Adventures in hiking…

My Tall Tales

Struck by Lightning on the Appalachian Trail

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Thinking back, I remember the tingling feeling of hair rising on the back of my neck, like when you are really scared.  Yes, that was it – then the brightest flash ever.

On a one-week solo section hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), I hopped on near Fontana Dam in North Carolina.  It was mid-August and the weather forecast for the week was for scattered thunderstorms with highs in the 80’s.  Most of my experience has been hiking the PCT and in the mountains of southern California.  While we do get thunderstorms, they are infrequent and not as intense as the ones I remember while living back east.

My ride dropped me off on Hwy 28 near Fontana Village where I picked up some last minute supplies.  I walked to the trailhead and stopped to take in the view at the dam.  It brought back memories from my honeymoon 33 years ago.  That was a glorious week spent exploring the Smokies and hanging out on Fontana Lake.

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Today would be a short day and I would only knock out about 7 miles.  Hoping to make Mollies Ridge shelter, I extended my hiking poles, took a deep breath and started walking.  Fontana Lake was to my right and had plenty of water in it.  Man, I was jealous because California has been in an awful drought and our lakes and reservoirs were almost empty.

Making good time, I thought about going for Double Spring Gap.  It is a couple of miles west of Klingman’s Dome, the highest peak in NC/TN.  At 6,643 ft. it provides awesome views of the surrounding landscape.  It was no Mt. Whitney, but the trail wasn’t any easier.  The SUDS (senseless-ups-downs) were just as tough as the switchbacks in the Sierras.

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Shelter on the AT. Photo credit: sectionhiker.com

 

As I passed over a ridge, I took a snack break and noticed the cumulus clouds gathering to the west/northwest.  A cool breeze picked up and it felt like the swamp-coolers we have in the desert.  The pine trees started waving their spindly branches as the wind made a waterfall like sound.  I caught the first whiff of rain, a refreshing smell.   About 10 minutes later, I heard the first rumblings of thunder.  Passing a fellow hiker who was getting out his rain gear, I thought to do the same and stopped a few minutes later.   The hiker walked past me and I asked where he was stopping for the day.  He mentioned that he was trying to make the Mount Collins shelter about 7 miles away.

Decent waterproof hat:  Columbia Men’s Eminent Storm Bucket Hat

I dug out the rain cover for my pack and rain jacket.  Back west, I used the jacket more as a windbreaker and only remember using my pack cover one other time on the AT up in the Maine wilderness.   Back on the trail, the thunder became more frequent and I saw the first flashes of lightning.  Hmm, those clouds became fully developed thunderheads now, nice and dark with flat tops.  I started looking for a place where I could ride out the storm when a lightning strike hit too close for comfort.  A flash and almost immediate boom made me speed up my search for shelter.  Of course, this part of the trail had no shelter, just plenty of pine and oak trees.  The rain came next, almost immediately a downpour.  Well, this sucks.  I know, if you hike the AT long enough, this is fairly common. For this California acclimated dude, this was going to be interesting.

What followed happened quickly.  I remember feeling the hair rise on the back of my neck, a tingly feeling- like when you are really scared.  My training kicked in and I dropped my pack on the side of the trail and began to sit on it.  The flash came and occurred at the same time as the crack.

I woke up with the rain pelting me, the sound of it bouncing off my jacket.  My vision was blurred and I was looking at a tree trunk sideways.   Disoriented and dizzy,  my ears were ringing.  I laid there on the ground for a bit and got on my hands and knees and moved over to my pack.  I had one hiking pole still strapped to my hand.  My fingers were a bit numb, but no other damage. The storm continued as I sat on my pack to minimize contact with the ground.  I looked around and saw an oak tree that was smoking about 30-40 ft away.   The lightning had struck it about halfway up and split a large part of the trunk.   Hoping that lightning wouldn’t strike twice in the same place, I sat for another 10-15 minutes and made sure I was ok.

As the thunderstorm passed to the east, I put my pack on and got back on the trail, thanking the Lord that it wasn’t a direct hit.  My ears were still ringing when I strolled into the Double Spring Gap shelter.  I met about three other hikers there and shared my tale of woe.   They stared at me with wide eyes and said they were pelted with hail about an hour ago.  I rested well that night but remember waking once to the sound of distant thunder.

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Well folks, for the 10 or so people that follow my blog, you knew this was another one of my tall tales.  I have hiked around thunderstorms and know about precautions to take.  If there is a chance of lightning where you hike, consider the following:

– If you are with people, spread out.  One lightning strike can take out an entire group if they are close to each other.

– If you ever do feel the hair rising on your neck or arms, immediately drop to the ground into a crouching position.  Try not to touch the ground and drop those poles.

– If you have time, sit on your pack to minimize contact with the ground.

– Don’t seek shelter under a tall tree.  If you can, seek a medium sized grove of trees, head there.

– Don’t go into caves or sit on rocks.  They conduct electricity very well.

– If someone does get struck, they will quite possibly go into shock.  Check for pulse and treat for shock by keeping them warm and covered.  Seek immediate help.

Bottom line, there is no sure way to prevent lightning strikes.  A strike can occur 30 miles or so from a thunderstorm.  Tents provide little protection from lightning but may get you out of that pelting rain.  If you do go into your tent, sit on a pad or your pack to minimize contact with the ground.

This is an awesome rain jacket and has never leaked: Marmot Mens Precip Jacket

We actually do get nasty thunderstorms in the Sierras and hikers have died from lightning on Half-Dome in Yosemite. Thunderstorms in the Sierra Nevada are generally mild compared to the ones on the Appalachian Trail.  Enjoy the trail, you will be talking about that hail and stinging rain for years to come.  🙂

Inexpensive pack cover for occasional hiking: KLOUD City ® Black nylon backpack rain cover for hiking / camping / traveling (Size: L)

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Encounter with a Grizzly in Glacier National Park – Part 2

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This is the end of a two part story.  Part 1 can be found here:

https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2014/11/14/encounter-with-a-grizzly-in-glacier-national-park-part-1/

 

We entered an area of bear grass and watched as the breeze caused the creamy white flowers to sway in unison.  Figuring that we had two miles to go, I was ready to hop on to the shuttle and enjoy a nice steak at the restaurant in the RV park where we were staying.  The Piegan Pass – Siyeh Pass Trail had been an amazing hike thus far.   I noticed several piles of huckleberry-laden scat on the trail and slowed to see if it was from a bear.  As I got closer, I noticed steam rising from it.  I froze and raised my arm to signal to my wife who was about thirty feet behind to stop.   Suddenly, there was a rustling to my right and two bear cubs jumped out running across the trail.  Within seconds an adult grizzly appeared and stopped in the middle of the trail, between us.  I spoke in a calm voice and said “hey bear”.  The mother grizzly reared up on her hind legs and let out a snarl that resonated through every bone in my body.  I fumbled for the bear spray in the holster on my hip.

