Getting Lost in the Woods – Literally

I have been debating about sharing this story for the past few days because I really don’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings if she reads this. But it’s been bugging me and I hope that there’s a lesson to be learned here and that someone reading this won’t make the same mistakes. Let me just start off by saying that the mistakes were not only hers, but mine as well, in assuming that she was more experienced than she was. I set up this hike and I should have made sure that she was ready to handle it. Had she been hiking with me this wouldn’t have been an issue. But she was coming late and was going to be meeting me there. And this meant that she would be hiking it alone, and in the dark. I give her a ton of credit for being brave enough to try this, but sometimes there is a fine line between being brave and being careless. Please, if you read this, try not to take it the wrong way, as I am going to be as honest as I can about what happened and the mistakes that were made and am not trying to put you down. I am glad that everything worked out in the end, but this could have ended up much worse than it did.

With the warmer than average winter we had been experiencing I decided to take a backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail through Harriman State Park to celebrate the New Year. I had opened this up to some of my Yonder Buds, Facebook friends who share the same love for the outdoors as I do. Because it was a relatively last minute trip only one other person was able to go and she would have to start later as she was working during the day on New Year’s Eve. So I changed the trip up and made it just a 2 mile hike to the West Mountain Shelter which overlooks the Hudson River and has a view of the Manhattan skyline. I figured that this would be an easy enough hike and that I could get up there early and lay claim to the shelter and gather enough firewood to make it through a chilly night with temperatures that were expected to dip below freezing. My friend, whom I had yet to meet in person, wasn’t getting out of work until late afternoon and probably wouldn’t start the hike until about 6.

I was a little concerned with this, but I figured that she knew what she was doing. I emailed her very detailed instructions and a map with the route highlighted on it and assumed (yeah I know, ass out of you and me) that she would be able to follow them. I told her to call me when she left work, when she got to the parking lot, and when she made it to the first trail intersection and turned left onto the Appalachian Trail. This way I could monitor her progress and I could hike back to meet her if there was any trouble.

West Mountain Shelter

West Mountain Shelter Before Dawn – Harriman State Park – New Year’s Eve 2015

I got up to the shelter early in the afternoon and setup camp. At 6pm I get the text from her that she’s leaving work. I figured she’d be at the parking lot in an hour or so and I sent her a text with very specific information about where to park at the very end of the far south parking lot next to my green Jeep and that the trailhead is just to the left of my Jeep. Time goes by and I don’t hear from her. I figure maybe she thought better of it and decided not to come. I don’t hear from her until almost 9pm, at which point she tells me that she stopped home to wish her family a Happy New Year, and that she was leaving now and would be at the parking lot around 10pm. I’m not too thrilled with this as now it’s getting really late, but she seems really enthusiastic about it so ok.

At about 10pm, she texts me that she made it to the parking lot. I tell her to text me when she gets to the intersection with the Appalachian Trail, which should take no more than 10-15 minutes. About 20 minutes later I send her a text asking her how she is doing. She asks me to send the trail information as a text as she cannot open the word doc that I sent her via email (hoping that she would print this out). Uh oh. I am able to access it and send the map and directions via text and once again tell her to text me when she gets to the Appalachian Trail. A few minutes later she tells me that she just made the left at the intersection. Ok great, I tell her it’s about a mile until the next turn onto the blue trail at the top of the mountain and she replies that she’s just following the trail as the map shows. I start to feel a little bit better now that I think she’s on the right track. It should take her maybe 45 minutes or so to make it to the top of the mountain and the next trail intersection. It’s now about 11pm and she tells me she doesn’t see white marks for the trail and that she sees electric posts. Then she sends me a couple of pictures of the trail marks. That’s not the right trail. I call her and tell her to back track to the intersection where she got onto that trail and wait there. I’m assuming that she missed the intersection for the Appalachian Trail and went too far down the bike path that leads from the parking lot. I had assumed she was on this bike path because she told me she had seen the trail signs for the bike path. I immediately head out to meet her at where I think she is.

