Monday, February 08, 2010

A Real Eye Opener

Every time I go out for a long day hike or a backpacking trip I learn something new to add to my experiences. Generally the lessons learned have been in fairly controlled situations with nothing too serious involved. Some are very general lessons, some more specific, but all are important.

This weekend I did make it out to Hill Country State Natural area with a friend of mine, but we didn't stay the night. There was a controlled cedar burn going on right near the park boundary about a mile away from the Wilderness Camp area, which park staff failed to mention. Had we been told about the controlled burn in the first place, we would have stayed to enjoy ourselves vs thinking we could be in serious trouble and needing to leave.

It is unfortunate this was the very first backpacking trip my friend had ever been on, because he never got the pay off and our situation was extremely stressful. I wanted him to understand why I am so obsessed with this type of adventuring...but he is forever soured I am afraid... And I only want more...dangers and all. I realize that I am an adrenaline junky. Here is my story...

We arrived at the park fairly late in the afternoon...around 2:30 or so, but had plenty of time to walk the two miles to the wilderness camp area and set up before dark fall, and do a little exploring. After partially setting up camp it was decided we would climb Ice Cream Hill and set off on our little adventure leaving everything in camp.

About a quarter of the way up I happened to notice smoke coming from some trees to my left. At first I figured it was someone burning trash since there was a house not too far off in the distance, that was very close to the park boundary. Not to mention HCSNA had just been dumped on with tons of rain. At the time I couldn't imagine this being anything other than a fire someone was tending.

But I had no way to be sure and called out to my friend who was further up the hill to come see what I saw. By the time he was at my side...just a few seconds later...we both saw flames leap from above the tree tops and the fire started to grow in intensity. That got our attention and we both came to the conclusion that we should leave the area just in case.

I did a quick wind check to see which direction the wind was blowing...good we were upwind from the fire. I was fully aware however that the wind could easily change direction and bring the fire our way leaving us possibly trapped, or unable to out run it if in fact it was a fire out of control.

We wasted no time getting back to our camp site. About the time we got within a few yards of where my new tent was set up, ash was starting to fall on us. Terror started to creep in but I refused to panic and stayed calm even though my thoughts were coming at me fast as I was trying to think clearly. What if this was the real deal? Could it be? I struggled with the idea.

There were other backpackers in the area and while I broke camp, my friend went to go tell them what we discovered only to find they were no where in sight. I was disappointed to hear the news, but was ready to go. I think I set a record for that being the quickest I had ever broken camp...probably about 6 minutes or so.

Of course it was not a neat pack job but obviously I didn't care. I even pondered as I was doing it, if I was being stupid by taking the time to gather my stuff. But I kept thinking if we got caught out there past night fall for any crazy reason...a fall...etc....we'd have a whole new set of problems to deal with if I didn't have my gear. Right or wrong, that is where my head was and my gear is my security blanket.

Overcoming the fear of decision making in such trying circumstances was a new challenge. I wanted time to slow down for me...I didn't want to get it wrong. But in my mind there was no time to waste and we'd wasted plenty already. There was a bit of disagreement about the route to take out of there. I wanted to double back the way we came...which was away from the fire and back to the car. My friend wanted to do something that although made sense on some level, completely made no sense to me on another. We were like chickens with our heads cut off.

He wanted to take a route that would bring us to a park road that was supposedly going to be faster than doubling back. His goal was to reach the house we saw outside of the park boundary, and call for help since we had no cell phone signal. Mind you this is a lonely house in the middle of nothing but hills as far as the eye can see. I found several flaws in this plan. One, being the fact that we would come very close to the fire and two, being the fact that it was entirely possible no one was home or that we could even get to the house since it wasn't near a trail, and the fire could cut us off.

Whatever the case, I agreed to go with his plan because I was beginning to doubt my ability to make a sound decision. But as soon as my feet started to move the direction he thought we should take and I got a few yards, I came to a dead hault. I called out and told him to hold up a minute...that we needed to re-think this. My gut was telling me that it was a mistake to go the way he thought we should go. I physically could not force myself to walk in a direction with so many unknowns. He said it was my call. I was in a serious state of not knowing what to do but found myself moving back towards the direction we had come. I was making it all up as I went along.

