A Night in the Woods
Nature has a funny way of making a mockery of even the best laid plans; no matter how unlikely you think any given scenario is, plan for it just in case. You never know, you might have to sprint away from a bear and spend an unplanned night under the stars, just like Daniel Pittman did back in the spring of 2019.
No shit, there I was…
The black bear stood on her hind legs briefly and sniffed the air. Her cub and I both stopped moving and watched her, searching her body language for clues about her next move. Wearing a puzzled look on her face, she considered her options. I decided not to wait around to find out what her decision would be. I headed downhill into a stand of aspens, quickly putting some distance between us. Eventually I paused to breathe. I stood quietly and listened for popping underbrush or other signs of the big bear’s approach. There was nothing but a warm breeze and a woodpecker pecking in the distance.
The Forest Service brochure map I had with me wasn’t great, but I saw that by moving north, I would eventually find my way back to the trail as it veered west. I needed to get moving if I was going to make it back to camp before sunset.
The trail appeared sooner than I expected, but was narrower than before and it was meandering through the aspens when it had previously skirted the edge. But it was a smooth path, and so I continued on, hiking at pace and glad that my bear encounter had left me with all my limbs. I became aware that the trail had started descending at around the same time I noticed the roaring creek, as it began to drown out the birds.
I wasn’t expecting a creek.
I was alone and lost somewhere in the rugged wilderness of western Colorado. Lost, with a shitty map, in a grove of aspens, with no visible landmarks with which to orient myself. It began to dawn on me that I could be in a little bit of trouble.
I needed to make some decisions and plan my next moves carefully. First, I would have to backtrack up the trail until I knew where I was. Then I would need to traverse a large meadow and find the trail back down to camp. That was enough of a plan to get started.
I found the trail junction about a hundred yards past the spot where I had stepped out of the trees onto the trail. I’d been following a side trail instead of the main trail for the last two hours. I was deep in the woods and in deep shit.
The air was already cooling off, and the early-season sunlight angled low through the trees. It was at this moment I realised that I was probably going to have to spend the night outdoors – a situation for which I was very much not prepared.
Entering the meadow, I knew in my gut that if I couldn’t locate the trail down to camp within the next hour I would have to begin preparing for a cold night outdoors. I had a thin fleece jacket and gloves, but no water and no food. Thankfully, my partner Melissa had made me eat a real breakfast before she dropped me off at the trailhead.
The search for the trail down was futile, and so I reluctantly shifted my efforts toward finding a place to hunker down for the night. The west side of the meadow sloped down toward a deep valley where I found a slab of rock, still warm from the afternoon sun. I gathered as much firewood as I could and had a fire burning as the sunset turned violet. I emptied my backpack and sat on it to insulate my backside from the cold ground. The fire was hot, but it only warmed my shins, arms, and face, and it was only going to get colder with the temperature expected to drop to near freezing.
Now, I’m clearly no genius, but even a blind pig will occasionally find an acorn, and I was about to have a blind pig moment. I fed the fire until it was reaching up more than four feet, heating the slab in the process. As the fire died down the slab began to cool, eventually to where I could lay down on it. By rotating like a rotisserie chicken, I was able to stay warm for fifteen minutes or so, at least until the slab cooled and the process had to be repeated.
At first light, I let the fire burn out and stomped out the embers. I walked to the northeast edge of the meadow and immediately found the trail down to camp.
As I reached the campground, I ran into the search and rescue team that were gearing up to go look for me. They thanked me for the easy search and rescue mission! Then Melissa arrived, angry and relieved in equal measure.
Amos Bronson Alcott said that our bravest and best lessons are not learned through success, but through misadventure, and I definitely learned a lesson. I also know it won’t be my last misadventure.