How I Tried To Be One Of Those Survival Story Idiots
By Peter Brown Hoffmeister
I was swimming on Whychus Creek in Central Oregon last year when three kayakers came paddling down the creek in inflatable kayaks. I said to them, “Where are you guys going?”
The front guy paddled on, but the back two stopped to talk to me. One of them said, “All the way through.”
“Through to where?”
“The Deschutes,” he said, meaning a bigger river that meets the creek miles downstream.
I said, “You can paddle Whychus all the way through?”
“Yep,” the guy in the back said. “Top to bottom. We take three days and camp along the way.”
This last claim should have been a warning sign for me. I should have stopped the kayakers right there and said, “Wait, if you’re camping for three days, why don’t you have more gear? Why do you only have tiny, day-trip-sized dry bags strapped to your kayaks?”
I’ve kayaked three days on a river before and camped along the way, and even in a minimalist packing style I had three times what these guys had with them.
But I didn’t question anything that they said. I didn’t feel a twinge of doubt. I believed that these three men – who I didn’t know – had paddled the entire creek. I assumed that “all the way through” meant “all the way through.” I assumed that strangers in kayaks always told the truth. I mean, why would anyone brag about something he hadn’t done? And why shouldn’t I believe a complete and total stranger?
Hoffmeister’s friend Ken Polchowski choosing to kayak a good Oregon run, Deschutes River, Maupin.
A year later – this summer – Jennie and I were camping and rock climbing for four days in Central Oregon, only a twenty-minute drive from the Whychus Creek crossing at Squaw Creek Road. Our girls were on a trip with their grandparents all week, so Jennie and I quickly packed the car and left Eugene. Without the girls, I didn’t make my usual checklists, and I forgot a few pieces of essential gear. But Jennie and I were adults. We didn’t need everything we always took. We were fine without a few key items.
On Sunday night, at the campfire, I said, “I want to Kayak Whychus Creek through the Fremont Canyon tomorrow.”
Jennie said, “Is that safe?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, “I talked to some kayakers who did it last year.”
I got out a topo map and Jennie and I looked at the route. It was difficult to estimate mileage because the creek wandered a lot and it was hard to tell how many bends there were. The topo wasn’t zoomed-in like we wanted it to be, but I estimated that my travel would be eight to ten miles from Camp Polk Road. That was an optimistic estimate to say the least, but then again, I’m an optimist. If the creek ran at 2 miles per hour, I could travel quickly. If I paddled downstream, I could do the run in two or three hours.
In the morning, Jennie questioned whether or not I should kayak alone. She said, “What about the buddy system?”
“Oh, I’m not worried,” I said, “I’ll be fine. If I paddle, I’ll be out in four hours.” Saying ‘four hours’ aloud gave me a buffer. I planned on being out in two to three. I’m a prideful guy. I work out a lot. I spend a lot of time in the wilderness. I was sure of my capabilities, and I knew I could get to Jennie quicker than four hours.
Jennie said, “I noticed that you forgot the lifejackets. We have to buy you one. You have to wear a life-jacket if you’re going to paddle the creek.”
So we went to Bi-Mart. We got a $10 PFD. We also got some food. And when Jennie dropped me off at Camp Polk Road fifteen minutes later, this is what I had with me:
A two-man inflatable kayak, a paddle, and a loose middle seat for extra sitting comfort
A large dry-bag to carry and consolidate my food and water
A gallon of water and a quart of Orange Gatorade to stay hydrated
A protein bar, peanut M&Ms, a cucumber, and a bag of Doritos
Swim-trunks, a t-shirt, a baseball hat, and an old pair of flip-flops.
The 10 Essentials: Clearly, Hoffmeister should’ve had all of these with him. And shoes…
At this point, the reader might be asking some very good questions.
Where was my first-aid kit? I left it back in Eugene. It didn’t make it into the car.
My ten essentials? Well, for more than a decade, I’ve carried a 30-piece survival kit on every single trip I’ve taken into the backcountry. I put that kit together after completing a three-month wilderness survival course and studying the FM 21-76 Department of the Army Field Manual: Survival. But my survival kit also didn’t make it into the car. I guess I let down my guard and packed too quickly.