All the while, time is ticking and I'm inwardly kicking myself for allowing so much time to be wasted with the arguing in case this really was an out of control fire. Right about then, two hikers that we saw earlier were on the scene and I asked them if they had a phone that might get a signal. One of them tried and she got a weak signal. We called the park answer only a voicemail. I hastily left a message explaining that we thought a fire was out of control and where we were. The next call that was made was to 911 and though the signal was sketchy, we think they got an idea of what was going on and where we were, but we couldn't have been certain before losing signal because the dispatch kept yelling at us to repeat where we were because she coudn't hear us.

The hikers, a pair of older women, said that the route my friend wanted to take was a good idea because it would take us close to their car, stating that it was on the road we were trying to reach and that we could get there even looked quicker on the map. Against my better judgment though, and because I know those park maps are VERY decieving, I went along with the group consensus that we should go ahead and head for their car...we were running out of daylight and needed to move it. I still didn't like the plan and the ash continued to fall.

We came close to the fire...and saw that there was a small river of water from the rain between us and it, which brought a small amount of relief, but only small in my mind. I also knew that fire can jump water...all it would take is a tall tree to fall from one side to the other. I kept my thoughts to myself on this...I didn't want to upset anyone further.

Since I was well committed to the route by then and getting to the road as quickly as possible became my sole focus, I hadn't even realized that my friend and I put distance between us and those other hikers. As soon as I realized how far we must have gotten ahead of them, we hit the road. Than almost as quickly we saw a truck coming into view. It was a fire truck! I was so relieved! I think we only walked about 30 minutes by this time.

Soon after the fire truck came into view, the park host came into view. He stopped and told us that the fire we saw was a controlled cedar burn. He didn't stay to chat...he had to catch up to the fire truck to stop them from going further. My friend and I looked at each other in almost disbelief that no one bothered to tell the fire dept ahead of time what was taking place and no one bothered to alert backpackers either. And in the hooplah we forgot all about the two women, which I felt terrible about later. We hitched a ride back to our car and it seemed to take forever to get there. We would have been walking for at least an hour in the dark if we didn't have the ride.

Once we got to our car, the two ladies were not far behind...being dropped off at their car and guess what? Their car was no closer than ours! They had no clue where they were when they came upon us in the trail, though it appeared they were confident of where they were. Neither one of them was prepared for a night jackets or warm clothing, only walking sticks, so I took that as a sign they actually were not far from their vehicle. Wow that was a huge mistake on my part to deduct that. And had that whole incident not happened, they very well could have ended up lost in total blackness and seriously lacking warmth. I hope they learned some lessons of their own.

I think from now on I will not doubt my own instincts and be a more firm leader. I think doubling back would have gotten us to the trail head and my car much quicker than the other route regardless if a car was there or not...after all it was only two miles and we could have made it in about thirty minutes if we walked very fast. But I gotta say, under the circumstances those two miles might as well have been 8 in my head. My friend quickly acknowledged that my plan was probably the better plan, even though things worked out fine in the end.

I will be disecting this scenario over and over for a while until I am satisfied what the best course of action would have been. I want to go back and mentally correct my mistakes. Reader feedback would be most appreciated too, especially if you have backpacking experience or outdoor experience. I want to learn everything I can from this.


Sarah said...

It does not surprise me at all that the park host and others didn't notify you about the burn. In my experience with rangers, they don't care a whole lot about the people who drive thru every day. Perhaps they are burnt out from dealing with so many people, esp. newbies to camping/outdoors, or I don't know. We often have to beg for maps or other important info.

As far as I'm concerned I think it was def. right to book it out of there quickly. Tho it was a controlled burn you never saw anyone in control who could have reassured you. I am terrible with directions but have not gotten lost yet, perhaps because I am so careful. Gut feelings are important. Do you have a GPS or something you could have used as proof that you had the right idea?

Anyway good that you came out okay!

Ginny said...

Thank you very much for your feedback Sarah. We had the park map but honestly I was under so much stress I wasn't processing information very well, that and it has been a long while since I was in that park. My GPS is long gone...don't know what happened to it...need to rectify the problem.

In the future I will be drilling park rangers for useful information if they have it. I know it is my responsibility for my own body out there and I have to be prepared physically and mentally for anything.

