Get ready to get lost
Six year old Cody finished lunch at the family picnic in the Wallowa mountains in northeast Oregon. He jumped up to play a game of "Explorers" with his sister in the meadow. The game was to leave the "base tree" in opposite directions, find something interesting, then return and share discoveries with the others. However, on this early spring day in 1986, Cody didn't return.
At first, this story appears counterintuitive to my goal of inspiring people to get out into nature, but please bear with me. Nobody wants to get lost or lose a loved one, but if you do anything outside the home, sooner or later someone will lose their way. Rather than ignoring the inevitable or being paralyzed by our fears, we can prepare for this fairly common occurrence to minimize the pain and frustration. Besides taking wrong turns down the wrong trails requiring me to backtrack, I can remember three times when I was genuinely lost with no clue where I was at.
On my very first thru-hike, I stopped at Jack Spring south of Crater Lake for water, but it was dry. Someone had written a note posted little markers of notebook paper leading downhill to another water source. After refilling at the creek, I turned around to return to my backpack at the trail--and I could not find the markers! The gray, early evening was cooling off and I had left my jacket. I headed uphill trying to keep a certain mountain on my right and to not panic. I could not find familiar terrain. I then realized that the trail ran north-south and I was headed east. I would have to hit the trail somewhere and then turn left or right to get back to my stuff. The general plan worked where the search for specific landmarks failed.
Years ago, my wife and 1 year old daughter and I went for a Sabbath afternoon walk with another couple on the looping trails in Congaree Swamp in South Carolina. When the sun lowered, we turned onto the blue trail to head back to the parking lot. After a while of talking and walking and driving away a cottonmouth snake, we noticed that we were facing the sun when we should have had our backs to it. We turned around and picked up our pace, but dark overtook us as we crossed the little bridge.
Scott put our baby inside his shirt to keep her warm while I led the group with the LED light on my watch. Half seeing and half feeling I kept us on the trail as we passed through open areas, through big cypress trees, and across bridges. At 3am, thoroughly confused, we laid down in the trail to rest as owls hooted over us.
At 5, we started moving again as a thunderstorm moved in. In the lightning flash, the two ladies saw a big open area to the left and felt sure the trail went that way. I had already spied the trail to the right, but decided to try their way. Step, step, splash, sink, in slow motion, water up to my ankle, to my knee, to my hip, and then I was under the dark water and unsure which way was up! Somehow managing to return to the surface, I heard my name being called and reached out to a helping hand from the top of the slick clay bank. I had fallen into the river.
Waiting out the storm under a tree, we quickly traced our way back to the car when the sun came up. There we discovered that there were two blue trails. The one we selected was a loop. All the bridges we crossed were one and the same! The trail we wanted was 50 feet from the bridge and we missed it everytime because the sign was several feet tall and I was focused on the ground. (We went home, ate pancakes together, then went to sleep. Sigh.)
A couple summers ago, hiking the PCT in Washington by Janus Lake. In the middle of the night I needed to use the nearby pit toilet. For some reason I did not put on my glasses and so when I tried to return, I got confused with the multiple faint paths and non-paths to and from the various tent sites. I could not find my tent or any tent! I remembered Congaree Swamp and methodically ventured back and forth from the toilet moving left a little bit more each time. Ten minutes later I was back in my tent just 100 feet away. I always wear my glasses now!
We pick up simple things as we move along in life, but what about really getting lost in the middle of nowhere? What do we do then? According to this website, we should STOP.
But before stopping, we should start--start with prayer. Every time I am about to go into the wilderness, I pray. I am always listening, and it is the Spirit who tells me when I should go. Even then, I always ask, Yes or No, to be clear. Then I ask, Where? God knows where all the dangers are and where all the pleasant, enriching experiences are. Every time I go walking in the woods I walk with Jesus, and with bears and mountain lions and unstable rocks that can roll my ankle or tree branches that can knock my head or any other number of unknowns. My life starts and stops with Him. That is fine by me.
When we do get lost, God has not abandoned us. He is just teaching us a new way to depend on Him. When you think about it, we are lost in this world from the moment we were born to the moment we die. We can never come to the point where we know the way by ourselves. By faith, we follow the Good Shepherd through the darkness of this life to the gates of heaven. If we can trust Him with all that, then we can trust Him when we are only a few miles from safety.
STOP: Literally, when you realize you are lost, Stop, Think, Observe, Plan.
Eat some food. Drink some water. Look at your map and compass. Observe what is around you. Plan what you should do with what resources you have. Do you need to hunker down in bad conditions? Did you stray from a group who will look for you soon? Can you backtrack on the trail to the previous junction?
One of the biggest causes of panic and turning an annoying situation into a disaster is trying to get to a specific point. Instead, think in general directions like when I returned east to the north-south PCT, or think "up" to a ridge or hill where you can be more easily spotted.
Your planning will be helped by prevention. This website has 6 tips to offer. My biggest one is know your exits before entering. This is helpful not only when you get lost, but if you run out of food (like I did on one ski trip due to conditions) or get hurt. For example, in the Cascades, your exit will usually be downhill to the east (highway 97) or west (civilization).
When in doubt, and especially if inexperienced in the wilderness, stop and stay put. Searchers usually spiral outward from your last known location. You will get found faster if you don't wander farther away. That is what Cody should have done.
So what happened to our little 6 year old friend? After wandering and circling back through one unfamiliar meadow after another, he found a forest road and decided to walk down it. After all, it had to lead somewhere! Wearing sweatpants, gloves, and a hooded puffy coat, he walked all night after falling in a stream and hiding in a tree from coyotes. In the morning, he found himself on a bluff overlooking several ranches with homes. A couple more miles of walking brought him to safety. God helps and guides us even when we make mistakes. Now there is a life lesson!
by Ed Lyons, 10/24/2018