Those that know me best know that I’m notoriously prepared anytime I venture into Idaho’s mountains. Some might even call me over-prepared. But it’s easy, very, very easy to screw up and find yourself in a situation that you weren’t prepared for. It’s even easier than you think, and it just happened to me this past Friday.
Idaho experienced record snowfall this past winter, as did much of the Northwest. And while all that snow made for excellent skiing, it’s now melting; and all that water has to go someplace; it’s all been traveling downhill; and it’s all been creating some excellent photography opportunities.
So I’ve been traveling around the state filming all the water, and enjoying every minute of it. So much so that I got careless last Friday. Rather than carefully plan my trip to the Owyhee Dam in Southeastern Oregon, I simply plugged the coordinates into my GPS, hopped in my truck and took off. That was my first mistake.
My second mistake was packing just a sandwich and some chips thinking that I’d just be taking an easy road trip, and that I could stop pretty much anywhere along the way to satisfy any urges that I might have.
And so the adventure begins…
My GPS thought that it might be a good idea to send me 60 miles through the desert. My GPS was horribly WRONG. In fact, it was a very bad idea. And I was very lucky to come out of it as easily as I did.
The first 25 miles was state highway; the second 25 miles was gravel road. I didn’t really get alarmed until the GPS asked me to take that last left turn, the one that took me off the gravel road and onto a path that looked, well, scary.
So I pulled over, right in the middle of the road since I was the only human for probably 50 miles (all the others were smart enough to take the paved road), cracked open my laptop and checked out my situation in Microsoft Streets and Trips. Turns out, this scary looking road was actually in Streets and Trips, and it went exactly where I wanted it to go. What I should have done, however, was used Google Earth, or at the very least, a Topographic Map. Because what I couldn’t see in Streets and Trips was exactly what I needed to see to make a good decision.
That’s also when I popped up high enough to bring my cell phone back into service; and it’s also where I received a severe weather warning via text message. So, with my phone in service, and my laptop already open, I decided to check the details of that message. Turns out I’m in the middle of a flood warning. I’m on high ground, but I’ll have to cross the flood plain at some point if I want to get back home.
This is where I should have chosen to turn around and make for home at top speed. Needless to say, I made another bad decision; I chose the road less (as in NEVER) traveled. I chose to get the video that was now a mere 10 miles away.
As it turns out, the part of the road that I could see was actually the good part; it actually resembled a road. Three miles down that road, however, things changed for the worse. That’s where four-wheel drive became a necessity. I still could have turned back. But you guessed it, I didn’t; and that was about the last time turning back presented itself as an option.
I found myself traveling first up, and then down, some very steep inclines; on a road that now looked more like a path; a path that eventually stopped looking like a path, or much of anything for that matter. I even had to stop and open a fence that crossed the road near the summit.
That tiny little path was also holding some very big, very sharp rocks. Rocks that, luckily, only caused minor damage to my truck. It could have easily been much, much worse.
So now I’m sliding downhill on some very wet earth (mud), on top of some very sharp rocks that were very patiently waiting for me to screw up just the tiniest little bit so that they could shred my tires to pieces and leave me stranded in the desert for the night, in a place that no one knew where to look for me, because I was supposed to be traveling on a highway ten miles from here. I couldn’t stop if I had to, and I’m completely unprepared for my surroundings with very little of what I’d need to survive a night in the desert, should that become a necessity. Fortunately, it didn’t.
I carefully navigated down the side of that mountain on both a wing and a prayer; found myself at my destination; and shot my video. All that was left now was to find my way home via the highway that I had intended to travel in the first place. The problem was my GPS is now acting like it’s in an episode of The Twilight Zone; it doesn’t seem to know which way I should go. No matter which way I turn, it seems to think it can plot me a course home in that direction. So I turned back to Streets and Trips for a little advice.
What I should have done was throw all the computers over the dam and asked someone for directions.
Streets and Trips did get me pointed in the right direction, and my GPS continued to make bad choices for me on the way out of that valley. But they weren’t choices that I could have acted on, even if they had looked like a good idea. All of the roads the GPS wanted to use were under at least 5 feet of rapidly moving water; and that water was going to force me to make good choices whether I wanted to or not.
I did find my way home, only a few hours late, with my precious video in hand; all’s well that ends well. But I was lucky. It could have been much worse.
These were my mistakes:
I didn’t plan my trip properly. I didn’t map it out in advance; no one knew exactly where I was; I was traveling on the LEAST logical path to get to my destination; and I wasn’t traveling with the correct supplies and equipment for the environment I was traveling in. I should have had more food, more clothes, and a gun. And someone should have been told exactly where I was; if not before leaving home, certainly when I popped into cell phone coverage on top of that mountain.
When I realized that things were going wrong, I made a series of bad choices. I allowed my passion for my destination, the video I’m making, and (to be completely stupid) the high price of gas, to influence my decisions. As a result, I made a series of bad choices. I could have (and should have) turned around any number of times. I also based my decisions on navigation aids that were entirely wrong for my environment. That GPS is great on the open road, but toss it out the window when you find yourself in the desert, or on top of a mountain. It’s no longer of any value to you in those environments.
It’s mistakes like these that have left many a traveler lost in Idaho’s wilderness for days, even weeks at a time. Plan your trip, make good decisions, and don’t be afraid to turn back and try again tomorrow. I have excellent backcountry skills, and those skills were a big part of how I got so “lucky” on this otherwise ill-fated adventure.
I have friends with similar skills and experience, and most of them have stories like this to tell. It seems sometimes that we get so confident in our abilities that we draw ourselves deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. We often forget what we teach others. This has been an excellent backcountry refresher course for me. A lesson I’ll not soon forget!
Even as I write post this I’m planning my next outing to Magic Reservoir. I’m using Google Earth, carefully charted GPS Coordinates and topographic maps to pick the right path into and out of this flood zone. The water is now flowing over the top of the dam, and the pictures I’ve seen are excellent. Be sure to watch my personal blog for video of all the snowmelt in the coming months. What I’ve seen so far has been a magnificent display of the power of Mother Nature. And there’s still more to come!