I told my wife to back away and not run.  Time seemed to stand still as the massive bear lowered to all fours and stared me down.  I think that I kept talking to her in a calm voice to avoid an all out confrontation.  At this point, she was probably 20 feet away as I continued to back away.  She was looking at me and snorting while occasionally making glances toward her cubs off trail.  Due to the adrenaline rushing through my body, my ears started ringing.  I flipped the plastic safety off the bear spray and put my finger on the trigger.  Not wanting to provoke her, I backed away and kept talking.   The grizzly rocked back and forth on her haunches, growled took a couple of steps toward me.

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Grizzly mother with cubs. Photo: Britannica.com

 

My mind was racing as I thought about what to do in a grizzly attack.  I avoided eye contact as much as possible since they see this as a challenge.  If attacked with this species, it is best to curl up or lay on your stomach.  Protect the back of your neck and play dead.  It is usually not effective to fight back unless you are being mauled and death is certain.  In the midst of this I prayed a simple prayer – “Dear Lord, please get me out of this alive.  Amen”

I had to put more distance between myself and this mad momma, so I must have done a moon walk or something because she was now 40 feet away.  Suddenly she snorted and charged, closing half the distance in a few seconds.  I raised the bear spray,  squeezed the trigger and swept it back and forth for a few seconds.   It created a cloud of industrial strength capsaicin between me and the angry ursine.

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Mad grizzly. Photo credit http://www.animalsw.com

The cloud of pepper spray floated in the air.  The sow sneezed and let out a roar.  I backed up another ten feet or so preparing to give her another dose.  Everything seemed to be in slow motion again.   She advanced toward me again before suddenly turning and trotting toward her cubs.  Standing there, I came to my senses and started yelling for my wife.  Not hearing anything, I made my way back up the trail, blowing my whistle.  I heard my wife’s whistle and saw her about 100 yards away, standing on a boulder.

We hugged and talked about how we would get back to the trailhead.  Not wanting to back track for ten miles, we proceeded down the same path making a lot of noise.  I even let out a blast of a portable air horn that I kept in my survival kit.  We emerged into a clearing and increased our pace.  Passing a series of cascades that feed Saint Mary Lake, the beauty of the surroundings escaped me.

The remaining mile seemed to take forever.  We passed through one last forest and heard some cars as they traversed the Going-to-the-Sun-Road.  It was surreal as we stepped out on the road and made our way to the shuttle.  Breathing a sigh of relief, we boarded the shuttle and made our way back to the visitor center.  I reported our encounter to the ranger.  He mentioned that this was the second report of a sow and cubs on the Siyeh Pass Trail this week.

Back at the RV park, we went to the restaurant where I had the biggest steak ever.  That night and for many more, I would relive the experience and would wake up in a cold sweat.

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This two-part blog was a work of fiction.  If you have read some of my other tall tales, you probably knew that.  I weave a story together using actual hikes that we’ve done with some creative story telling.   Grizzly attacks are a rare occurrence in the U.S.  Some quick research showed five fatal grizzly attacks on humans in the lower 48 since 2010.   There are probably less than 1,500 grizzlies south of Canada.  Alaska is home to over 30,000 grizzlies.  Sometimes they are confused with equally aggressive black bears.   Bear-spray is probably the most effective deterrent for a charging bear.  Research, experience and statistics show that firearms are less effective than pepper spray.  Understand the risks where you hike and camp.  Take proper precautions and avoid hiking solo in areas with grizzly or black bear activity.  This is a good resource for understanding bear behavior: http://www.bearsmart.com/becoming-bear-smart/play

Hike strong, and for heaven’s sake take out that headset!

Some gear that we use:

Rescue whistle:  Adventure Medical Kits Sol Rescue Howler Whistles (2) , 2 – Ounce

Bear repellent:  SABRE FRONTIERSMAN Bear Attack Deterrent with Hip Holster – Maximum Strength & 30 Foot Range (7.9 oz)

Survival blanket:  Adventure Medical Kits Sol Survival Blanket, Two Person, 3.2 Ounce

I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it.  It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures.  It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips.  Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle

 


Encounter with a Grizzly in Glacier National Park – Part 1

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……Within seconds an adult grizzly appeared and stopped in the middle of the trail, between us.  I spoke in a calm voice and said “hey bear”  The mother grizzly turned, reared up on her hind legs and let out a snarl that resonated through every bone in my body.  I fumbled for the bear spray in the holster on my hip.

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Our trip to Glacier National Park was on our bucket list for hiking destinations.   We were on the tail-end of a RV trip through Canada and looking forward to  Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.  St Mary is a nice village outside the eastern entrance to Glacier.  The RV park was within walking distance of the national park visitor center so we struck out on foot.   It was a mostly cloudy day and the peaks in the distance were obscured by a cloud layer, but we were determined to get some hiking in.  The ranger in the visitor center recommended the Piegan-Siyeh Pass Trail to get the most bang for the buck in a day hike.  He mentioned awesome views and a steady 2,500-3,000 ft. climb.  It was late August, so there was still plenty of daylight for the eleven mile trek.

My wife was watching for the shuttle and motioned for me to come along.  Good thing too, because it was ready to pull out.   The shuttle system in GNP is efficient and covers a large area.  The Going-The-Sun-Road was undergoing repairs and the ride to the trail was slow.  As the shuttle traversed St Mary Lake, I hoped that the trail would not be totally in the clouds.  Our stop came up and we were the only ones that got off.  We found the Piegan Pass trailhead sign and took a few pics – of course.

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As you can see, the clouds enveloped the trail behind me.  We checked our gear, I had the bear spray and my wife the bear bell.  The bell was a last-minute purchase.  I found this joke.  Some background: The hiker was buying a bear bell and asked a store owner how to tell if he was in grizzly territory.  They were discussing bear scat (poop):

…Well, what’s the difference?” asks the hiker. “I mean, what’s different between grizzly scat and black bear scat?” “The stuff that’s in it,” replies the store owner. Getting a little frustrated, the hiker asks, “OK, so what’s in grizzly bear scat that isn’t in black bear scat?” he asks, an impatient tone in his voice. “Bear bells,” replies the old man as he hands the hiker his purchases

The effectiveness of the bell is debatable.  In bear country, it’s a good idea to make some noise while hiking.  We definitely made noise, occasional whooping, hitting our poles together and talking in our outside voices.  We did this so that we didn’t surprise a bear.  They don’t want human interaction so, they typically will avoid the noise.DSC_0487

Making our way through the forest, I occasionally made an “aahroooh” sound just to make some noise.  Funny thing, a hiker coming from the opposite direction said people behind him thought that they heard a moose bellowing.  There you go, I can make moose sounds.  Glad that it’s not mating season.