West Mountain Shelter

View from the West Mountain Shelter at Night – Harriman State Park – New Year’s Eve 2015

Now it’s late and I’m tired. So I’m probably not thinking perfectly clear at this point either. I decide to travel light and make the best time that I can to get to her so I don’t bring anything except my headlamp and some extra batteries, hiking poles, light jacket, hat, gloves, and my dog, Buddy, who even though there were now 4 other people and 2 other dogs at the shelter, wouldn’t let me go without him. I chug some water and head out at a light jog. It’s really dark and I easily miss the first turn and head 50 yards down the wrong trail and have to backtrack. Some areas it’s hard to find trail markings on the bald rocks and it takes a few moments to get reoriented to which way the trail is heading. But I make good time and get to the top of the Appalachian Trail intersection and start jogging down the mountain. Then, my headlamp goes out. Fortunately I had the foresight to bring spare batteries for it. I get to the intersection that I think she’s at and she’s not there. Ok, my map show’s another likely spot not much further so I head there. Nope, not here either. I try calling and get no answer. Grrr! The texts we were sending during this time were also being delayed by 5 minutes or so, further compounding the problem.

Finally I get a hold of her and ask her if she can find her way back to her car. She says yes, but it’ll take about half an hour. I’m a little afraid of having her do this, but the alternative now is me running around blindly trying to find her and she obviously not having a clue as to where she is in relation to the map I sent her to even clue me in as to where she might be. I make it back to my Jeep and there’s one car parked right next to it, so I’m hoping that’s hers. Of course I didn’t bring my keys, as I thought I would have met up with her along the trail and not had to come this far back, and its cold and I’m thirsty from just having jogged over 2 miles. It’s also now midnight and she’s still not here. Cell reception sucks, but I’m able to get a quick call through to my kids, who are celebrating New Year’s in Florida visiting with their mom, and wish them a Happy New Year. About 15 minutes later I get a call from her that’s she’s at her car and doesn’t see me. Well that explains things. She parked in the wrong lot, the north lot, and took the wrong trail. So much for following the map and directions that I had sent her. Turns out that there was another Jeep in that parking lot, although it wasn’t green, but hey, it was dark. She gets in her car and drives to the correct lot and at about 12:30am we finally meet up.

Harriman Anthony Wayne Recreation Area to West Mountain Shelter

Map of the Hike – Harriman State Park – Anthony Wayne Recreation Area to West Mountain Shelter

She’s still excited to go camp out at the shelter, and at this point with me leading the way it shouldn’t be a problem, right? Well now that she starts unloading her gear from her car, and giving me a much needed bottle of water, I start to see exactly what her level of experience with backpacking is. She only has a day pack with as much gear stuffed inside and strapped on as possible. She’s carrying a brand new sleeping pad, still in its plastic, and a plastic grocery bag that’s about to burst with food, water, and some other items. It’s easy to see that this is her first backpacking experience, and I’m now assuming that she probably hasn’t hiked all that much either. I’m a little annoyed, but I know that she is really trying and I feel bad for her. So I give her one of my poles and take her sleeping pad and we head out.

We hike the half mile to the intersection of the Appalachian Trail along the pretty flat, but muddy, bike path. At this point I take the plastic bag that she was carrying as I can tell that she is struggling a bit and not used to hiking while carrying any weight. And this next ¾ of a mile is no joke. It’s very rocky, and pretty much all uphill. I can tell that she is overheating so I tell her to take her down jacket off. The pace is slow as she is having a hard time with the ascent, and I’m not exactly enjoying my second trip up this today either. We take a few short breaks and eventually make it to the top of the mountain and the intersection with the blue blazed Tip-Torne Trail. It’s only about a half a mile from here and we are both in good spirits and looking forward to making it to the shelter, where I’m hoping that someone still has a fire going for us.

