The year was 1995. It was about 80 degrees and the sun was shining. I was on my way to meet some family members for opening day of fishing season. Oregon is nice in late May, and I wanted to get there as quick as possible. I was travelling from Bend to an area about 20 miles away from Tiller up the South Umpqua River.
That meant driving from the east side of the Cascades over to the west side. A route that would take me south down Highway 97 to Diamond Lake Junction. Then east on Highway 138 to Diamond Lake, then South on Highway 62 past Crater Lake and around Lost Creek Lake, then to Trail, then up Highway 227 to Tiller, then up Highway 46 (South Umpqua Road) and finally to camp. It was about an 8 hour drive.
So I broke out my BLM maps and picked out a shortcut that would take me up over the Rogue-Umpqua Divide and essentially cut 4 hours off my trip. I was driving a 1976 GMC Stepside with four wheel drive, so it seemed like a good idea. Isn’t it funny how “seemed like a good idea” is always followed by “boy did I screw up”.
I drove the 3 hours down Highway 97, then over Highway 138, then down Highway 62. Around 2:00 pm, I found the cutoff road that I had chosen to take me straight west over the Cascades instead of around them. I said goodbye to civilization as my beer-bottle-brown truck rumbled onto the dirt road and disappeared into the woods due west. The road was good and I made good time. Climbing about 1000 feet of elevation per hour. I stopped often to look at wildlife along the way. It looked like I was going to make it to camp on the other side before nightfall.
That’s when things got bad… real bad. I rounded a corner and came upon a big patch of snow. I gingerly made my way through it to the other side and continued on. A hundred more yards and came upon another. I started to get worried, so I got out and turned my hubs so I could shift into four wheel drive. That was a mistake. Upon starting again from a stop, my tires began to slip, even in four wheel drive. The problem was the road was slightly slanted back and to my left. About two more feet to the left of my tires was an embankment into a canyon. That meant I was two feet away from going over the bank, rolling the truck, and probably getting hurt up in the middle of nowhere!
I tried one more time to inch forward but my tires still gained no traction and slipped. This caused my truck to move about 6 inches closer to the bank. My heart pounded. Now I was past worried – I was genuinely afraid! What was supposed to be a shortcut could very well end up being the last day of my life! At the very least, it would be the last day for my trusty GMC.
I got out and surveyed the situation. I measured the distance forward and the distance back. I made a mental note of the angle of the road and the depth of the snow patch I was stuck on. What should I do? It obviously wasn’t able to move forward because of the slight incline. I had to back off the snow patch. It should be easy. I figured the best thing to do was just inch my way back with as little gas as possible by riding the clutch with the engine at idle speed.
I got in, took a deep breath, put her in 4 low, and steadily let up on the clutch until I could feel it moving. The wheels had dug themselves into a trough about ½ inch deep. Again, the truck slide sideways a few inches toward the bank.
I got out again and used my hands to dig out the snow trough directly behind each of the four tires. I got back in and tried the same maneuver, but still it slide sideways. Now I was a mere 6 inches from the bank!
I had nothing else to do but keep trying until it rolled over the bank. So I turned the front wheels to the right so the truck would back away from the bank if I was successful in moving it backward. I let off the clutch again to back out. This time the tires successfully popped out of the snow troughs and the truck moved back and away from the bank. I pushed the clutch back in and applied the brakes. Another big mistake. The back of the truck stopped while the front of the truck slid directly toward the bank as if the front wheels were snowmobile skids!
Over the bank they went. I prepared myself for certain death. At minimum some broken bones and stuck in the wilderness.
There I sat, white-knuckled on the steering wheel. Both feet planted firmly on that brake pedal! I was looking straight out the front window down at the bottom of the canyon. The only thing left on the road was my two back tires. The Chevy 350 rumbled obediently – ready for me to make my next move. I was literally hanging off the top of the bank by my back tires! I looked behind me (up the bank) out my back window. My fishing pole which was in the back of the truck rested precariously on the back of the cab.
With very shaky legs, I carefully moved my left foot over to the emergency brake pedal and pressed it slowly down. It felt like every click of that e-brake was a minute in time. I pressed it so far down that I think I got into some virgin territory on that thing. I then slowly let my right foot off the brake pedal. The truck did not move. I reached up and turned off the engine. Carefully, I slowly opened the door and climbed out. As soon as my feet hit the ground my knees buckled and I fell about 5 feet down the bank. Once I came to a rest, I looked up at the GMC grill. My truck seemed to be looking at me with great concern trying to figure out why I put it in this strange position.
