NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Conne family’s ordeal should serve as a reminder to all of us to be prepared

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:

  1. Nav­i­ga­tion (map and com­pass)
  2. Sun pro­tec­tion (sun­glass­es and sun­screen)
  3. Insu­la­tion (extra cloth­ing)
  4. Illu­mi­na­tion (headlamp/flashlight)
  5. First-aid sup­plies
  6. Fire (water­proof matches/lighter/candles)
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutri­tion (extra food)
  9. Hydra­tion (extra water)
  10. 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.

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