Some happy news this weekend: A family that had gotten lost on the Oregon coast while out picking mushrooms were found alive (though hungry and with minor injuries) by search and rescue teams, who pinpointed the family’s whereabouts after they were spotted from a helicopter piloted by Jackson County Commissioner John Rachor, who was flying with Curry County sheriff’s lieutenant John Ward.
The family was rescued by the Coast Guard and taken to a local hospital in Gold Beach, where they recounted their ordeal.
Belinda and Daniel Conne, both forty-seven, moved from Oklahoma last year to Oregon with their twenty-five year old son Michael. They had been staying in and around Gold Bar while looking for work, according to news reports.
On January 29th, they left their campsite at the Port of Gold Beach’s Huntley Park Riverside Campground (view location) to go pick mushrooms. They drove a little ways up into the Klamath Mountains, parked their Jeep Cherokee, and headed off on foot. They brought one load of mushrooms back to their vehicle, but they got lost while trying to retrieve their second load.
That’s when their troubles began.
In the heat of the afternoon, they left their jackets at the end of a gravel road. Their last meal was a peanut butter sandwich each on Sunday [January 29th, 2012].
When they didn’t come home the first night, the camp host alerted authorities. Searchers hit the ground Monday. Wednesday, searchers found the Connes’ Jeep.
The Connes spent the first night in rain, sheltering under a pile of brush. The second day, they built a lean-to, but it fell down. Heeding the advice of another mushroom picker, Michael Conne hiked uphill to try to see where they were, but returned cold, wet, and with no better idea where they were. Trying to find their way out downhill, they discovered a hollow log they could all squeeze into, and they stayed there, covering the opening with bark and hiking downhill to a creek to fill plastic bags with water. When it rained, they tried to plug the leaks with bits of wood.
On the sixth day, the family eventually managed to reach a clearing, where they signaled for help using a pocket knife and the screen of a BlackBerry smartphone. Unbeknownst to them, they were only about a quarter of a mile from a road, and only around a mile away from their vehicle.
As mentioned earlier, all three were airlifted to safety and comfort in Gold Beach; their pit bull walked out of the woods with search and rescue crews.
While this story has a happy ending, it ought to serve as a reminder to us all that it’s incredibly important to be prepared when going out into a remote area. If the Connes had been better equipped, and had their wits about them, they wouldn’t have had to spend six days shivering in the foothills of the Klamath Mountains.
Their first mistake was not bothering to bring any proper navigational tools with them. They did have a BlackBerry, but smartphones — even those running BlackBerry OS, the world’s most versatile messaging platform — do not make suitable backcountry navigational aids.
They should have taken an taken topographic maps and a compass with them, so they could orient themselves on unfamiliar terrain.
(They could also have purchased or rented a handheld GPS unit, but a GPS is a nice-to-have item, not a substitute for maps and a compass.)
Their second mistake was not bringing any portable shelter or emergency rations with them. After they found themselves lost, they did not have any snacks, let alone ingredients for a meal. Had they had rations to fall back on, they would probably have been in better spirits, and they would have had more energy, which might have given them the resolve they needed to find their way out of the woods. (Remember, they were only a quarter mile from a road when they were found).
And, if they had had a lightweight tent, they could have pitched it and gone inside during the nights, instead of trying to trying to build a fort of evergreen boughs or trying to make a hollow log waterproof.
And what were they thinking, abandoning their jackets “in the heat of the afternoon”? That’s something a savvy outdoorsman (or outdoorswoman) never does. The way to stay comfortable while in the backcountry is to dress in layers. Outerwear that’s not being used during the warmest parts of the day should be folded up and put into backpacks for use during the cooler hours.
Anyone who has learned wilderness survival skills, or been part of the Scouting movement, is probably familiar with the Ten Essentials, which are the key to surviving in the backcountry. They are:
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter
If the Connes had been carrying the Ten Essentials, they would have fared much, much better after finding themselves lost. But, judging from the news reports, it sounds like they had almost none of the Ten Essentials. They didn’t even have matches, so they could not start a fire to keep themselves warm, or to signal rescuers. As a result, they ended up being pretty miserable.
When I was young, I learned to appreciate the difference between backcountry and frontcountry camping (also known as car camping).
Backcountry treks require far more preparation than froncountry camping trips, because you can’t take bulky items like propane lanterns, two-burner stoves, or family-sized tents. You have to have the proper gear. You plan out your meals, figure out what you’ll need to stay warm, where you might want to camp if you’re going on an overnight outing, and you always, always, always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. You don’t just disappear.
To be comfortable and safe in the backcountry, you travel light and you travel prepared. You don’t take what you don’t need, for every unnecessary item only adds to the weight you’ll have to carry.
These rules apply to day trips in the backcountry as well as overnight trips. The Conne family didn’t follow the rules, and as a consequence, they spent nearly a week trying to survive in the woods without shelter or sustenance.
If you’re ever going out into the backcountry, you owe it to yourself and the people who care about you to plan ahead. If you don’t know how to get outfitted for a backcountry trip, and you don’t have a good friend who can advise you, go talk to the good people at REI. They’ll be able to help make your trip a much more pleasant and safe experience.