And flip-flops instead of river shoes? Or old tennis shoes?
No map with me? No topo maps? No river guides?
At the put-in, Jennie asked me again if I should be paddling alone, and again I said, “Oh, I’ll be fine. This’ll just be a fun little adventure today.”
And with that, I waved goodbye to Jennie and carried my kayak and gear one-hundred feet to the creek. Carrying my gear took two trips, one to carry the kayak, and one to carry the paddle, removable seat, and dry-bag. But I figured that I only had to make that two-part carry one time, just to get my stuff to the creek, then I could paddle and float the rest of the day.
When I started the paddle, I thought I was paddling a creek. I thought I was exploring like Lewis and Clark. I thought of my good friends who love to explore the backcountry, who – like me – enjoy thinking up random adventures and carrying them out. But I was wrong. A few hundred feet into my paddle and float, the creek braided into three shallow channels, all three of which went under enormous logjams.
I portaged my kayak and gear around the logjams. Then I floated again. For maybe two-hundred feet. Then I portaged again. Floated a little. Portaged. Floated some more. Portaged some more. After an hour, I’d traveled maybe half a mile. Portaging my kayak in heavy brush, over and around logjams was difficult. In flip-flops, it was annoying. Plus, it was a warm day in prime rattlesnake country, and I had to watch each step I took.
At this point, I should’ve turned back. I should’ve realized that I was like so many other young adventurers in books like Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival, a book I teach in the outdoor program that I run. There’s a common theme with all of the wilderness survival victims in that book. They overestimate their own abilities, they don’t respect the country they’re traveling through, and they don’t bring the correct gear. Sounds a lot like me that day.
But I didn’t turn back. I kept going. Why? Because I’m a prideful person. I like to finish what I start.
The creek opened up. There were fewer logjams, fewer water obstacles. I made better time. I left the nature preserve, paddled and floated through the private property section of the creek, the houses up on the rim of the canyon a few hundred feet above me. There were no people in the canyon, but it was an open canyon, wide and green and beautiful, and I was able to travel faster now, and I enjoyed this section of the creek. A Red Tail hawk dropped down and flew in front of my kayak under an arch of trees, and I paddled hard to follow it for a hundred feet. I passed countless fishing holes and made a promise to bring my fishing pole next time I paddled through. I had to portage a few times, but nothing like the two-dozen logjam-portages that I did in the first mile of water.
The only really annoying part of the private property section was the fly-hatch and the spiders that were hunting that fly hatch. As I paddled above the mouth of the Fremont Canyon, every tree-shaded section of creek came with hundreds of flies that covered me and my boat. And as I swept under low-hanging branches, huge spiders dropped onto me. I knew that these spiders probably weren’t poisonous, but it’s still disconcerting to realize that a large spider is crawling up my leg while another one is on the bill of my hat. Over and over I jumped out of my kayak to get the 2-inch spiders off of me. I found them behind my seat, on my back, and in the creases of my kayak. They were on my paddle, on my feet, and on my arms.
In the last half-mile before Fremont Canyon, there were no logjams or strainers, no low-hanging trees with branches into the water. I thought I’d made it through the worst of the creek and now I would be able to make better time. I drank my Gatorade and ate my protein bar. I was a little sunburned and sick of flies and spiders, but I was happy. I was on an adventure and things were looking up.
I paddled into the canyon and away from all private homes. There are no trails along the creek in Fremont, just the creek in the bottom of a rugged gorge. It’s a wild space, full of deer and elk and coyotes and mountain lions. Just as I like it. So I paddled in, smiling and happy, adventuring through the unknown.
Then I hit a logjam that looked like an enormous pile of bleached dinosaur bones, a dozen large trees coming together in an improbable pile across the entire creek and twelve feet tall. I portaged the gear around the huge log-jam, then returned for the kayak. I got back in the water and paddled a little further, then hit another logjam, not as large, but still blocking the whole creek. So I portaged again. And my flip-flops broke. First my right flip-flop, then my left. Now I was jumping out of the kayak barefoot, skidding my feet along the rocks underneath the water to stop my forward motion, pulling my kayak to the side, then doing the two-part portage barefoot.
