I was a sophomore in high school, which is a perfect time to screw up. A good friend of mine, Seth Kelsey (who happens to be one of the best epee fencers in the country) and I wanted to go on an overnight camping trip to a place called Rainy Lake, about 45 miles west of Portland, Oregon in the Columbia River Gorge. Seth had two backpacks and I had zero, so he just told me to throw my clothes in a pile after the prom (yeah, we planned a hike the day after the prom) and wait for him to show up the next day. I went to sleep dreaming of muddy hiking boots and Campingaz stoves.
In the morning I awoke, met Seth, threw my stuff in the bag he provided, and we were off (driven by his father, of course). We stopped to pick up food. Twelve bagels. Three tubes of Ritz crackers. Half a pound of Colby Jack cheese. Twelve pouches of Quaker instant oatmeal. Mac & Cheese. In short, a day and a half of food under the steep and difficult gorge hiking conditions. We were unloaded at the parking lot, and we bid farewell to Seth's dad and his sister, who had come along for the ride, then we set off on the trail.
The hiking was very straightforward until about 5 o'clock p.m. This is when Seth and I hit snow. However, we could still see a slightly hollowed-out path on top of the snow. Dirty footprints were another clue. When it became impossible to follow these traces anymore, we turned to the trees. Of course, the trusty forest service had nailed reflective blue diamonds to every third or fourth tree along the trail - to a certain point, that is, where the markings suddenly stopped. Seth and I sat down at this point and had a pensive snack.
"Where's your compass," he asked me, chomping unhurriedly on his bagel.
After a short pause I responded. "Where's yours?"
There are other ways besides a compass to tell direction. For example, in the northern hemisphere the sun is always to the south, so moss tends to grow on the north side of trees -- in the shade. If you live in Portland, though, you know that between October and June, especially in the gorge at 4,000 feet, you don't ever see the sun due to the fog and the rain. So, according to the moss on the trees, everywhere was north. At the time - thanks to a certain Murphy - there was a thick fog, and we couldn't begin to guess at the sun's location in the sky. All we knew was that we had about two hours of daylight left. After examining our topographical map, we realized that we could determine roughly south by traversing, keeping the uphill on our right and the downhill on our left, and after about a mile, we'd drop right into North Lake, our camping spot just shy of Rainy Lake.
Simple, right? Right. So instead of going straight south while traversing, we cupped around the inside of a canyon to our left. If you can picture the way a topo map works, this makes sense - we kept the slope to our left, but ended up going from south to east to northeast. After about a mile of walking, we decided to descend to the lake, as it was getting dark. Twenty minutes of descent found us not at the leke, but at a creek. The map didn't have a creek running into the lake, but we figured it could be runoff from melting snow. By this point it was totally dark. I set up the tent, a Kelty Zen. After a subsequent trip with Seth this tent would come to be knighted the "Kelsey Zen." If you want to know why, just talk to Seth for twenty minutes. He oozes some bizarre sort of zen. In any case, we ate, we slept, and we got up early the next morning and devoured half of our oatmeal. Maybe North lake was still a little way down the slope. After some glissading down snow and dirt slopes, we finally came to three profound realizations.
Realization Number One:
"We're nowhere near North Lake."
Realization Number Two:
"It's too steep to climb back out the way we came."
Realization Number Three:
"If we follow this stream, we'll eventually get back to the Columbia River."
So, we did. To make a long day short, we woke up at 7:00 in the morning and hiked for fourteen hours, bushwhacking and cutting our legs, crossing the stream if the banks got too steep or treacherous. At 7:30 in the evening, thanks again to Mr. Murphy, we came to a point where both banks of the stream were sheer cliffs, and the stream itself went over a fifteen-foot waterfall. Optimists that we were (and still are), Seth and I resolved not to give up. Instead of trying to continue our trek straight down the stream, we headed perpendicularly away from it. We were in a canyon, so logically we would eventually reach a ridge, which would be easy to follow down to the river. We did actually come withing thirty vertical feet of a ridge, but those thirty feet were comprised of, well, a thirty-foot cliff.