I climbed up onto the road and sat for a while to think about my situation. I could see the backend of my truck sticking up over the bank. It was exactly perpendicular to the road and looked as if I parked it like that on purpose.
There I was – stuck near the top of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide. I was about 30 miles from Highway 62 on the eastern side of the cascades and then the little town of Prospect another 20 miles south from there. On the west side, I was 30 miles from the South Umpqua River and Highway 46 that runs along it. I estimated that my family members would be camped another 5 or so miles down from that point.
I made the decision that I was better off hiking over the divide and down to the South Umpqua on the other side. I could then have my stepdad drive back up and wench me out with his jeep.
All I had was a hunting knife, Army surplus wool blanket, three wooden matches, and a bag of Doritos. I estimated I could walk about 2 miles per hour. It would take me 15 hours and I had 4 hours of daylight left. I stuffed my four things into a little daypack, took a last look at my good ole’ truck hanging there like a big brown bat, and began my trek west.
Within 3 miles, I discovered that the snow got worse. The entire pass was snowed in about 3 feet deep. Had I not been done in by that small patch back there, I would have had to turn around and drive back down anyway. That made me feel even more like an idiot. Luckily I had on my Danner boots and was able to keep my feet dry as I trudged through the snow.
At one point I completely lost the road which was invisible in the deep snow. I scanned the next small horizon for what looked like a man made break in the forest which would indicate a road went through it. I trudged toward it. I realized that if this snow continued I was not going to keep to my 2 mile an hour goal. I knew I was going to have to spend the night up there, but I had no desire to spend two nights!
The beauty of that mountain pass was astounding. As I sat and rested from the trudging, I reveled in seeing this place during heavy snow cover, which few other people have ever witnessed that time of year due to its remoteness. A person would have to snowshoe in there to see it like that.
I came upon an area that looked like it contained a large pond once the snow melted. It was framed by beautiful granite embankments half covered with snow. I wished that I had a camera. All that I was seeing on that hike would be just a memory in my mind. So I took many opportunities to simply look around and try to etch those pictures into my mind. The snowy ground, the rocks, the perfectly symmetrical Noble Firs, the large Douglas Firs, the huge mangled Ponderosa Pines, the Rhododendrons and wild rose. I spotted some deer bedded down under a group of firs. Their big ears strained directly at me as they probably wondered what the hell a person was doing up this high this time of year. They were mule deer, so I determined I was unfortunately still on the eastern side of the pass. The western side is habitat for the blacktail deer. I took a deep breath, got up, and kept trudging.
I eventually made it over the pass and followed what looked like the road down hill and around the various banks and corners. Finally, the snow began to be shallower and eventually gave way to patches. I was relieved to see the brown of the dirt road under me.
I picked up my pace to an easy jog as the shadows of the forest grew long. I had to make up valuable time before it got too dark to hike. In my haste I spooked a big black bear as I jogged around a corner. It let out a heavy and gruffy snort and barreled off into the trees and brush. When I finally “came to” I realized that I was standing in the middle of the road, feet wide apart, and my hands up as if to fist fight someone. The bear had scared me so bad that my mind shut off and my body went directly into fight or flight mode. When the danger passed I regained my self-realization and found that I must have looked quite funny standing there ready to fist fight a bear! I made a mental note that if it happened again, I should have the presence of mind to at least pull out my hunting knife. Although I doubt it would do much good in a bear fight.
After that incident, I slowed down. I listened and looked more. I knew I was going to have to spend the night, so it made more sense to substitute carefulness for speed.
Once the pure darkness set in, I remembered an article I recently read about the burgeoning cougar population that year. All of the factors such as habitat, food supply, the lack of any natural predator, and they outlawed hunting with dogs, made for a bumper crop of cats out there.
As I walked I could hear sounds of movement above me on the bank in the thick brush.
I think my hair stood on end most of the time after the sun went down! I would stop and listen in the pitch black of night. Nothing. So I would walk again – the crunch of the gravel road under my boots. I started seeing things move against the pale of the road up ahead.
After a few hours of that nonsense I decided I better get a fire lit before I become cougar food. I found a shoulder on the road and set about looking for firewood. I had about 3 wooden matches so chances were good I was going to get one going.
