Lost in the Woods

I couldn’t stop scratching my belly. I scratched my left calf. The itch on my neck went off again. Then my elbow. In a quiet symphony of itchiness the surface of my skin buzzed and hummed and kept me awake. I heard my dear friend, MD, still awake too, trying to settle into her sleeping bag. It wasn’t just the bites keeping us awake that night; more than anything it was the reason we had gotten the bites in the first place. We were lost. LOST. The setting sun had forced us to try and get some rest; if you can’t find the trail in the daylight you sure as hell won’t find it in the thick, sticky dark of the wilderness at night. That second night of being lost, trying to fall asleep was nearly impossible. We were covered with bites from deer flies, mosquitoes, black flies, and no-see-ums, which together were much more powerful than a few measly bites alone could ever be. We scratched til we bled and then scratched some more. The heat had us wearing shorts (and MD in Chacos with no socks) which meant an 18 hour day of bushwhacking had ripped open hundreds of cuts across our legs and arms.  At least the dense forest meant we weren’t sun burnt. We had barely eaten. Not because we were rationing our food, but because we simply were not in the mood to eat.   It was about to be 4th of July (or maybe it was already- we didn’t have watches). A mere 30 hours earlier we had made the decision to go off trail about 4 miles into a 7 mile hike to meet up with an old friend who was leading a trail maintenance project. 32 hours earlier we had parked at the Whitehouse Trailhead along the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, near the town of Wells, NY in the southern part of Adirondack State Park. Although we didn’t know it at the time, 40 years ago a serial killer murdered a teenager, in the same exact wilderness area. RaspberryIMG_4930 We were fairly prepared- we had met each other while working on a trail crew and had backpacked and hiked together frequently so we knew a bit about hiking. We had all of the backpacking essentials, even a compass… but no map. We began our trip with some empowered hiking through a rainstorm, finding our favorite little orange newts everywhere and tasting ripe raspberries along the trail. We met a man with an eye patch at the first shelter who knew our friend, our names, and that our friend was expecting us. He doubted we could make it to camp before dark so he told us a short cut to take. This “short cut” would have saved us half of a mile of the 3 ish miles we had left to hike to get to camp. Being 23 at the time and feeling a bit invincible we took this advice. When we came upon a beaver dam, like the one he described, we crossed it and went straight up a hill expecting to find the trail on the ridge. When we didn’t find the trail we continued on, thinking we must have just missed it and heading left, then right and then left again. Minutes passed very quickly and I started to get that familiar childhood feeling that happens when you can’t find your mom in the grocery store. We tried looking for the beaver dam we had crossed, looking for clearings in the trees and following the sound of water. Only in the Adirondacks, there is water literally everywhere. I calmly resolved to make camp that night- we obviously weren’t going to find the trail in the dark and it had started to rain again. So much for seeing our friend, but we would find the trail and just head home tomorrow, in the clear light of morning. We got started at dawn the next morning- cleaned up, filtered water for drinking, tried to snack, and made a plan. I had my compass and MD had a bunch of hot pink flagging tape. We knew what we were looking for, we just had to find it. Our plan was to follow a compass direction and flag an area so we knew we had been there, maintaining our home base as the place we had camped. Trust me, no matter your expertise in forest ecology, the woods all start to look the same. This is when we got most of those scratches and bug bites. If you ever think bugs are bad in a city or a town, try the wilderness near by- they are far, far worse. As the day led on our pursuit of getting home that night became more and more hopeless. It was only supposed to be a quick overnight trip- we had even brought whiskey to pass around the campfire with friends. What was more was that MD lived in New Mexico and was just visiting upstate New York for that short trip. She was supposed to be with her brother and sister in Albany, 3 hours away, by the end of that day. By the time we were unable to sleep that night, scratching our bites in the tent, she was sure her family was in uproar about her whereabouts. But maybe they weren’t… maybe if we got back tomorrow no one would have done anything about it yet, and just blame it on us flakey crazy kids. And then we wouldn’t even have to tell anyone about this ridiculous mistake we made in order to save hiking half of a mile. My parents in Texas had no idea I was even backpacking and my boyfriend just knew I was camping in the Adirondacks somewhere.  Yeah we were somewhere… who knew where.