Disheartened, we returned to the waterfall on the river, where there was a small flat spot to set up the Kelsey Zen. We pitched the tent and then set out our bright blue tarp and our yellow and red jackets on a clearly visible rock. By this point we had resigned ourself to waiting and trying to be as conspicuous as possible. We were left with three bagels, half a stack of Ritz, a bit of cheese, and two six packets of oatmeal. We split the bagels and the cheese for dinner and went to sleep, tossing and fitful due to leg cramps. The next morning we each had two packets of Apple-Cinnamon Quaker mush and started playing gin rummy and talking about whether we'd eat each others' butts. A few times we thought we heard a plane, but we didn't see one fly over the only slit of blue sky we could see in the densely forested surroundings. We had made a plan by noon: If no help came, we were going to leave our backpacks at the campsite and just hike down the stream, unhindered, until we returned to the river and familiar interstate 84. Fortunately we didn't have to ditch our packs.
At about 2:00, a plane flew over the patch of blue, making a perfect turn - we could see the windows and everything. We were jumping up and down, making ourselves hoarse, as if the people in the plane could have possibly heard us. As soon as it left our sight, we wilted and returned to our game of rummy, which I was losing soundly. A minute later, the same plane made the same turn. We were ecstatic once again. When it left again, we were again destroyed. This is definitely the most intense roller coastering I've ever been through, though I hardly noticed it at the time. After getting lost, being manic was normal. By the plane's third appearance, we were pretty sure that we had been located, and we sat back and waited for the next plot development.
The sound of a helicopter was something I'd only heard in action flicks (well, also in really weird modern music). So I was justified in being surprised when I saw one appear, seemingly out of nowhere, and proceed to hover a hundred feet off the ground a little bit downstream. I scrambled up some scree and made hand signals that meant, quite obviously, "Hey there, guys in the helicopter! I'm Rob and this is my hiking partner Seth. Do you want us to go somewhere? Should we stay where we are? Should we pack our bags and get ready to be airlifted out? That would be cool, helicopter guys!" The copilot responded by waving me back to the campsite. I obeyed, and the helicopter disappeared for a few minutes. Then it was back, and it was hovering a hundred feet off the ground upstream. Evergreen trees a hundred years old were groaning and swaying under the persuasive blades of the chopper. Suddenly two bags were thrown out the side of the helicopter. They were trailing something - soon we understood that they were rope bags. After the rope had hit the ground, two men rappelled down. This brought my grand total of "Things in James Bond Movies that I've seen in Real Life" to two, and they both happened within twenty minutes of each other.
The two rappellers - Air Force reserve guys who were search and rescue volunteers (shout out to SAR !) - asked me and Seth what the date was, what our names were, and who the current president was. Of course I was tempted to say Teddy Roosevelt, but I refrained and mentioned Mr. Clinton's name instead. They gave us much-needed nourishment (I hesitate to call an MRE "food") and set up a lean-to. Seth and I got to sleep on the outside, half covered by the tarp and half covered by the unforgiving northwest skies. We awoke at six in the morning, the SAR guys fashioned us climbing harnesses out of webbing, and we were off. The whole day consisted of hiking down the stream, ankle- to knee-deep in cold water, and navigating the waterfalls we ran into. No waterfall was more than twenty feet high, so we could negotiate every one by setting up a rope system, and each waterfall's rope system was more elaborate than the last. I was in an episode of Mission: Impossible. Plus, my TIJBMTISIRL (see above) index was now at three. Finally, we got to what looked like a big waterfall. We had a seat and gladly received a wild berry Powerbar. The eating of this Powerbar was definitely a transcendental experience. Just as the two SAR guys were returning to tell us that the waterfall was 200 feet high, not marked on the map, and impossible to descend with our ropes, providence ansered. A third SAR volunteer had found an elk trail and followed it up from the parking lot. He stumbled upon me and Seth savoring our nutritious purple cement. The hike down the elk trail was fairly easy, and Seth and I made bets towards the end of the walk as to which local news channel would be there, filming our stupid mugs and making us into a sappy human interest story. It turns out that all the news channels had showed up, and I could expect several video copies of myself saying "I just want some hot chocolate" for my birthday from my loving and sarcastic friends.
I'm still an avid backpacker and consider the Rainy Lake incident to have been a learning experience. I have gotten lost again since, but not as badly. But then, what would hiking be without that moment of panic?