Monday, July 16, 2007

Lost in the Woods...A Cautionary Tale About Over-Confidence

I consider myself an experienced hiker. (I’ve hiked to the rim of Mt. St. Helens and put in more than 100 hours on trails all over the state of Washington, for crying out loud!) So when my family went camping in the Sylvania Wilderness Area of Upper Michigan last week, I was itching to go exploring. After a long, rainy night in the tent, I climbed out of my sleeping bag at 5:30am, took a few photos of beautiful Crooked Lake at sunrise, and set off in sneakers, a baseball cap, and a hooded sweatshirt. Given that I only planned an hour or so of hiking, I didn’t give my usual list of hiking essentials a second thought. I put some bug spray on and took a shoulder bag containing a 16oz bottle of water, my camera, a plastic bag with toilet paper (Leave no trace, remember!), and some gum.

Cheerfully, I began my walkabout, blazing my own trail. I did have a small photocopied map, but there were no trails close to our campsite (I had ignored my husband Mr. 4444’s suggestion the night before to find a trailhead by canoe.) I figured that if I followed the lake line, I’d have no problems. I was immediately rewarded with the beauty of the forest; the sun peeking up from the east, chirping birds, curious chipmunks, and much evidence that beavers had been working hard on gathering saplings for their huts. This was definitely “God’s Country,” and I felt privileged to be a part of it.

After about 45 minutes, I was thrilled to find a trail. Feeling like it was my lucky day, I picked up the pace and followed the path, not caring where it led. Who worried on a beautiful morning like this? An hour or so later, I found myself at a familiar place. This was the beach we had played at the day before! We had taken canoes there, because Mr. 4444 had told us it was too far to walk. Imagine my smug thoughts as I realized I had indeed hiked that far. I decided that I had gone far enough and stopped to consult my map. The local
horseflies that had (to this point) been only mildly annoying, would have none of that; they mercilessly hovered around me. Removing my useless baseball cap and cinching my hood on, I snapped a quick photo of a glistening spider’s web, shining in the sun, and headed back the way I had come.

After a while, I began to wonder how I was going to get back to our campsite. I came to a fork in the road and wasn’t positive which way it would lead me, but I knew where the sun had been in the sky when I left, so I headed the way I felt would lead me in the general direction. I was confident that I’d get there, but I joked with myself about getting lost in the woods overnight. (That would suck!) My stomach growled; I had not eaten breakfast, and I pictured the hubby cheerfully cooking up pancakes and sausage for the kids. I wondered if anyone was worried about me, since I knew it had been more than a couple of hours since I had left. 

The bugs suddenly became relentless; I could hardly stand it! They left my hands and ankles alone (yes, Capri pants), but they would not leave my face. I picked up a stick in each hand and waved them across my face as I walked, wishing I had put bug-stuff on my face, too. My feet began to slosh inside my sneaks, which had become wet in my relentless traipsing through tall grass at many points in the trail (did I say it poured the night before?). As if I didn't have enough problems already, I was also out of toilet paper.

Eventually, I found myself at another familiar place. It was a
portage between two lakes, Crooked and Mountain, but which was which? I recognized the area, because Mark and I had canoed there the day before. I remembered that he had said that Mountain Lake was special; there was no live bait allowed on that lake. There was a tiny, sandy beach in front of one of the lakes. I stood there, wondering what to do, waving at bugs, considering my empty water bottle, wondering if I should fill it with lake water. As if I didn't already have enough problems, I had to… know. (I’ll save that story for another blog, but let’s just say I took care of that problem and forgot about “leaving no trace.” I had more important issues to address.) Feeling renewed in spirit, but not at all sure of where I was (that damned map was useless!) (Or was it true that the hungry, thirsty, panicky brain does not work at full capacity after all?) I set off in a new direction.

A couple of miles later, I realized I was not getting anywhere. I backtracked to the portage area and wondered if I should go forward, or instead, stay put. (After all, as my son tells me, the first rule in Boy Scout
wilderness survival is “hug a tree” when you get lost.) I looked across the lake before me and shouted and whistled with my fingers; no response. I walked over to the other lake and did the same. No response.  I could hear a boat motor in the distance. God! Please let it be the DNR patrolling the waters, looking for me! 

The sound faded. I could wait there to be found, but it was Tuesday. What were the odds of finding fisherman in the middle of nowhere, where there were probably twenty different lakes (actually 34) on a Tuesday?! In the sand at the water’s edge, after much consideration, I wrote, “Barb went this way…7/12” and drew an arrow. I also filled my water bottle with lake water, just in case. I felt a tiny bit silly, but I really was becoming worried. Off I went.

As I walked this now-familiar, yet utterly-tangled path, I really started freaking out. I brazenly spit my gum right in the middle of the trail (it would give the searchers hope, I thought). What if I was stuck out here all night? I thanked God that I had left at 6am and that people might already be looking for me. What time was it? I had no idea. The sun was sort of high in the sky, but it couldn’t be afternoon already, could it?! Finally, I found a marker and consulted my map, but I did not see “A-Frame” on it. Crap! I decided to go that way anyway; an A-frame sounded like a place someone might rent for a week (or at least be a good place to break into, should I be stuck here all night).