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We were somewhere… our hot pink flagging a small beacon

That day bushwhacking around was full of determination as well as small breaks to cry in desperation. What a stupid mistake.  I knew we would survive…. it wasn’t a question of that. It was the middle of summer and the only threatening wildlife in the Adirondacks are black bears, which are easy to scare away. I knew a fair amount about plants and their edibility, there was water everywhere, and we saw tons of toads, frogs, and bugs that we could eat. I had even just read about how to carve a fish hook and make a fishing device; the small lake we had found near us was teeming with fish. We were definitely going to live but we didn’t want to be there. We didn’t want to make our families and friends suffer thinking we were dead. We didn’t want to have to “survive” because of the mistake we made with our own hiking hubris. Nature always has a way of humbling you. At the end of the day we made a map out of twigs on the forest floor or the things we had found out about the area. It looked as though we had explored most general directions but of course there were some spots in-between where we had not ventured or walked far enough. Should we try to explore further? We thought also, were not too far from civilization; what if we simply hike in one direction until we come across something that is not thick forest? We knew that from the trailhead where my car was parked we had hiked South, crossing a long bridge over the raging Sacandaga River, right after the trail register. If we hiked north we would hit either the trail or the river. If we hit Sacandaga, we could follow it either up or down which would get us to either the bridge or some other form of civilization (but who knows when). We also knew very little about the Sacandaga- what if there was only wilderness upriver? What if we went downriver but missed the bridge and there was nothing for 50 miles but wilderness? What if something happened along the way, like an injury? I kept thinking, its not like the west, there’s a lot of wilderness here but there are a lot of people, especially in summer. We went to bed after resolving to hike north starting at daybreak the next day, 4th of July. In the morning, MD told me of her terrible dreams and awful feeling about heading North. So we reconsidered our twig map and those couple spots left to be explored. Packed up, set out again. One way, no luck; and now we were out of hot pink flagging. I dug out my two trash bags I always carry backpacking (they have tons of uses). We proceeded to tear off strips of the white plastic to use as flagging, as sparingly as we could, to leave ourselves a trail of crumbs. A new direction, I keep urging MD on as she is tired of following these compass directions for such great lengths only to be disappointed. It was so hard to keep up hope that this one would be it, that the new direction we choose would be different and would lead us to our salvation. It was beginning to feel like a cruel joke; our efforts futile. I thought I saw something different in the way the light was hitting the trees up 300 yards ahead. Something like a large gap was allowing more sunlight to filter in between the trees. We had seen this before, many times. There were still several giant logs to cross, their dead branches reaching out to claw at our legs, and rocks, bushes, and other plants to avoid. I pushed MD ahead- just a little further, just a little further. I had that feeling deep in my gut like “this could be it”- I tried to not take it too seriously as that feeling had only led to more disappointment earlier.  But as we got closer the feeling only got stronger. And then, with bright sunlight shining all around us, there it was! The trail! The little blue NPT trail marker! We jumped and threw off our backpacks and almost as immediately started bawling our eyes out. I screamed, we screamed. We fell down to the ground so happy to touch the path where certainly other humans had walked. We hugged, we cried more. It was over. We were okay! As an adult, I don’t think I’ve felt as full of bliss and relief as I did in that moment. It was over. What we had begun to think might last months, was finally over.