The weather changed to light snow, reminding us that in Glacier it is so unpredictable.  The wind picked up and we added another layer of clothing.  The trail came to a intersection with Piegan Pass going north west and Siyeh Pass to the east.  We went east and reached the summit where the clouds broke long enough to take some photos.  After a lunch break, the clouds closed in and visibility was 50 feet.  The switchbacks helped us descend fairly quickly, and I could see through a break in the clouds where the trail leveled out and entered a bushy area.

From a distance we could see the flowers of the bear grass.  They looked a little like the blooming flowers of the yucca plant that we have in California. DSC_0554

Next:  Hey bear!   Encounter with a Grizzly in Glacier National Park – Part 2

https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2014/11/22/encounter-with-a-grizzly-in-glacier-national-park-part-2/

Gear that we use:

Bear deterrent:  SABRE FRONTIERSMAN Bear Attack Deterrent with Hip Holster – Maximum Strength & 30 Foot Range (7.9 oz)

Bear bell:  Bear Bell w/ Silencer

I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it.  It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures.  It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips.  Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle

 

 

 

 


Trapped! Wildfire in Yosemite Part II

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Wildfire in Yosemite – Photo Credit – Michael Frye/AP

This is the second half of a two-part story.  Part I is here: https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2014/10/03/wildfire-in-yosemite-part-i/

No time to panic here, first find out where we are at and then determine our options.  Getting the GPS and our map, we determined that we were about three or four miles east of Little Yosemite Valley and the Merced River.  It was hard to tell how far we were from the actual fire at this point, but knew that it was generally to our east around Babcock or Merced Lake.   Our options were limited because the other paths out were both uphill which would slow us down.  We just descended 800 ft. and there sure was a lot of timber fuel back there.  Our only real choice was to head west.

We picked up the pace  when the first chopper flew in front of us – about 1/2 mile or so.   It had a bucket hanging underneath.  Well, at least the calvary was arriving.   As we came across a saddle, we saw a horrifying sight.  The fire was crossing a canyon to our left and climbing the mountain.  Was it moving east or south?  It was hard to tell.   At this point, we kept going but discussed what we would do if we were boxed in by fire.   One option was to find rocky terrain  or a meadow with little or no fuel.   Another was to find a creek or body of water, but the nearest was the Merced River.

A few minutes later, another helicopter was circling less than a mile away.  We heard a loudspeaker but were unable to make out what they were saying.   Two more mule deer ran across the trail about fifty feet behind us.  They were heading in a northerly direction.  The helicopter was making concentric circles and came within 500 feet of us.  This time we clearly heard the loudspeaker as it blared: “There is a wildfire burning to the east and heading this direction.  Make your way to Little Yosemite Valley immediately!”

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Helicopter rescue on Half Dome, Sep 2014. Photo credit AP.

We were around 30-40 minutest from the rally point.  Would they evacuate us from there?   We kept pushing and noticed that smoke was starting to appear in front of us.    Up ahead there was a clearing with a person.  As we got closer it became apparent that it was two people.  One was laying down and the other was frantically waving at us.  It was a woman waving and a guy was laying down.  I asked what happened and she said they were running when he collapsed.  I checked for a pulse and breathing and found both.  He seemed to have passed out, but it was hard to tell if he had suffered a heart attack.  He started to come around and we propped his head up on the pack.  He was delirious and then I noticed that he wasn’t sweating.  I asked the woman if she had any water to give him and she told me they ran out about an hour ago.  At this point I guessed that he was suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke.  I gave him a small amount of water and moved him into the shade of a big lodgepole pine.

I told my wife and brother to continue on to Little Yosemite Valley and that I would stay behind with these two.  I gave them our GPS coordinates to pass to the rescue personnel.    I also activated my SPOT GPS locator.  I told the woman to gradually give her friend some water and I would attempt to signal the helicopter.   It was still making circles making announcements but did not see us.  Getting my signal mirror out, I started aiming at the chopper.  One, two-three times.  Wait…..one, two-three.  After 10-15 minutes the pilot turned in our direction and descended.   I immediately laid down on my back with my hands extending out – the international signal for distress-“need medical attention”    The clearing was large enough for them to land.  A rescue crewman jumped out and checked out the downed hiker.   We helped carry him to the helicopter in a stretcher and there was enough room for all of us.

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Half Dome from the “other side”.

Lifting off, I had a brief flashback from my time as a naval aircrewman going through survival training.   Only this time, I was the one being rescued.  Flying by Half Dome,  you could see a crowd of people waiting to be rescued.  We landed in a staging area near the Ahwahnee Hotel where the hiker was taken by ambulance to the medical center.  We would later find out that he suffered from heat stroke but would recover.  Now, concerned for my family, I tried to find out what they were doing to evacuate the people in Little Yosemite Valley.   Within minutes, another helicopter landed and four people emerged.  I asked one of them where they came from.  They said that they were picked up in Little Yosemite Valley and that there were over 50 people left.  I prayed again for my family’s safety and another chopper landed with four more people.  You could see the smoke plumes from behind Half Dome as they went straight up to about 9-10,000 ft. and then blew in a westerly direction.

The landing zone for the helicopters was cordoned off by the park rangers, so I dropped my pack and waited as close as possible to the boundary.  Several more landed and finally by wife and brother emerged.   Hugging them both,  the first thing out of my brothers’ mouth was “Where can we get a hamburger?”  Yep, that’s how it ends.

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While this story was fiction, a wildfire caused by lightning did occur in Yosemite National Park east of Half Dome in September 2014.   The “Meadow Fire” consumed almost 5,000 acres and took several weeks to contain.  Over 100 hikers were evacuated from Half Dome and the area around Little Yosemite Valley.   The National Park Service led an orderly evacuation.  Fire is one of many hazards that one can encounter in the backcountry.  Always let someone know where you will be hiking and discuss events like flash floods, lightning and fire.

 


Wildfire in Yosemite – Part I

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Wildfire in Yosemite – Photo Credit – Jeffrey Trust via Reuters

We were finishing up a section hike of the John Muir Trail in early September.  The trip from Mammoth into Yosemite was filled with the most amazing views.  In Devil’s Postpile Campground, it was nice to gather around the fire to talk about our upcoming adventure.  During our hike, we observed that most of the terrain around the JMT was pristine.  There was an area near Devil’s Postpile that had recently burned.  It was apparently caused by lightning.  The weather was perfect as we skirted thunderstorms for the past couple of days.  Late August or Early September is a good time to do backcountry in the Sierras.  Much later and the chance of snow really increases.   The mosquitoes are not as bad and stream crossings are usually a bit easier.   We met some southbound hikers before Donohue Pass that mentioned how they were pummeled by a storm, hail and all.   Noticed the first bit of snow at Donohue and made the transition from Ansel Adams Wilderness to Yosemite NP. The trek through Lyle Canyon was at a fast pace as the storm seemed to be on our heels.    For most of the week, we went without a campfire since the USFS had a ban in place.