Each new experience is valuable information under the belt. I don't plan on ever quitting this sport I love so much and will only press myself further in the future.

Ginny said...

Btw Sarah I haven't talked to you in a really long are your kids? We should try to get together sometime if life will allow it. :)

Ben has vague memory of those playdates and has asked about them a couple of times. He wanted to know what happened to some of our friends. Amazing...they were so little!

Ara & Spirit said...

OK... a few things from my own experiences on the road.
ALWAYS "FIRST" check with officials of a Park, BLM, whatever... introduce yourself and state how long you are going to stay, ask for good tips... let them know you.
You also got there way too late... not a good scenario. One is better off not arriving then chancing it...
Be wiser within Mother Nature. She is kind and inviting but not forgiving. ALWAYS have Plan B... I learned that long time ago.
All is always well till it is not and one never knows when "that day" is going to present itself...
Get yourself a hand held GPS! In this day and age no excuse not having one... A SPOT is also good with a share web page showing in real time your route, of course it also has "help" and "911" signals one can send out. I know, it is expensive... $150 for the unit and $150 a year for the service.
Also expensive is a SAT phone I always carry.
This last "gadgets" are not all about how much hiking you do... it is all about how much your Life is worth... Kind of like me having people frown on my $600 helmet! (which will only be good for about 5 years). It is my head I try to protect.
Anyhow... and with a smile I will say... "you should have taken some photos!" :-)
Be well... Ara & Spirit

Ginny said...

Thanks for your tips Ara, if anyone knows this stuff it is you. :)

And looking back, I sure wish I had thought of taking pictures...they would have been pretty darn cool.

Next time there will be pics!

Joe said...

I don't think you should second guess yourself too badly. If I was camping and saw fire close I would leave, simple as that. Even a "controlled" burn would worry me, how often do they burn out of control?
I agree with Ara, you may want to get a hand held gps to assist you in just such an event. And, they're pretty cool to have, Sandra has one in her car and she loves it.

Anonymous said...

You sure know how to enjoy yourself!! Your gut feelings were right this time but you failed to assert yourself. A good leader is always willing to listen and will invariably justify their decission. Often easier said than done in critical situations. It all comes under the experience banner, and a well written.

da iawn

Anonymous said...

First off, I would write a letter to the park folks stating how upset you are that they did not inform you and others of the controlled burn. There's no excuse for that.
Even if you were late arrriving at the park, at the very least they could have left a written notice.
Secondly, you should feel good that you had a good plan to get the hell out of there. Your friend just wouldn't let you implement it.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't purchase a GPS in the future but you had a map and had a good idea where you were. So you really didn't need a GPS.
The best tool you had that day was between your ears and you used it well.
What doesn't kill you wiil make you stronger. Upon further review, don't you feel stronger today?
Hike on, Tod

rocket said...

Always go with your gut.


It knows things your brain doesn't.

Ginny said...

Excellent comments from everyone. Thank you Tod, I do feel stronger and pleased to have more knowledge under my belt. Nothing beats experience.

I have considered writing a letter to the Park because this is an odd incident. Generally I've had positive experiences with the park staff in the past. They have been informative about trail conditions, etc...

I find it interesting that they didn't think a controlled burn would alarm anyone who wasn't privy to it. When we arrived at the park the rangers were still there and checked me in. The conversation was mostly about trail condition and the weather.

Good lesson learned on my part.

Anonymous said...

I am a long time hiker & backpacker and I am completely shocked that any government agency would do a controlled burn without notification. At both our local conservation area in Missouri as well as in National Parks, controlled burns are announced in advance with posters at the park entrances and at each trailhead. There should have been signs you saw driving in and signs right at the trailhead that were impossible to miss. You definitely need to contact people as far up the chain of administration as possible to let them know this happened. It could cost someone else their life if they continue to have controlled burns without proper notification. If you get no where - contact the press until someone pays attention.

Ginny said...

After further thought about this, I don't think the burn was even within the park. That might be why campers/day users were not notified, but we still should have been since it was right outside the park boundary...

Anonymous said...

It's beginning to look more and more like the burn was outside of the park. But I think the authorities within the park still should be notified so that they can bring grief on those responsible. Obviously, you and other hikers/campers felt threatened enough to flee the area.