I scrambled in the night for dead branches, pine cones, and pine needles. I scooped up some pine needles into a pile and placed a pinecone at the top of it. Once I had the needles lit the pine cone ignited pretty easily. Next went some small twigs, then small pieces of branches. Before long I had a roaring fire. I ate some Doritos and curled up under my blanket for some shuteye.
I slept with one eye open because I felt I was being watched by cougars or a bigfoot. I kept getting up and throwing more wood on the fire. I had my hunting knife opened and laying by my head for a quick grab if attacked.
About 5 hours of that and light slowly began to creep through the forest as dawn arrived. Lying on the hard cold ground was not comfortable so I got up, put my fire out, and headed down the road.
Thirst… my next big challenge. I drank some melted snow the previous evening. But all that jogging, bear fighting, and Dorito eating had me pretty dehydrated. Being an experienced hiker, I knew that next I would get a dull headache as my body began dealing with the lack of water. I kept vigilant for any sign of water as I made my way down the road.
I estimated I had hiked about half way by now so it was 15 miles with little water, no valuable calories, and little sleep. I needed to at least drink water or I wasn’t going to get much farther. My feet were beginning to feel painful from the long miles. They sweated in my Danners like a couple of hotcakes. I strained to listen hoping to hear a creek somewhere. I knew enough not to venture far from the road in case a vehicle comes along. But also because picking my way through rocks and brush is more dangerous.
I finally did hear the faint call of a creek. Or maybe it was just wind in the trees. Was this the high country version of a mirage? I walked on. It got louder. Sure enough I rounded a corner to find a small running creek passing under the road through a culvert and trickling into a 3 foot pool on the other side before disappearing into the dark underbrush. I drank my fill and rested in the cold shadows. Drank some more, then washed the sweat from my face. Rejuvenated by water, I continued my journey down into the Umpqua basin. Luckily, I only had about 10 more miles to hike! I was somewhat relieved that I would not have to resort to eating grubs or chowing down on a lizard or something.
It was about noon when I finally placed my boot on the pavement of the South Umpqua Highway. The flat man-made surface was a welcome sight. I had made it to the bottom. Now I had to figure out if I should walk up the road or down the road to find the campground where my relatives were staying. I was very tired and hungry, so I did not want to make a mistake. I sat there and thought about it for a long time. I tried to figure out where I was from the brown non-descript forest service sign at the junction of the road I just walked down. The white letters and arrow pointing up my dirt road said “Huckleberry Pass 28 miles”. Holy crap, I had just walked 28 miles, plus the 5 or so miles to get up to the pass from my truck!
The sign said if I turn right on the highway, I will eventually end up at Cover Camp. I had been to Cover Camp many times as a kid, so I knew that was pretty far up the river. If this sign had nothing more significant to point to than Cover Camp, then I surmised that I must be pretty far up the river! The other direction pointed to Tiller 35 miles down. Well, I divided some numbers, added 20, carried 5, multiplied by the power of 2 and figured I better turn left and see what happens.
It turned out to be a good decision. About 3 miles down the road I came to a campground. As I walked closer, I heard a vehicle start and doors slam. The rumble told me that someone was driving out. When I saw it come out of the trees I just shook my head and chuckled. It was my stepdad’s jeep. They saw me at the same time and turned around and went back to camp.
I took a shortcut through a meadow and popped out at the camp site. Everyone was glad to see me. They were worried and had just left to look for me. Imagine that – I hike over 30 miles all the way to camp just in time to witness them leaving to go look for me. Now that there was some funny stuff!
I ate, I drank, I rested. While changing out of my sweaty and crusty clothes I noticed another little surprise – ticks. I was infested with them. I think I pulled about 10 of them little buggers off me. I probably became their lunch while I slept on the ground. I spent the next month looking for symptoms of Lyme Disease.
Well like all adventures, this one came to an end. My stepdad drove me back to my truck (the long way). He laughed out loud when he caught sight of that GMC holding on to dear life with its back tires – just the back fenders and tailgate visible. My mom took a bunch of pictures and kept saying, “oh my god!” We through a line around a tree and hooked it to the rear axle. We pulled her up on the road and headed to Prospect for lunch.
When I got back home I immediately bought 4 new tires with aggressive tread.
Tags: Wilderness Survival Rogue Umpqua Hiking 4x4