We passed through Tuolumne Meadows and enjoyed some non-dehydrated food.  Next was a glorious day spent near Lower Cathedral Lake where we made camp near the shore.  What a magical place.  The thunder continued to rumble around us through late afternoon,  but it never rained.  The next day we pressed on for 11-12 miles.   We were fortunate enough to nab a site with decent views of Half Dome which appeared a couple of miles away.  In Yosemite, below 9,000 ft. campfires were still allowed.   We gathered up loose firewood and proceeded to make a nice fire.  The site we picked already had a fire pit and we reinforced the edge with some additional rocks.

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Along the JMT

Before dusk, we went down to the creek to filter some water.  The water flow here was poor and the mosquitoes were swarming.  I pumped my water filter faster than ever before while swatting those pesky critters.  All week, we evaded them and wore long sleeves and our head-nets.  Tonight, I was bitten more while filtering than the previous six nights combined.  Oh well, we needed the water for dinner and some extra to put out the campfire.

After dinner, we noticed the skies had clouded up a bit.  We were spared from the rain one more night.   I thought about a previous camping trip where the rain serenaded me to sleep.  Next to a rushing stream, a light rain is the perfect sleep machine.  Sometime during the night, we did hear thunder as well as see the lightning as it lit up our tents.  It sounded like it was 10-15 miles away.  Our site was in a good spot and not in a flash flood prone area.

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Approaching Half Dome from the east

By dawn, the far away storm had subsided.  We noticed the campers above us had packed up early.  They were going to Half Dome.  We ate a light breakfast, packed up and were on our way to finish our trip.  Today would be approximately 7 miles as we would pass the dome, Little Yosemite Valley, Nevada and Vernal Falls.

As we got back on the trail, we passed a small group heading back from a 3 day stay at one of the High Sierra Camps.  They were chatting how “glamping” was the way to go.  Glamping or glamour-camping is luxury camping.  You stay in a yurt, or cabin and receive room service or have your meals prepared for you.  Hmm, sounds nice after all.  At this point, we started talking about real food again.  While it had only been a few days since the cheeseburger in Tuolumne Meadows, the idea of fast-food still sounded good.

Eventually, we emerged from the canopy with Half Dome to our west and Vogelsang Peak to our east.  Suddenly, there was a thrashing sound to our left and a group of 4-5 deer bolted out of the forest in front of us.  What the heck?  Then we saw why they were running.  A white billowing cloud covered half of the horizon to the east.  Was it a cumulus cloud – or smoke?   The three of us stopped to get a better look.  Within a few minutes, it started snowing.  Except this was not regular snow, it was ash.  Now it hit us – forest fire!

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Wildfire near Half Dome, Yosemite NP. Photo Credit – Michael Frye/AP

Next: Trapped!  Wildfire in Yosemite – Part II


Kidnapped on the Trail

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…. He found the 550 para-cord in my backpack and used it to bind our hands behind our backs and to the trunk of a large manzanita bush.  We were beyond scared and prayed for deliverance knowing that when “el jefe” returned, we would be on our way south of the border to be held for ransom, or worse.  Dusk was coming quickly as I made eye contact with my wife and gave her a wink.

The Espinosa Trail is a well-known trek for locals in the greater San Diego area.  The goal is normally Corte Madera Mountain, a distinct rock formation on a plateau in the southern Cleveland National Forest.  I actually found the hike in our local guidebook while looking for something closer to home.  Normally, we would head north toward the San Bernardino Mountains.  Today would be a bit different with views of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

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View from the Espinosa Trail looking north.

We loaded up our packs with the typical days’ fare of 2-3 liters of water, a lunch and some extra snacks.  With the microclimate in this area the temperatures can vary 40-50 degrees within 60 miles, so we took our layers of clothing.

Making our way out on the I-8 freeway, we passed El Cajon and a handful of smaller communities in eastern SD county.  Zipping by the exit for Mt. Laguna, we noticed a Border Patrol checkpoint on the eastbound side.  The exit to the Corte Madera Mtn trailhead came up and we headed south toward the small town of Campo.  It’s well-known for the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  The southern terminus of the PCT is very close to the Mexican-U.S. border.  We turned down another road with a gravel washboard for a surface.  It bounced the heck out of us until we came up on a military installation (Navy SEAL training base) behind a barb-wired topped fence.  Of special note, we were behind a Border Patrol SUV.  Hmm, that is interesting, but we are near the border.  We also noticed that this road led to an Off-Highway-Vehicle (OHV) recreation area and noticed quite a few trucks pulling Jeeps and hauling dirt bikes.  The road changed to a mostly one-lane black top as we drove the 4 miles to the trailhead.

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The trailhead wasn’t labeled, but the gate to the private road was noted in the trail guidebook.  There was a USDA placard describing how this area is subject to closure due to the mating season of the raptors.   Like many trails, this one was diverse.  Beginning as a dirt road, we exited at a handmade trail sign sitting on top of a trash can.  “Espinosa Trail”, yes that’s the way.  Starting our 1,800 ft. climb we emerged into a nondescript area of chaparral and scrub.  Apparently, the Espinosa Creek was nearby, but there was no evidence of water.  We could see a fire tower in the distance, one of the last remaining ones in the county.  Emerging on a jeep trail, we took a right and proceeded up a winding dirt road to the next trail junction.  Noticed our second set of hikers today, but this would be a fairly uncrowded trail.  To the north was Hill 4588, as the Forest Service calls it on their maps.  Topped with Coulter pines, it was our first objective.  The trail narrowed and began a steep ascent.  Scrambling over rocks, this became the hardest part of the hike.  My wife – as nimble as a billy-goat going uphill,  steadily traversed the path.  I huffed and puffed while taking an occasional drink from my hydration pack.

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The cleft of a rock…

The view from Hill 4588 was nice as we could see for miles in every direction.  The trail was full of those senseless up-downs (SUDS) and we finally leveled out on a plateau.  Now, we could see the cliff, a notable 300 ft. drop into the canyon below.  We stopped, found a trail log and had our late lunch.  The view was amazing.  So this was Corte Madera!  The Pacific to the west, Mexico to the south and the rest of Cleveland National Forest to our north.  It was getting late as the days were getting short.  I estimated that we had less than two hours of daylight left.  We set a decent pace as our hiking poles helped us to skirt down the hill, the sun setting quickly behind the mountain.  We entered the last leg near the jeep road and I was looking forward to a hot shower to knock of the trail dust.