We make it to the shelter around 1:30am and start getting ready for bed as we are both exhausted. I get my boots off and start to undress to climb into my sleeping bag when she asks, “Have you seen my jacket?” She had it tied around her waist or stuffed on her pack after taking it off going up the mountain. I’m thinking we can find it on the way out the next day, it’s not that big of a deal. Wrong, her phone is in the pocket. She starts to head back to look for it. Now with no map, no way of contacting anyone, and no jacket, sleeping bag, or any other gear to help her survive the night if, and likely when, she gets lost looking for it. I quickly throw my boots back on and call out to her to wait for me. There was no way in hell I was going to let her wander off alone again in the dark.

Fortunately this time Buddy had had enough of us crazy humans and decided to stay asleep in the shelter. We made it back to the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and start the decent down the mountain. I was really not looking forward to having to climb this for the 3rd time today. Lucky, and I use this term lightly, the jacket wasn’t far down the mountain at all. So after another mile plus round trip we make it back to the shelter and are able to join the others and drift off to sleep around 2:30am, figuring it was New Year’s Day, we can sleep in right? Lol! We should be so lucky! Apparently, a large group of older Korean hikers decided to come up before the dawn and watch the sunrise over the river and city below. From the roof of our shelter! Good for them, not so good for us and getting any sleep!

West Mountain Shelter

View from the West Mountain Shelter Before Dawn – Harriman State Park – New Year’s Day 2016

So while things didn’t work out the way I had planned and we missed the fireworks show over the city, I’m happy she was able to come. And despite all of the craziness, I think we both had a pretty great adventure and definitely a very memorable New Year’s Eve. And just like in golf, when everything can be going bad for you in that round, it only takes one good shot, one good moment, to make you want to come back and do it again. I truly hope that there was at least one of those moments for her and that she will want to get back out there and hike and backpack again. And I hope that she will be able to learn from this, and in time, have the skills and knowledge to get out there and do it on her own.

That morning I went over my map of the area and decided we would hike out a different route and link up with the trail that she had taken out of the north end of the other parking lot. I wanted to see where she was exactly and honestly, to see how bad things might have gotten had our cell phones not worked and had she not stopped and turned around where she did. The Appalachian Trail and the Tip Torne Trail both intersect with the Fawn Trail that she was on. So does another white blazed trail. Had she gone much further she would have hit these and at that point she could have turned left thinking that was what she was supposed to do originally, and then would have ended up hiking further north and away from the shelter and parking lot. Things could have ended up really bad with one little mistake compounding into much bigger ones.

Appalachian and Tip-Torne Trails

Appalachian and Tip-Torne Trails – Harriman State Park with Bear Mountain in the Distance – New Year’s Day 2016

Later in the day after we had enjoyed our hike back to our cars and I was home contemplating the previous night’s adventures I saw another one of the Yonder Buds post on Facebook that she was lost in the woods and currently waiting on someone coming to rescue her. She had somehow gotten lost on the trail that she was on and wasn’t sure how to get back. Fortunately she had cell service and a friend who worked search and rescue in the area and was familiar with where she was and was able to help her out.

Appalachian Trail - Harriman State Park

Appalachian and Tip-Torne Trails – Harriman State Park – New Year’s Day 2016

I can’t stress this enough. I know what it’s like to catch the hiking bug. To see people posting pictures of so many beautiful places and of just wanting to get out there and go and see them for yourself. But you have got to be prepared for it, especially if you are hiking alone. And that means knowing how to read a map and use a compass and how to use a GPS but not having to rely upon it. REI and other outfitters offer classes on this or if you’re out hiking with an experienced friend, ask them to teach you. I’m sure they would love to share their knowledge with you. I know I would. I want to see people get out and experience the outdoors and love it as much as I do. But please, please, please, do it responsibly. Until next time. Namastè!

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4 Comments on “Getting Lost in the Woods – Literally

  1. Crazy story, glad it all worked out in the end. There is no such thing as being over-prepared in the backcountry.

  2. Thank you for sharing Keith! A great lesson for anyone who enjoys hiking, no matter the level of expertise. My nephew is setting out to hike the entire Appalachian Trail this March. You point out some great tips, most especially, classes from REI, a very worthwhile investment of time! I’m glad everything turned out safe for you all!

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