It’s funny: Carrying a kayak over or around a logjam barefoot is not as fun as it sounds.
The run deteriorated. There were trees everywhere in the water. The creek became more boulder strewn. I couldn’t travel 100 feet without hitting large rocks or a logjam. I had trouble maintaining a positive attitude. I kept telling myself that this was part of the adventure, that I was having fun. But telling yourself that you’re having fun is not the same thing as having fun. My friends and I call this “Level II Fun,” where it’s more suffering than fun at the time, but I’d look back on the whole thing fondly, thinking, “That was rough, but it was also sort of awesome, you know?”
Then, as I continued to struggle over logjams, it wasn’t fun anymore, not at all, and I couldn’t even lie to myself. I was struggling to carry the kayak around three successive logjams and I realized that unlike so many things I did in the wilderness, I wouldn’t do this again even for pay. This was worse than the time I ran out of water on a 95-degree day and couldn’t find the descent gully after rock climbing the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral. This was worse than the time that my buddy got stuck on the bolt ladder on Monkey Face while I waited above him in a cave and my t-shirt turned to ice. This was worse than when I hiked more than twenty miles off trail, all night long, trying to locate an injured hiker during a failed rescue attempt. This was worse than the time I was lost in the snow in the Cascades and hiked 23 miles alone, post-holing over and over and over.
Overview of Whychus Creek. This is high desert country.
In the section of Whychus Creek that I ran, there are at least 100 tree obstacles that block the creek. That’s a conservative estimate. It could be 150. I had no idea how far I’d traveled, but I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to finish in a day. I couldn’t carry my kayak much further, my shoulders and back were incredibly tired, and progress was so slow that I knew I’d soon be portaging my kayak in the dark.
I had to finally face the facts: I was barefoot. The creek was unrunable. I had no survival gear, no twine or duct-tape to repair my flip-flops, and no first-aid gear to fix my feet if I cut them while carrying the kayak over broken logs with jagged branches.
So I decided to leave my boat. A difficult decision. First of all, I knew I’d probably never see it again. Also, I could tell that I was beginning to be a part of one of those survival narratives that I love to read so much. And in those survival narratives, when the victim changes the plan mid-way through the challenge, the rescuers really struggle to find him. As I stashed my boat safely on shore and made a large marker so I could find it again in the future, I pictured rescuers combing the creek canyon for a sign of me and only finding my boat. They’d be standing at that empty vessel and saying to each other, “Now where do you think he went from here?” And another would say, “I have no idea. But why didn’t he stay in his boat?”
I was talking to a member of the Lane County Search And Rescue team once and he told me a story about chasing a hunter who changed his itinerary and travel-path mid-trip. The rescuers followed the hunter’s trail for 31 miles through the Cascades and found him naked and frozen to death, leaning against a tree.
But I left my boat.
Simply put: I could travel faster if I didn’t have to carry it. And I was already past my take-out time, so I was really worried about Jennie. I kept picturing her waiting, alone, at the take-out spot, a remote creek-crossing miles from where I stood. I imagined, in my delusional and hopeful brain, that Jennie was only two miles from where I stood, but I would later find out that the distance I would still have to travel was more like seven miles.
I took an inventory. My flip-flops were beyond repair. They wouldn’t stay on my feet. I had no tape or rope to fix them. No tape or rope to manufacture makeshift shoes. So I was barefoot for the duration. I had enough food and water, but no extra clothes. I didn’t want to lose too much time, so I put the Peanut M&Ms in my pockets for calories, grabbed the gallon jug of water, and left everything else. I was a high school track athlete, so I knew I could run. If I was two miles from Jennie, even on bad ground, I could get there in 20-30 minutes.
I started out running at a moderate pace, gallon jug in my right hand. When my right arm got tired, I stopped, drank water, saying, “Conserve sweat not water” (even though I was sweating a lot), switched the gallon jug to my left arm and kept running.