After two miles (I was counting my steps), I suddenly heard and saw a small, private plane flying over the treetops! 

“Oh, my God! They could be searching for me!” I said it out loud. “They are never going to find me in the woods! I need to get back to the portage area, where they could see me!” 

I mustered up what energy I had left and began to hurry back to the portage area, about three miles back. My hope was renewed, but it soon dissipated, as I did not hear the plane return. I dropped a lot of swearwords on this route. I said some things I would not like my students to hear me say. With a teary lump in my throat, I yelled an apology to Mr. 4444 and the kids for making them worry about me. I decided to stop at the portage and just quit trying to follow that blasted map.

As I approached the portage area, I glimpsed a bit of bright red fabric. Could it be….yes! People!! 

As I approached, I called out weakly, yet cheerfully, “I am so incredibly lost right now!” 

The middle-aged fisherman and his friend (both in waders, peacefully fishing from tiny rubber rafts) calmly called back, “Where you comin' from?” I was speechless. I had become choked up at the sign of human beings. I don’t remember what I told him, but I remember clearly what he replied, 

“Don’t worry. We have a very nice map. We’ll get you back on your way in no time!” 

This idea struck me with such panic that I began to cry, silently, but not shyly. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself, but I needed to make my point; I had no intention of going back into the woods again on my own.

The angler in red got out of his raft and approached me. I blubbered, “I’m sure my husband and kids are really worried about me! I really don’t want to spend any more time in the woods. I just want to get back there.” He gave me one of those awkward, side-armed hugs and said, “It'll be okay.” His friend (I later learned his name to be Mike Donovan) said, “You keep fishing, I’ll take her back in the canoe.” It never occurred to me that he could be a deranged killer or worse; I just gave myself to his care, relieved to leave the woods behind me.

Before long, Mike and I were paddling along in his beautiful, lightweight canoe, which breezed over the water quickly. I helped paddle, even though he told me I didn’t need to; I wanted to hurry. I coveted his bottle of water, tucked into the edge of my seat. After hinting, “Do you think it’s okay to drink this lake water I have?” I was relieved to hear him say, “Oh, just drink mine.” I don’t remember a lot of our conversation; just that he worked for a phone company and lived in Illinois and had some kids. He also told me the time; it was 11:00am, five hours after I had started my hike. I thanked him for helping me, and he said that it was “nothing. What goes around, comes around.” 

After about 15 minutes, we glided into our bay. (Luckily, Mike knew the area well, and I knew the name of our campsite, which was, ironically, called "Fisher."). The kids answered my call from the lake and met me with the dog at the water's edge. After a drink refill for Mike and enthusiastic thanks from the four of us, we sent him back to his fishing, but not before he showed us his beautiful topographical map of the area and reminded me to get a GPS. (I think I know what I'm getting for Christmas this year!)

Mr. 4444 said he had been worried, but since he didn’t even know which direction I had headed off in, he felt helpless to do anything about it. Kyle, who had heard me say I’d be gone “an hour or so,” had been worried. Kendall (poor thing) said, “Mom, I thought you were dead.” 

Needless to say, I was apologetic and relieved. I was also done camping. 

I guess I am now, truly, an “experienced” hiker.


  1. LOVE this!! What a well written story about an "exciting" adventure! I agree with Mike - what goes around comes around... pack an extra water next time and if you can't use it, maybe you will run into someone who could!

  2. Wow! So descriptive I felt nervous for you. I can relate, even though I am a tough Alaska woman after 31 years here! I really enjoyed reading this account, and I know that over the years you will all be able to have more than a few laughs about it. Just think about the great opportunity that you gave to the guys who rescued you! :)

  3. I really enjoyed reading your story. It was so well written and suspenseful that I sort of got "lost" in it :o) I have told a few people about it and they now want to read it. Keep on writing!

  4. Hey, that happened to me hunting one afternoon. Suddenly the stream was flowing in the wrong direction! You learned so much from this - now you know what to do. Do bears leave no trace? Lol.

  5. I'm glad you made it out okay. I kind of assumed that you made it out okay because you wrote the story.

  6. I felt anxious for you while reading this! I probably would still be curled up in a little ball in the middle of the woods!

  7. Oh my goodness! What a scary experience. I have tears in my eyes. I don't think I would've held it together as well as you did. Maybe encouraging my kids to run off into the woods and create paths of their own is a bad idea after all. lol Thanks for stopping by my blog the other day and sharing this post.

  8. I am not a worrier, but last week, my husband who is a Realtor, was showing a house in a dicey part of town. I realized at ten p.m. that he was out later than ever. I called his phone at 10:30, and he did not answer. He has an iphone, and people have been robbed for them around here a lot.

    At 10:45 the garage door went up and I cried from relief. I felt like an idiot, but I had been scared for those 15 minutes.

    Your ordeal? I cannot imagine. How strong you were!


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