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Taking care in the National Forest

May 13, 2010

The summer camping season is rapidly approaching, I’ll soon be dragging the tent out of the garage and scrubbing out the dutch ovens. Already I’ve been pouring over my topographic maps and planning routes and locations for this years’ adventures. That said, our national forests are not for the timid…

Camping, hiking, picnicking, or skiing in the National Forest is not without risk. Even in these days of reliable transportation and cellular telephones, the forest has its darker corners.

Those who are curious as to just what hazards might be met with will appreciate this  trailhead notice I found once, posted in the Mount Hood National Forest by the United States Forest Service: “Hazards are not limited to, but include; changing weather conditions; snow; avalanches; landslides; caves; overlooks; falling trees or limbs; high or rushing water; contaminated water; wild animals; becoming lost or over exerted; hypothermia; remnants of mining or other activities involving excavation; tunnels; shafts; decaying structures and a variety of equipment and changing roads and trail conditions. You may also be exposed to unreasonable acts of others. The Forest Service does not manage or control all of these conditions.”

Which conditions the Forest Service does manage and control is an interesting question. Perhaps the weather. In the areas I most often visit, accessed from Dufur and The Dalles, the Forest Service is little in evidence. Many of the road signs are missing,  few of the developed parks have seen much maintenance. I personally don’t mind, although it does make me question the established user fee system. Where years ago you would expect to meet road crews and patrols pretty much everywhere, numbers have dwindled to the point where meeting anyone in forest service green would be a surprise.

In my own experience, the biggest hazard actually encountered in the forest is noted in the final sentence of the posted notice: “You may also be exposed to the unreasonable acts of other.”

People are far more dangerous then all the natural hazards combined. While I have never felt a need to carry a firearm for protection from bears, cougars or feral dogs there have been times when my fellow-man has had me wishing I carried a weapon.

I say “fellow-man,” not fellow “boys.”  At first meeting, a group of would-be men in the national forest can be pretty scary. They are old enough to be men except that their brains have not yet developed, especially in the judgment department: They are typically noisy, polluting, dangerous by virtue of  stupidity and often intoxicated to the point of no return. They are, however, seldom malicious and if you catch them on the “morning after”  sometimes display traits commonly associated with actual human beings. If they see you in a bind, for example, they will likely offer to help. Break up the “pack,” and most of the negative behavior ends.

The mountain “night people” can also raise the hair on the back of your neck but are generally harmless. The last bus stop east Eugene, for example, is in the National Forest. Every evening a dozen or more men and women get off the bus and vanish among the trees. At first camping next to a “street person” is unnerving, but they like their invisibility and rarely make contact. The rural edge is also visited by those who live in their cars, but again they strive for invisibility and rarely cause problems.

Personally, my negative experiences with people in the mountains have been the con men, thieves and drug dealers. The con men I generally recognize and give a cold shoulder, the thieves find me a light sleeper. The drug dealers quickly learn I’m not interested and don’t have any money anyway.

My best defense, which I always carry, is a camera. Those who believe themselves hidden in the forest quickly leave at the first hint of exposure. A flashlight works much the same magic at night.

Women alone should take extra precautions. I once camped with my wife not far from a couple of young ladies – in the middle of the night a car came roaring into the camping area and began “cutting cookies” around and around their tent. I responded from my own tent, not far away, with my flashlight and a yell. The car left, but after reporting the incident to the sheriff so did the ladies, their trip ruined.

I have also had  rather distressing contact with officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but that was principally a matter of being in the wrong place at the worst possible time.

The question of whether to carry a gun or other weapon is not easily answered. I go unarmed and have never felt the lack. But I’m fairly tall and scary looking and I usually have a knife to clutch if I’m feeling really nervous. If I was a woman, camping alone, I might carry a 20-guage shotgun loaded with bird shot. You can’t miss, and warning shot is loud enough to give a man second thoughts.

The best way to avoid any sort of hassle is to camp away from the road. Even a short distance off the gravel you will find solitude unbroken. Miscreants of all types, like modern man in general, don’t care to be separated from their vehicles. The solitude which I admire is, for many, a cold, ominous silence.

The vast majority of my visits to the national forest have been blessed with the peace, quiet and serenity that one expects in the forest, regardless of  “changing weather conditions; snow; avalanches; landslides; caves; overlooks; falling trees or limbs; high or rushing water; contaminated water; wild animals; becoming lost or over exerted; hypothermia; remnants of mining or other activities involving excavation; tunnels; shafts; decaying structures and a variety of equipment and changing roads and trail conditions”…or even the “unreasonable acts of others.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 00:38

    WOW! I loved every word. Just fascinating. I like how you write–you pull me into your thoughts and I ride them like a canoe on whitewater.

  2. Clytie permalink
    May 14, 2010 16:42

    Ah bro … I love this piece! I especially love your description of teenage boys. I don’t think I have ever heard this phenomenon so accurately described before!!!

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