I found an old mining road that I ran for a mile, passing a miner’s shack that dated back to the 19th century. While running that road, I jumped over a snake that looked like a rattlesnake, white and black bands just above the tail, but I didn’t stop to find out. I also found an old house that nobody lived in. I stopped and checked for people, but no one had been there in a long time. Below that house, on the creek, someone had put up a wall tent at some point. I went to the tent and again I called out for people, but no one was there. Those would be the only signs of people I would see for the rest of my journey.
The old road ended and I went back into the canyon. The ground was not kind: volcanic rock, pine needles, pine cones, wild rose stems, broken sticks, thistles, and cutgrass. My feet hurt, but I told myself that pain isn’t real, that pain is just a series of messages in the body. I tried to push the pain away, to separate myself from my feet.
I told myself, “This is part of being an outdoors guy. Things are going to go wrong sometimes. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to have to be in uncomfortable situations.”
As I stopped over and over to pick thorns or pine needles or pinecone barbs out of my feet, the gravity of my barefoot situation hit me. I realized that I’d made the classic mistake of underestimating the country that I was traveling through.
To illustrate how little respect I’d had for this wilderness, the hiking columnist for the local paper, Craig Eisenbeis, wrote this about the Whychus Creek Canyon:
In most of my hiking columns, I encourage readers to try new experiences and new places, but not this time. This expedition involved precipitous cliffs, rockslides, dense thickets, rattlesnakes, ticks, thorns, dead-end routes, strenuous climbing, extensive steep hillside traverses, and constant alertness for the source of the copious mountain lion sign.
But at least I was barefoot.
Pete Hoffmeister swimming a hole in Whychus Creek, in happier times.
Jennie, at this time, was waiting at the creek crossing. I was already two hours late and she was trying to decide what to do. She went to the nearby campsite and found a couple who was bird-watching. She walked up to the man and told him that she was waiting for me to kayak through the canyon. The man said, “Really? I thought I was the only person to ever try that. But it can’t be done. If he tried to float that section, honey, he’s probably walking out.”
“Really?” Jennie said. Then she told the man where I’d put in.
“Oh that’s far,” the man said. “That’s a real long way, and it can’t be done either. No way.”
So Jennie knew that it was likely that I was somewhere in the canyon, on foot, trying to hike out. But still, in case I’d gotten injured, in case I was stuck and couldn’t hike out, in case I’d broken my leg or hit my head on a rock, she drove to the rim of the canyon and called a friend to ask if she should alert the sheriff’s department. Her friend told her yes, that waiting was a bad idea. So Jennie left me a towel, some food, some juice, and a note that said that she’d waited until 7:00 then went for help.
There were no roads or trails, so I followed elk trails along the creek until they disappeared into a wall of rock. Then I crossed the creek and found another elk trail. Back and forth for miles.
I was scrabbling across some loose rock on a steep hillside when I heard the telltale sound of 1000 grasshoppers exploding all at once. But I knew this sound wasn’t grasshoppers. I looked down and there was a rattlesnake six-inches from my right foot.
I jumped downhill, cussed, slid, and stopped. Then I turned around and said, “Whoa,” and realized how lucky I was. I said, “Thank you for not biting me, Mr. Snake,” and laughed to myself. I was talking politely to a rattlesnake. I was losing my mind.
I also talked to a Fence Lizard at one point. I talked to myself as well, to a hawk, to some annoying bird that kept tricking me by calling out “P! P! P!” in the same register as Jennie, making me think that she’d hiked into the canyon to find me.
I went through more roses. More thistles. More mini-fields of Ponderosa pine needles that poked my feet twenty at a time.
The canyon got darker. I hadn’t seen the sun in an hour. And the cliffs and walls became too steep. I prayed for Jennie that she wouldn’t be too worried. I told her in my mind that I was okay, that I was fine, and that I’d be there soon. I told her not to worry about me, that I’d get myself out, that I could take care of myself.
I tried hiking down the creek again, but I banged my shins on rocks I couldn’t see under the water, and that made me worry that I wouldn’t see a hole or a boulder and break my leg or tear a knee ligament. So I left the creek and broke through roses again. Then I decided to climb out of the canyon.
