things the individual did to get themselves into a situation and hopefully get themselves out. I’m going to give this story telling a try.

During the summer of 2006 I worked on the Summit Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest. One day after work in late June I decided to go on a quick hike to Sword and Lost Lakes (1). I threw together a pack of the essentials (2) and left a voicemail for my mom telling her where I was going (3). I hiked to Lost Lake and then on to Sword Lake. There was an overlook to Spicer Meadow Reservoir on the north side of Sword Lake so naturally I went to explore what I could see. The sun was getting close to going down so I decided to watch the sunset from the overlook and have a snack (4).

After watching nature’s light show I started heading back to the trailhead. I passed Sword Lake and then onto the trail around Lost Lake. Once I got a little ways down the trail there was a big rock face that was on my right – that wasn’t there when I came in (5)…I turned around and back tracked a bit. Then I found myself on the trail toward Sword Lake again, oh good grief. It was getting darker by the second and the panicky feeling was starting to rise in my throat; I turned around and started running (6) along the trail toward where this supposed cutoff to the trailhead was, and found myself next to that dang rock face again. I stopped, stood in one place for a minute, took a breath (7), got out my headlamp, and started walking slowly back around Lost Lake in search of the illusive cutoff. Bingo – found the trail.

By that point I was done being in the woods by myself. The trail was well defined and I knew where I was, but I was done. The cloud of mosquitoes I walked into was the last straw and I started sprinting down the trail (8). Thankfully I made it to my car in one piece and safely home (9).

About an hour after I got home my phone rang – a call from my mother wondering where the heck I was (10).

(1) When hiking alone I tend to stick to more popular trails in case of an emergency.
(2) Water, sweater, headlamp, snacks – should have included a few more things.
(3) Always tell someone where you’re going, what your plan is, and what they should do if they don’t hear from you. At the very least put a note under your windshield wiper.
(4) Once the sun goes down it tends to take the light with it – glad I packed that headlamp!
(5) Take notice of your surroundings and significant natural features, they are good reference points.
(6) Chill out! I should have followed this next note sooner.
(7) As soon as you think you’re lost, STOP, take a breath and assess the situation. Don’t make matters worse by making panicked decisions.
(8) Nothing like sprinting by yourself at dusk to say, “Come and get it mountain lions!” or twist an ankle or a number of other regrettable things.
(9) Come to find out, my supervisor at the time had spent an unexpected night on the very same trail after watching the sunset and then getting turned around on the way out. Oh…good to know.
(10) Whoops! Don’t forget to call your just-in-case-person to let them know you’ve returned safely!

-Trails

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