They came out of the bushes to our right and shouted something unrecognizable in spanish.  There were four of them, two with guns drawn.  Shocked, we dropped our hiking poles and raised our hands.  In broken english one of them pointed to the woods and said something like “go to there”. They herded us off the path about 50 yards or so into the woods.

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Next – Kidnapped on the Trail – Part II – Time for a Decision

I recommend these hiking poles.  They are lightweight and fairly sturdy.  Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

We use this Nikon camera forour treks: Nikon D3300 DX-format DSLR Kit w/ 18-55mm DX VR II & 55-200mm DX VR II Zoom Lenses and Case


Encounter With a Mountain Lion on the Pacific Crest Trail

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Mountain Lions hunting while we sleep..

I shined my headlamp in the direction of the rustling sound.  What I saw made the hair rise up on the back of my neck.  Forty feet away, two yellow eyes were staring right at me.  I yelled at the eyes but they only blinked and did not shift.  This was now a chess game and it was my move…

It was late spring in southern California and I was hiking another 100 mile section of the PCT.  I couldn’t take the five or six months off of work to hike it in its’ entirety;  well that and my wife wouldn’t appreciate my extended absence.  Thru-hikers that trek the entire 2600+ miles are special in the sense that they are driven to spend days of solitude, pain and hunger to accomplish the task.  Me, I was content to eak out another section of this glorious trail. Emerging from the Mojave Desert, I felt like a beat up fender in an auto body shop.  The sandblasting effectively removed one or two layers of skin.  My tent survived the 50mph gusts, the ground-hog stakes worth every dime.    Hiking at night, my encounters with scorpions were frequent and uneventful.  The tent was zipped up tight to keep out those critters.

Eventually, crossing Hwy 58 in the early morning, I realized that I was technically entering the Sierras.  It still looked like a desert, but with foothills.  Eventually, there were some trees and shade.  Taking a break near a stream that I had almost missed, I thought about not having seen anyone since the highway.  Sometimes on the PCT, you can go all day without seeing another human.   Not one to use a headset while hiking, I began to hum and sing to myself.  Those good ol’ gospel tunes that were stuck in my head since childhood.   As I was filtering some water, I sensed that something else was around but didn’t think much of it.  If you hike solo long enough, you tend to not worry about the boogeyman.  Besides, I often carry a “stinger” when in the backcountry.  While the likelihood of being accosted out here is slim, my little pistol provided me with peace of mind.

Around the 12 mile mark, I started looking for a suitable campsite.  Something near the trees, no widowmakers (big dead trees) and not in a gulley where a flash flood would wash me away.  The wind had died down and it was quiet and calm.  One of the first things to do is pitch the tent and get my bedding situated. I  prepared my food about 50 ft away from my tent and the Ramien noodles cooked quickly.  This is a great meal when you just don’t have an appetite, but need to eat.  Add a little pita and it fills you up.  As my daughter recently explained to me – Ramien means noodle in Korean.  Why would we call it Noodle noodles?  Hearing a branch snap got my attention and I thought that maybe another hiker was coming through.  Most of the PCT thru hikers had passed through last week, but there were some stragglers that were taking advantage of the famous hospitality and trail magic in this area.  After a few minutes and no hikers, I didn’t think anything of it and went about my camp chores.

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The last bit of sun in the southern Sierras.

Sunset was coming quickly; the colors from the desert would gradually change the cumulus clouds various hues of purple and pink as the horizon turned a darker shade of blue.  I think that sunsets are more enjoyable – maybe because I’m awake.  It’s hard for me to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise until I’ve had that first cup of coffee.  No campfires tonight, most of this area is under a fire ban.  Many of the wildfires around here are caused by campers and hunters who are careless with their fires.  I carry two lights, one a portable LED lantern that hangs from the tent and my headlamp for when nature calls.  At my age, nature calls often – especially when you drink several liters of water each day.  Since I was entering into the Sequoia National Forest, I carried a bear canister for my food and stowed it 50 ft. away from camp.

When camping alone, I often hit the sack early.  At home, seven hours of sleep is good.  Here, eight or nine broken hours of sleep is ok.  As I switched off the lantern, I heard a shuffling sound out in front of the tent.  I listened intently.  It was quiet, the crickets were the only other sound.  I counted the cricket chirps for 14 seconds , ok 10 chirps, add 40 – that’s 50 degrees out.  It’s an old trick that I read about, count a cricket’s chirp for 14 seconds, add 40 and you can estimate the temperature within a few degrees.  I discounted the shuffling for some skunks or racoon and was almost asleep when I heard it again.  Ok, have to see what this is.  I put on my headlamp and unzipped the door on the tent.  Not wanting to tick off a skunk, I stayed in the door of the tent and scanned the area nearby.  I was in a small clearing, near some scrub brush.  As my lamp scanned the forest, I froze when a pair of yellow eyes appeared about 40 ft. away.  The eyes were about two feet off the ground.  The first thing I did was to yell, like “Hey, get outta here!”  It didn’t move.  I grabbed my whistle from within the tent and blew on it.  No good.  Whatever it was didn’t move.  I was thinking should I leave the relative safety of the tent to scare this away or should I stay here and make some noise?

I decided to confront whatever it was to show who was in charge here.  Grabbing my hiking poles and cooking pot, I went out the front of my tent and banged the pot, raised the poles over my head and walked a few steps toward the creature.   Adrenaline must have been surging through my body because my ears started ringing.  I kept my distance, continuing to make noise and that’s when it became apparent who my visitor was.  My headlamp illuminated the body of a mountain lion!   It slid away in the brush with its’ long tail twitching on the end.   This creature didn’t run from me, it just walked away.  I had almost forgotten about the small pistol tucked within my waistband.  Not in the mood for hunting a cougar, I retreated to my tent and turned on the lamp.

Within 10-15 minutes, there was shuffling outside the tent.  This time it was to the left.  Oh boy, this was going to be a long night.   I banged on my pot and blew the whistle for a bit and waited.  Now, the crunching sound was behind my tent.  This critter was circling my tent trying to reconnoiter its’ prey.  Knowing that I couldn’t go to sleep with a predator stalking me and the thin-walled tent would not provide protection, I decided to go on the offensive.  I got my camera with the flash ready and in the other hand my pistol.  I really didn’t want to shoot the big cat but needed to scare it away.  Emerging from my tent, I turned my headlamp on to the brightest setting.  The light caught the yellow eyes and I pointed my camera in the general direction and started taking a few night pics.  After a few flashes, it took off and I could hear the shuffling grow fainter.  Here’s what I saw:

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It was a long night after that.  Like a little kid, I left the light on and laid there listening.  Chirp, chirp, chirp……   At one point, I remember thinking about my GPS locator.  Normally, it’s used to send my position with an OK message to my family and friends.  However, underneath a protective flap is the SOS button.  If I was in dire straits or hurt then I would press it.  I can hear it now:  “You pressed the SOS button for a big kitty?  Come on man!!!”  The thought did cross my mind though.