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I’m relieved and exhausted now that we had found the trail and were only a few hundred yards from the trailhead, on the suspension bridge over the Sacandaga River

We started the hike back towards the trailhead and my car, which would take us to our loved ones, and to our lives which seemed all the more amazing and incredible. Our packs felt light as air.  Less than half a mile to the trailhead we heard the loud engine of a helicopter flying overhead and halfway laughed thinking that couldn’t be for us- we were getting out of the woods before anyone in our lives probably even really noticed.  We went to sign out at the trail register and saw a small sign alerting trail users that there was a search party going on for lost hikers. Crap. That’s us. In the parking area stood a sheriff, 2 park rangers, and our former trail crew boss all next to my 1997 Nissan with all her doors and trunk open. MD’s family had alerted our old boss who worked in the Adirondacks who had then alerted my present job (which was part of the same organization as my former job) and then my family who alerted my boyfriend. Of course in the process, the rangers had been notified and they had gathered a search party of 25, as well as sent out a helicopter.  They acted very quickly, and told us part of their motivation stemmed from the 40th anniversary of the only Adirondack serial killer (Robert Garrow) who had gone on a killing rampage in the area. They were worried there might be a copycat murder. Thankfully there was nothing like that going on. But I can say that those were the worst bug bites of my life. I had scars for months from some of them. We finally got phone service 20 minutes away and stopped at Stewart’s gas station for burgers and to call our families. Eventually we made it back for some traditional 4th of July celebration that evening. IMG_4919 I learned some things about what to bring with you and what to do in case you’re lost that are helpful to know for even the most experienced hiker. How to Avoid Getting Lost 1. Bring a Map. Map! MAP!!!! I’m fairly certain we would have found our way out if not the first night, than surely that morning if we had had a map. I’d recommend a map in almost every situation. You can print maps off the internet if its a small area that you do not plan on going off trail. If you plan on going off trail, its a confusing area, or you just like to be prepared I would go ahead and purchase a real map of the area. National Geographic makes beautiful maps of wilderness areas everywhere. For Colorado, I really like Latitude 40 Maps. They have hiking routes and info neatly compiled for you on the sides of the map. 2. Bring a Compass I have been given several compasses since I got lost. They are handy, but it is important that you know how to use them too. A map and compass go hand in hand but to use the together takes a bit of orienteering know-how.  See if your local parks organization has any classes on orienteering or check out an online how to. 3. Stay on the Trail With the exception of bathroom breaks, stay on the trail unless you really know what you are doing. Bushwhacking can be a fun, exhilarating experience into the wild, but you need to be prepared and know your route.  Staying on the trail also helps preserve the wilderness around you, reduces erosion, and helps guide other trail users to follow in your footsteps. Usually, and especially in the Western United States, trails were designed and built by experts, so they will likely take you up the easiest path, which provides the best views, and is most sustainable on the land and living things around the trail. (Many trails in the east were simply the quickest way up the mountain for adventurers in the 1800s, before land was really managed by parks agencies). Also short cuts are just not worth it, trust me. There are no real shortcuts in life 4. Take Great Mental Notes Or take actual notes too! Even if you are hiking with others, its important that you remember the way you came.  Take note of unique features you see and rough distances you’ve covered. Even if you end up not needing to retrace your steps the information you keep track of will make the memories of your hike stronger. 5. Bring a Friend It is helpful to have someone else to hike with because 2 heads are better than one at remembering how you got somewhere as well as analyzing a map. A friend is not necessary but can take some burden of the navigation off yourself. 6. Consider a GPS If you have the extra cash and love hiking especially bushwhacking, consider buying a GPS. At times you may not always have a signal but this equipment can be very accurate and extremely helpful. 7.  Tell Somebody No matter where you go hiking, backpacking, camping, climbing, canoeing, etc etc, you should tell someone who won’t be on your trip. Now, a bike ride on a trail near you, or a day hike at a popular park 20 minutes away on a Saturday probably doesn’t qualify as something you need to tell people about. But if you’re going to somewhere more off the beaten path or somewhere overnight (especially if you’re far from your car) you should tell someone. Give that person the name and location of where you’ll be and a good estimate of how long you’ll be there.  