Lost in the Woods – A True Story
I have told this story often, but have realized that I have never written it down. It is something that impacted my life and how I see the world.
I was in my very early 20’s and it was around the summer of 1972 – I think – I have always been bad at dates. Some friends wanted to go camping and I was enthusiastic. I’d camped every summer in Yosemite Valley as a kid growing up. That may have seemed rustic to some, but there were real campsites, washrooms, water, and well-marked trails in that National Park. Diane wanted to go to the Mendocino National Forest where she had camped before. Diane was the older sister of Dennis, a college friend of mine, who wanted to go too. She also brought her 3 year old son, Mark. My boyfriend at the time, Kent, also came. The 5 of us and my little dog Jed set out in Diane’s car and drove up to Round Valley CA and through the small town of Covelo, and then miles farther up a winding road (162?) that eventually became gravel. Map here. When we finally stopped the car, there was no campground, just woods. Diane led us to clearing about 100 yards from the car that she said was a great place to camp. We unloaded the car and set up our sleeping bags and camp stove. There was no water. Diane said we should go down the the river and get some, as it wasn’t far. This was back when people just drank from streams and didn’t worry about giardia which we’d never even heard about.
We packed a lunch and took empty water bottles. We were dressed in shorts. teeshirts, and hiking shoes. It was hot and we looked forward to wading in the river. It about a half an hour we found it. It wasn’t big; most California rivers aren’t. We filled our bottles and waded and ate most of the lunches we had packed. As the afternoon wore itself out, we headed back to our makeshift camp.
Except we didn’t get there. As I said, there wasn’t a trail. We did not have maps or a compass. We wandered up the hill from the river at at spot that looked easier than the way we came down. We cut to the left, thinking our camp was in that direction. We went that way. Maybe it was farther up the hill, so we climbed. No, maybe downhill and to the right. As dusk approached we realized we were lost and would need to spend the night where we were. We gathered some wood and built a fire. At least we had matches. We tore off some soft pine branches to keep us warm and tried to huddle together for warmth as the night grew colder. We took turns holding Mark, both because he was a warm body and to spare Diane who was worried because he was so quiet. I don’t think any of the adults slept much at all, but Mark did.
When morning came, we had a few bites of our leftover lunch, maybe 6 raisins each and a couple of nuts, a little more for Mark, and discussed what to do. I was for going back down to the river and following it downstream. Eventually it would have to cross a road before it reached the ocean. The other idea was to go higher to see if we could see the road from a height. Because we were so far from any town and following the river downstream would take a week at least, we opted for climbing. So we went uphill as far as we could go. Along the way, we picked and ate rosehips and manzanita berries which Diane assured us were safe. Somehow we just trusted her on that, but no one got sick from them.
We got to the top of a ridge, but there were so many trees, we couldn’t see a thing. It was getting late, so we made another fire and gathered so pine branches again. In the morning, after 6 more raisins eat, we wondered about building a huge fire, hoping some rangers would see it and find us. We dismissed that quickly as a bad idea; we did not want to set the woods on fire, particularly when we were lost in them. We started downhill toward the river, as following it downstream was the only option left.
Except we crossed a logging road! Yay! We could simply follow it to whatever road it connected to! After a quarter of a mile or so, another logging road crossed the one we were on. It looked more used so we followed it. Ten crossroads later we realized we were going in circles through a maze without a discernible exit. We were also running out of water so we headed downhill again toward the river. We spent another night on the hillside. We were very tired and very hungry. My dog did sort of OK, but I won’t tell you what he ate. It included second hand raisins.
Finally we reached the river and drank our fill. We even washed some of the grime from our bodies. Dennis spotted a frog and caught it. Someone else found a discarded sardine can. We built a fire and poached that little frog. I had a pocket knife and cleaned out the intestines, but we ate everything else on and in that tiny body. We began to hunt frogs in earnest and we caught 3 more. It was getting dark again so we looked for a place to camp. Across the river was a clearing enclosed by several large granite boulders. There was a fire-ring, others had camped there before us. And miracle of miracles, a previous camper had stashed a half a bag of macaroni in one of the boulder’s crevices. We found another tin can to boil water and feasted on frogs and unsalted pasta. It really did feel like abundance. The next morning Diane noticed that we were very near where we were on the very first day. She was positive she knew the way back from there, if we went back exactly the way we had come. I was reluctant, but agreed with the provision that we mark our trail and that if we did not find the car in an hour, we would then follow the river downstream.
We started uphill and Diane quickly grew excited, saying she knew exactly where we were and where we had left our camping gear. We sat on a log to catch our breath from the climb and then a swarm of wasps surrounded us. Diane was stung several times, although the rest of us weren’t. She was terrified, saying she was allergic to bees. We raced behind her, found the car, grabbed some oranges to eat, and started the drive to town, hoping to find a doctor.
Several miles down the road, there was a Forest Service compound so we stopped there. A man came out when we drove in and we explained about being lost and the bee sting. He said they didn’t have a phone and we had to leave. His demeanor was very hostile. Maybe the no phone was true, but he must have had a radio or someway to contact the town. We were young, we were filthy from sleeping in the dirt for days, and the guys both had long hair and beards. It was the 70’s and we were dirty hippies and clearly less than human in his eyes. We left.
Finally we reached Covelo and stopped at the ranger station there. It was part of the Park Service and not the Forest Service (which serves the lumber industry) and the employees were awesome. They called the local doctor who said if Diane was still alive after the several hours that had passed, there was nothing to worry about. They lent us a lantern so we could retrieve our camping stuff which we had left in a rush and it would be dark before we got back to it. We then went to the local diner and had their 24 hour breakfast before driving back up the mountain.
When we got back to Berkeley, we went to Spenger’s Restaurant, a fish place that served unlimited bread. I am not sure what else we ate, but we went through a LOT of bread!
The next day I went to my work study job and told them what had happened and why I was 3 days late coming back. They hadn’t been worried at all. So much for our fantasy of them calling out search and rescue.
Some of what I learned:
- Always take a little extra along if you can – food, clothing, money
- Know where you are and where you are going. Trails are good and maps are even better
- Technology is a blessing. A satellite phone or GPS would have really helped.
- Drink lots water if you don’t have enough food
- The men were much better at carrying firewood and catching frogs, but tended to shut down emotionally more than the women
- The women were much better at having a clue about what to do and we kept the dynamic cooperative even while we were basically making all the decisions for the group.
- Having a child made it even more important that we get out safely and soon.
- Dogs can take care of themselves if need be.
- Take nothing for granted.
- It takes some luck to survive.
- When people need help, it shouldn’t matter what they look like.
Note that #5 and #6 may have just been the individuals involved, but a couple of years later, I stopped experimenting with heterosexuality.