Not really being able to sleep, I would cat-nap until sunrise.  After eating some oatmeal, I checked out the area and must have flushed out some quail which scared me more than the mountain lion.  I ended up going back to my tent to catch a few hours rest.  I was awakened by the scream of a wild cat ripping into my tent.  Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I struggled to unzip it to reach for my gun.

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Mountain Lion in woods. Photo credit – Darren Smith

Within a few seconds, I realized that I had been dreaming.  My tent was intact and there was no cougar attacking me.  I decided to pack up and hit the trail.  After all, there was 53 miles of trail to cover. 🙂

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If you haven’t figured out by now, this is one of my fictional blogs.  While there are mountain lions in the western most sixteen states and Florida, encounters with humans are rare.  However, this past summer an Australian PCT thru-hiker was harassed by a mountain lion all night in the Sierras.  She actually did a video of her incident and pressed the SOS button on her SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange messenger.  The cat never attacked, but it took over six hours for rescuers to show up.   While it is unusual for these big cats to stalk humans, they are predators and can view us as prey.  In daylight, your best defense is to appear as large as possible and raise hiking poles or sticks over your head and make a lot of noise.  Never run or crouch down as this may trigger their instinct to attack.  When hiking with children in mountain lion country, it’s best to keep them close by. To my knowledge, mountain lions have never attacked humans in a tent.

I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it.  It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures.  It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips.  Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle


Lost in the San Bernardino Mountains – Part II

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This is Part II of a story that I started a few weeks ago….

https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2013/05/30/lost-in-the-san-bernardino-mountains-part-i/

The temperature dropped quickly after the sun settled behind the ridge.   Before it got totally dark I had gathered up some rocks and made a tiny fire pit on the ledge.  There was enough kindling and scraps to make a small fire.   I couldn’t imagine trying to keep it going all night and it wasn’t needed for a signal fire – yet.  I was also a bit paranoid about setting the San Gorgonio Wilderness on fire and ruining the forest for everyone else.  In 2003, the San Diego County  Cedar Fire burned over 280,000 acres, destroyed 2,820 buildings and killed 15 people.  It was caused by a lost hunter who lit a signal fire.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cedar_Fire  Eventually, I let the fire go out.

I finally settled into an uneasy sleep, not really asleep but one like you’re in a strange hotel room and you wake up confused.

The sound was strange, in my dream it was a rustling sound.  Except it wasn’t a dream.  I woke up under the space blanket and peeked out from under to see what the sound was.  My eyes strained to see the shape that was nearby.  The shape snorted and began to move away.  Omigosh, it couldn’t be!   A bear came upon me and was dragging something.   I shouted at him, “Hey that’s my backpack!”, but Yogi kept taking my bag away.  Knowing better than to wrestle a bear for my belongings, I tried throwing rocks at him.   Probably not a good idea, but I was mad and not thinking properly.

The rocks only made him trot away with my bag and he disappeared.  I went back to my bed of pine branches and sat down.  As the adrenaline faded, I started trembling from the encounter of a black bear only a couple of feet away from me.  Thankful that they aren’t normally carnivores with human appetites,  I was demoralized from losing my belongings to a stinkin bear.   It was impossible to sleep from that point on as the thought of another ursine visit plagued me.

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Hey, that’s my backpack!

I was down to a cell phone, my wallet, keys and the clothes on my back.   My pack had the water, emergency supplies and food.  I began to wonder what else could go wrong when something cold landed on my nose.  I went to flick it away and nothing was there.  Another piece of coldness landed on my eyelash and then another.  Wonderful, the 30% chance of snow flurries just turned to 100%.   Clouds must have rolled in over the last couple of hours because I could no longer see the moon or stars.  For a moment, I felt like Job and asked God if he hated me.  However, Job knew that God loved him and so did I.  He would see me through this.

The flurries turned to a light snow and I noticed the landscape became somewhat brighter.    I huddled under the pine tree with my space blanket and thought about my wife and warm bed 100 miles from here.  I knew that I would get out of this situation and continued to pray for safety and that the temperature wouldn’t drop much more.

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The night seemed to last forever and the sound of pine cones and branches falling unnerved me for several more hours.  The snow would continue and provided a cold blanket over the barren landscape.   Eventually, the sky started to gain some color.  I made up my mind that once there was enough light to make out east from west and some landmarks, I was getting the heck out of here.

It was overcast, and the snow had stopped.  I couldn’t see the sun, but was able to make out the general direction of where it was.  Knowing that I needed to head west-southwest, I began a slow traverse toward what I hoped was the trail.    The snow had accumulated a couple of inches, so it wasn’t difficult to walk.  Eventually, I broke out into a meadow with a lot of downed trees.  It looked vaguely familiar, but the dusting of snow covered any trail that might exist.  Continuing in a westerly direction, I heard what sounded like water flowing.  That was a good sound and immediately boosted my morale.

The stream was a vernal one, but ended up cutting through a trail.  Hallelujah!, I found the trail.   I almost ran to Alger Creek, but saved my energy and focused staying on the path. Crossing Alger, I knew that cell phone reception was within 30-40 minutes.  The path had less snow and estimated that the altitude was around 7,000 ft.   Seeing Mill Creek Canyon through the trees ahead, I tried the cell phone and got two bars.

The phone was working and I was able to get through to my wife.  I explained some of what happened, leaving out the parts about falling down a steep hill, the bear and snow.  No need to worry her you know.

The snow disappeared around 6,000 ft. and I emerged into the Mill Creek Wash where I ran into a day hiker heading up.  It must have been around 8 a.m. I didn’t tell him about my ordeal, but he did give me the strangest look.  After I got to the car, I  could see why.  My face was covered in dust and I had abrasions on my cheeks.  On my drive home, I had plenty of time to think about the past 24 hours.   In my rear view mirror, Ol’ Greyback (Mt. San Gorgonio) faded in the distance.

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While this was my attempt at fiction, the fact is solo hikers get hurt (and lost) a lot.  It’s always a good idea to let someone know where you are going.  It will give the Search & Rescue team a good starting point.  Also, check the weather forecast and do not throw rocks at bears.   Don’t forget the 10 essentials in your backpack:

  1. Navigation (map and compass)
  2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter

Credit for the 10 essentials – Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, by Mountaineer Books.


Lost in the San Bernardino Mountains – Part I

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The sun was rapidly sinking below the ridge as I struggled to get my bearings.  As it dropped out of sight,  it would be dark in 45 minutes.  A bit of panic set in as I lamented over my ineptness.  Headlamp shattered, my flashlight was gone.  Banged up and lost, it was going to be a long night.