When you return from your trip, let that person know you made it back safe. And of course if your plans change mid-trip try your best to let that person know so they’re not freaking out. 8. Slow Down If you’re not sure about the turn you just made, slow down. Don’t move on thinking you’ll find your way back. Give it a few minutes and think, check your map and possibly compass, and analyze your options. 9. Bring a Pen and Paper These items can be important for drawing maps out, keeping notes on your path, or even leaving notes for others.   What To Do If You’re Lost 1. Don’t Panic Well, try not to, at least. There’s no sense in wearing yourself out panicking…. just get to work to get yourself out of the situation.  If you are reading this, you have likely read other articles on this site and should know what essentials you need while out on the trail and if you get lost you should have all the gear you need to survive. Your knowledge and ingenuity will get you out of this pickle! Stay positive and think of it as a surprise vacation. 2. Try to Find Your Way Out How lost are you? Hopefully if you followed my above advice on how to avoid getting lost, you may have the equipment or knowledge to find your way out quickly. Have a seat, check your map thoroughly, think about what turns you made to get where you are. Grab your flagging or some other marker (rock cairns you make, two crossed sticks poking out of the ground, or some other item you don’t mind not getting back) and try to retrace your steps. Leave the markers so that you can always see at least one at any vantage along your trail. Of course if you can’t really make sense of your map or remember where you walked, it may not be such a great idea to bother with this step. 3. Make Camp If it is getting dark, go ahead and make camp. Try to remain calm and rational. Make a plan of what you will do in the morning to solve the calamity. Keep to regular traditions, like eating dinner, brushing your teeth, and be sure to drink enough water. If you are super in the wilderness chances are animals are not accustomed to getting food from humans and are likely terrified of you so you probably won’t need to hang your food (I certainly did not when I was lost, and was told by rangers that it was fine to do away from normal camping areas). If it is still early, wait for this step. 4. Start Making Noise Use that whistle on your backpack! The sound for “help” is three of whatever you have so make 3 loud whistles, yell help three loud times. Check your phone if you haven’t already. If you have service or it comes in with service at all try making a call. I can tell you now that even though when you have no service your phone says “Emergency calls only” it will not dial 911, I tried many times while I was lost. You could try climbing a tall tree or if there is a hill that you can leave markers to the top of you may be able to get phone service on top of that. Regularly throughout the day and night blow your whistle, you never know when someone will be near. 5. Stay Where You Are This is your home base now, and if you are truly lost trying to find the trail or the way out may only get you more lost. If you think there is a clearing nearby, out of the trees, that is a good place to hang out. Make the traditional “HELP” sign out of rocks and sticks. Helicopters are common search tools and there may also be private aircrafts that fly over who may see your sign. If you did the right stuff in preparation for your trip than whoever you told when you would be back should be freaking out by the time you are a day late (especially if that person is your mom). If you told them the exact trailhead you would be at, rangers should be able to find you quickly. 6. Start a Fire So maybe it has been a couple days and you’re starting to flip out. Well, start a fire. The Ranger who I met after I came out of the woods recommended that if lost you stay in one place, get to a clearing, and start a big ass fire in the trees. That’s how it is in upstate New York where its a struggle to start even a campfire- its very wet. I do not think I would start a fire in California or most places in the West- you might end up dead.  In my situation we had a small lake we could have sat and waited in and tried to burn down the forest around us. Land management and rangers are always looking out for fires so that would definitely get some attention. (The vegetation in the West is typically way less thick, making it more difficult to get lost, as you can see through the vegetation to large landmarks more easily, so hopefully you wouldn’t need to resort to fire). I hope my story and advice help you to avoid getting lost in the woods and make you more confident in your abilities to handle situations like mine. The woods can be scary at times, but if you are experienced and prepared with your hiking essentials in mind then you will be able to step up to the challenge. Hell if I can do it, you can do it too! Now get out there!