Again, this was a change of course. First I was kayaking. Then I was hiking the creek. Now I was leaving the canyon. I knew that rescuers were faced with an impossible task
I bear-crawled up the steep. Bear-crawled with my water jug in one hand, then the other. I was sweating hard and I stopped often to chug water. I was down to a quarter jug. So far I’d been saying the survival mantra of “conserve sweat, not water,” but the truth was that I’d been sweating hard all day long. And now my water was dwindling.
But when I got out of the canyon, and on top of the mesa, I knew I’d finally be able to see features down-canyon that I recognized. I knew that I’d be able to see the lichen-covered columns above the take-out spot, and the quick turn of the canyon below that, to the north. But there was no mesa, no flat end to the canyon. Beyond the steeps, I found gradual hills, canyons and rolls much bigger than I wanted to climb in my bare feet. And I couldn’t see any of the features that were ahead. I could see maybe half a mile ahead now, but that half-mile didn’t encompass anything I recognized. So I was still further away than I hoped.
Rough, rugged, Whychus Creek.
So I followed deer and elk trails again. I kept hiking, kept jogging when I could, walking when my feet hurt so badly that it felt like I was holding a lighter underneath my toe-pads. I thought a lot about Jennie, about the light fading, about her having to wait in that darkening creek canyon, and I hoped I could get to her before she called the sheriff’s department for a rescue.
I hiked some more.
Then I saw the rock columns that I knew so well, maybe a half-mile up and to the right. There they were – bright yellow – the markers above our swimming hole. And I knew I’d make it, I’d get there soon, even before full dark.
I ran harder when I could now, crossed one last side-canyon, hiked up the steep and over that rise. Then I dropped down into the campground, ran past two camps of people who all waved to me. To them, I was probably just some odd barefoot runner guy in a very dirty shirt.
I didn’t see our Jeep because Jennie had left to get help. She’d left a sweet note about waiting for me until 7:00, then going for the Sheriff. She’d also left me food, juice, water, a towel, and a chair.
That was one of the hardest moments of the whole day. I’d been looking forward to seeing her, to saying that I was sorry that I’d been an idiot, sorry that I’d scared her, but that I was okay. I was back. I was out of the canyon. Now, though, she was somewhere else, mobilizing a rescue, worrying that I was hurt or stuck in the dark somewhere.
I drank juice and ate. I soaked my feet in the creek. They were in bad shape and I finally looked at them. They were swelling quickly. The next day I would barely be able to walk.
I sat down in the chair that Jennie had left for me and alternated between falling asleep and waking up to worry.
Finally, an hour and a half later, I saw lights on the road coming down the far side of the creek. The lights looked like the headlights of our Jeep, and I hoped that they were. I said, out loud, “Please be Jennie. Please be Jennie.”
And it was. She and the Sheriff’s deputy were both in our Jeep, the sheriff’s car unable to get down the four-wheel-drive road to the bottom of the canyon. So I was back with Jennie and the sheriff’s department could call off the rescue crew that it had mobilized.
It’s a month later now. The last scab on my foot fell off yesterday. My feet haven’t really been sore for two weeks now. And I have a new perspective on preparedness. That survival kit that I always take but never use is in the first-to-go-in-the-car pile. Or the first-to-go-in-the-backpack pile. It’s going with me everywhere. As is duct-tape. As are good shoes in case I need them. And I’ve rededicated to the buddy system. Because I can be stupid. Because I am capable of some very, very foolish decisions when it comes to adventure and wilderness.
The other option is to stop adventuring, to stop pushing myself, to stay in places that are less remote. But for those of us who love wilderness, who love that feeling of wonder, who love to push our bodies until everything hurts, until the sun goes down and the temperature changes, until the stars rotate in the sky, giving all of that up isn’t really an option.
Peter Brown Hoffmeister runs an outdoor program in Eugene, Oregon and teaches intro to survival. He has worked as a white-water rafting and rock climbing guide, and is an outdoor athlete for Ridgemont Outfitters and Goodness Knows bars. He has written the books Graphic The Valley, Let Them Be Eaten By Bears – A Fearless Guide To Taking Our Kids Into The Great Outdoors, and The End of Boys.