Coming up on three years of hiking, I’ve spent many hours learning about backcountry navigation, survival and general stories of thru hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail.   I’ve managed to put some of it into practice and have never been lost for more than a couple of hours.  In southern California it seems that a hiker gets lost almost every week.  What follows is a tale of something that I hope never happens to me – or you.

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The day began like any other solo hike.  I picked my route out ahead of time, texted my wife with my intended route and off I went. It was late March and there was plenty of daylight left.  The Momyer Creek Trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, is part of the San Bernardino National Forest.   This area is loaded with challenging trails, many intersecting and often leading to multiple summits over 10,000 ft.

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The trail, one of the less popular in the area is peaceful and offers good solitude.  It’s also one of the least maintained with many blowdowns and much erosion.  Volunteers take care of these trails and it is hard work, so no complaining here.  It was also early in the season and there was still snow at the higher elevations.

I had checked the weather before leaving and it was pretty standard for early spring in the mountains of southern California.  Above 6,000 ft, daytime highs in the 60’s, night-time lows in the 30’s with a slight chance of flurries above 7,000 ft. after midnight.

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The hike up Momyer was a good workout, mostly a single track trail that generally followed an easterly direction.  By late morning, the sun was warm and the sounds of the woodpeckers echoed through the forest.  I stopped every couple of miles to rest and take in the surroundings.  So far, no other hikers were around.   Off in the distance, the rumbling of a rock slide could be heard.  The melting snow must be loosening the granite on the slopes of “Old Greyback” as San Gorgonio Mountain is affectionately known.

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My goal was to hike to 9,000 ft. and turn around.   Stopping in Saxton Camp, I had a snack and noticed that it was around 4:00 p.m. Thankfully, Daylight Savings Time was a couple of weeks ago, so I could reach the trailhead by nightfall. Yep, 7 miles to go, I can do that.

As I was making my way down,  I came across a landslide on one of the slopes.   Debris totally blocked the trail.  It was a steep talus, too steep to climb.  The drop-off was even more precarious and too risky to traverse.  No problem, I would backtrack and find a way above the slide.  With approximately 90 minutes of daylight left, this needed to be a quick detour.  I have a headlamp and flashlight, so I was prepared in case of a delay.  Checking my map, I estimated that I was around 7,500 ft. and in an area of steep slopes for a half mile in each direction.  Going back, it was difficult to find a path up a slope that wasn’t covered in scree, those loose rocks and pebbles.  After about 15 minutes, I noticed an easier route and began a climb up.  Reaching a clump of trees, I could see the trail below.  Holding my hand up to the sun, I  noticed two fingers between the sun and the ridge.  That meant 30 minutes until it dropped out of sight.

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Looking around for a reference point, that’s when it happened.  One second I was standing next to a Jeffrey Pine and next thing I knew I was sliding downhill.  Trying to slow myself down, I attempted to dig in with my heels.  That wasn’t having much of an effect so I rolled over trying to grab the scree with my hands and clawed as much as possible.  Digging my knees in, it felt like I was gaining more speed and bringing the mountain down with me.  Then, there was a sensation like the bottom dropped out, and I landed on a ledge.  The abrupt drop knocked the wind out of me.  I was gasping like a fish out of water.

Well that sucked.  After what seemed like an eternity, I rolled over and sat up to assess my situation.  No broken bones that I could tell, lots of cuts and abrasions and a goose-egg on the side of my head.  One hiking pole was still strapped to my hand, the other nowhere in sight.  Worse yet, I was disoriented and unsure of where the trail was.   Covered in a light, powdery dust, I must have been quite a sight.  A crow flew over me and cackled.  I’ve always disliked those birds.

Before the sun went totally down, I checked the supplies in my daypack.  Emergency kit, first aid kit, water, snacks, gloves, knit cap, warm jacket, extra socks – you know the ten essentials and then some.  My headlamp was a casualty of my excursion down the slope, the lens busted and bulb gone.  The Otter Case protected my phone from getting demolished, but no cellular signal.  I cleaned my wounds, none of the cuts too deep.  The lump on the side of my head concerned me a bit, but I didn’t feel dizzy or lethargic.   Looking for my backup flashlight, it wasn’t in the side pocket of my pack.  What else could go wrong?  With the sun setting and no light I needed to find shelter for the night, out of the winds that would come in from the northeast.  Searching the immediate area, I located a spot that looked ok.  The patch of  flat dirt was clear of widow-makers, you know the dead trees that can drop branches and crush you in the middle of the night.  I collected some pine boughs to insulate the ground near a boulder about the size of my car.  I had about 1.5 liters of water, a couple of snack bars and an apple.  I pressed the button on my Spot GPS to alert my wife that I was ok.  Hopefully, she gets the message.  Unfortunately, it is a one-way transmitter.

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Like many areas in the mountains, cellular coverage is sporadic.   Checking my phone one more time, I was disappointed to see no signal.  Wait, one bar but no 3G – would it work?  I  tried a call, but it failed.  Tried sending a text and it failed too.  Oh well, better save my battery for when I do have a signal.

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The last bit of light faded from the sky.  No city lights for reference. Pulling out my jacket and space blanket, I settled in and stashed my pack to the side.  Hearing crickets, the sky turned darker shades of blue, some pink and then black.   Stars began to emerge as the daylight faded.  A waning crescent moon was my only nightlight.  My eyes adjusted somewhat and I prayed for an uneventful night.

NEXT- Lost in the San Bernardino Mountains-Part 2 – “Hey, that’s my pack!”


Bitten by a Rattler on the Pacific Crest Trail

Dazed and losing consciousness,  the shade of a scruffy manzanita tree was just ahead.  My calf had doubled in size due to the swelling.  Using my hiking poles as crutches, I would take a step and drag my leg.  Checking my cell phone for reception, my heart sank – no signal.  I tried dialing 911 anyway and the call failed.   Reaching the small patch  of shade, I crumpled on the dusty trail and took my pack off.   I fumbled for my SPOT Messenger, an emergency beacon, flipped the cover over the SOS button and pressed it.  After a minute, the light was green indicating that the message for help was transmitting.  The throbbing in my leg had ceased, replaced by a numbing sensation – similar to falling asleep on your arm.   I remember seeing the jagged peaks of the Ocotillos on the distant horizon and faded into a dream….

Living in Southern California,  I became interested in the Pacific Crest Trail or (PCT) soon after becoming an avid day hiker. The 2,600 mile trail begins at the U.S. – Mexican border near Campo, California and ends at E.C. Manning Park in British Columbia,  Canada. The southern terminus of the trail is marked with a monument, the border fence on the other side of a dirt road.  I’ve hiked sections of the PCT, usually 8-10 miles at a time.  At this rate, I would hike the entire PCT in 30 years.  The realities of life keep this thru-hike fantasy at bay.

Today, I would park almost 20 miles north of the trailhead  near the Lake Morena Campground and have a friend drop me off at the border near Campo.  He was on his way to Yuma, so it was only 12 miles out-of-the-way.  Dropping me off on the dirt road, I would walk to the border, touch the PCT marker and backtrack north.  I  waved to my friend as he pulled away on the dirt road and headed north.    Dust arose as the car faded in the distance.   How strange it must be for the Mexicans who witness the hikers that walk this desolate trail.  I’ve read that encounters with illegal immigrants are rare in the daytime down here.   At night, the human smugglers known as coyotes herd the immigrants through this area, often abandoning them at the first sign of trouble.  Human trafficking is a sad thing and I tried not to think about it.  On this fall day, the sun was out early to greet me.  The forecast had temps in the mid 80’s – not bad for the desert.  I had 4 liters of water and enough food for a couple of days.  Water is pretty scarce around here this time of year.  This would be my longest single mileage day since my trek on the Appalachian Trail in Maine.  I’ve worked up to the longer mileage and was fit enough to give it a go.   The sky was clear with a few wispy cirrus clouds.   Taking out my little camera, I had to get a shot of the beginning of this famous trail.

Southern Terminus of the PCT

It was so quiet out here because the sand and chaparral absorb most of the sound.  The occasional chatter of a Gambel’s Quail would break the silence.  Using my map, I would pick my way around fences, up dirt roads and past some ranches.  Passing through the little town of Campo, I would see a post office and a small store.  Walking across Hwy 94, I saw cars in the distance, the blacktop making them seem like a mirage.

Crossing some railroad tracks and an old jeep road, I was making good time.  Finding shade in the cleft of a boulder, I took a break.  The screech of a red-tail hawk on the hunt pierced the tranquility.  It was catching a morning updraft, conserving energy.   The trail was relatively easy to follow and the elevation was around 2,800-3000 ft.  Checking my GPS, it indicated my average speed was 2.8 mph.  I was on track to make it to my car by sundown.  While prepared to hike in the dark, it’s not something that I enjoy doing.   Around the 8 mile mark, I made the crest of a ridge and noticed a descent into a canyon, followed by a  300-400 ft climb.  I crossed another jeep road with a gate.  Time for another snack, but I would keep moving.  While unwrapping my snack bar, I remember looking up in time to avoid tripping over a rock.  The Pacific Rattler struck without warning.    I remember yelling and lunging forward, the adrenaline surging  through my body.  I must have run another 30-40 feet before stopping.  Looking back, the snake was still coiled under the rock near the trail.  The pain in my calf jolted me back into reality.  I dropped my poles and unfastened the nylon gaiter on my right leg.  Two small holes, one with blood on my calf.   The serpent had bitten me through the gaiter.  My initial reaction was one of panic.   Within a few minutes, the area around the bite burned like fire and the skin turned red and was swollen.  I got farther away from the snake and retrieved my cell phone to call for help.  No signal!   I was in a canyon with no reception.  At this point, I wasn’t worried about dying.  I knew that most rattlesnake bites were not fatal and that it was important to calm down so that I could make good decisions.   I had not seen one person since the little hamlet of Campo, so I prayed to my God for calm and asked Him to get me out of here.

Looking at my map, I was 9 miles into my 20 mile hike.  The campground was 10 miles to the north with a  1,200 foot climb.  Campo was 8 miles to the south.   Not knowing how the snake bite would affect me, I decided to head back south and prayed for a phone signal.  I made a detour around the wretched snake and  began to feel a bit lethargic and dizzy.  Sweat was dripping as my body reacted to the situation.  I drank more water and tried to stay calm.  Up ahead near the ridge, I noticed some scrubby trees and hoped for some shade.  My leg was swelling noticeably and I knew to leave my shoes on.  I made it to some manzanitas and dropped my pack.

Still no signal.  I knew what had to be done.  Six months earlier, I had purchased a GPS device that serves as an emergency beacon and allows for me to be tracked by family members on a website.  At the start of my hike, I transmitted the “OK” signal to my wife which sends an email and text to her cell phone with my location.  Now, I fumbled for the device and knew that I had to signal for help.  I flipped off the safety cover and pressed the SOS button.  After a minute, it blinked green indicating that it was transmitting.  Hopefully, help would be here within the hour.  Looking around, I noticed the tranquility and beauty of the land.  The Ocotillos mountain range was in the distance.  The last thing I remember was a slight buzz in my ears.

I remember having strange dreams.  In  one of my dreams, I was dressed up in a fat bunny suit and jumping through the neighbor’s yards.   I still don’t understand that dream.   It was bright when I woke up.  In a strange room, the beep, beep of the monitor and I.V. in my arm left no doubt where I was.  A  nurse came in and told me that it took three vials of antivenom to treat me.  My leg would be fine, albeit sore for a long time.

Later, I would be told that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department  received the call from the company that monitors the SPOT GPS messenger.  The police chopper was on the scene within 55 minutes.  Working with the Border Patrol, they would make their way up a jeep road and haul me out on a 4 wheeler with a gurney.  A helicopter would land on Hwy 94 and take me to the hospital in El Cajon, 35 miles away.

Friends, fellow bloggers – at this point I must tell you that this story is a work of FICTION.  This didn’t really happen to me.  Have I seen rattlers on the trail?  Yes, many.  Normally, the rattlers are not aggressive and actually prefer to stay away from humans.  Most rattlesnake bite victims  are oblivious to the snake until they step on it or surprise it on the trail.  I can only tell you that if you do hike alone, ensure that someone knows where you are and take a cell phone.  Unfortunately, if you hike in remote areas, a cellular signal is not guaranteed.  For peace of mind,  I picked up an emergency beacon and  hope to never use it.  Be prepared for the chance rattler encounter and have a plan.   If you do stumble on one, freeze and allow it to retreat.  If it coils, slowly back  away and give it a wide berth.  The most common rattlers in Southern California are the Pacific and Diamondback.  In my experience, the Pacific Rattlers tend to be more defensive and will coil when threatened.  They have the ability to strike out at 40% of their length.  A coiled 6 foot rattler can lunge over 2.5 ft!   Most of my encounters have been in the afternoon.   I actually came within two feet of a coiled Pacific Rattler this past summer;  but for the grace of God was not bitten.   Enjoy your hike and be alert!

Trekking poles are also great because they can put some distance between you and a snake.  I highly recommend these made by Kelty: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

If you insist on walking through rattlesnake infested brush, at least consider these: Rattler Scaletech Snake Protection Gaiters (Green)

I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it.  It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures.  It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips.  Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle