Category Archives: Hiking safety

More Than A Walk In The Park

Today started like many of my days.  The alarm went off and I stumbled into the bathroom to clean up.  Then downstairs to grind beans for the family’s morning coffee.  As usual, I measured the amount of grounds by eye, then reconsidered and spooned off a teaspoon or two. I know from past experience that overfilling the coffee maker’s basket results in a countertop flooded with grounds and hot water.

I looked out of my little study’s window to check the weather to determine if I could still wear my slippers outside, as I needed to move one of our cars off the driveway.  I wondered if the neighbors saw me doing this in my bedroom attire. Then a task here and another there, and my morning was over.

I expected to visit my friend, Tom after lunch. He had to cancel so I move to “Plan B,”  but I ran into another roadblock, and that option had to be abandoned.  Desperate times call for desperate measures-it was time to freestyle!

The day before I dug out my 10-year-old Fujifilm X100 camera. I hadn’t used it for years, yet it is one of those cameras that I would never consider selling.  The X100 was created during a time when cameras were becoming ever more sophisticated and automatic.  This camera’s designers took the opposite stance and it was deliberately modeled to mimic 35 mm film cameras from the 1950s.  It is a beautiful device that has a fixed lens and a slew of manual dials. Photographers love it or hate it, depending on their sensibilities. I love it, and I always wonder why I leave it to languish on a shelf.

My beautiful Fuji X100 was modeled after film cameras from the 1950s.

I am fortunate that I have many local forest preserves that give me endless joy.  Today, I wanted to try a place that was just a bit different and so I decided to drive to the southern part of my town to a large preserve with multiple winding paths.  These paths are usually filled with bikers and horses during the summer months, but I knew that they would be empty on this cold November day.  I grabbed my X100 and hopped into Violet the camper van for the 10-minute ride. My goal was simple, I was going to do a little hike and take some photos.  Prior to going I researched the preserve and decided to take its Kestrel path.  I added an additional side path to turn my hike into a 5-mile walk. The paths at this preserve are both wide and flat making such a trek “a walk in the park.”

A more difficult issue was what to photograph.  This particular preserve is mostly trees and fields and doesn’t have notable features even in the summer.  Now, the trees would be barren and the grasses would have already gone to seed making the site less photogenic.  My plan was to go and to see what inspired me.  Indeed, I was surprised by what I eventually discovered.

I did photograph the twisted branches of leafless trees, and the golden deadness of grasses that had lost both their chlorophyll and vitality.  However, I was more struck by the preserve’s close proximity to high-tension power lines.  Giant towers crisscrossed the paths, and when you walked under them you could hear the buzzing and cracking sounds of thousands of volts coursing through the tower’s copper veins.  I decided to shoot a number of them as a contrast to the peaceful, yet lifeless forest below.  Compose, focus, snap…compose, focus, snap…compose, focus, snap…and so it went. 

I continued my walk and saw a toppled tree. I then saw another, and another, and then a whole field where the crowns of many trees were gone as if they had been ripped off by some giant hand. An uncomfortable feeling settled inside me as it seemed as if some monster literally drove down a path destroying dozens, if not hundreds of trees, and everything else along the way.

Suddenly, the realization hit me that I was looking at the remnants of the path of a tornado. In fact, it was likely that I was visiting the path of the tornado that devastated Naperville last June. Our neighborhoods have been cleaned up, but this forest remained in its post-apocalyptic state. Witnessing the devastation made me feel small and insignificant.   

If I looked ahead I saw a forest preserve in its peaceful winter slumber.  If I looked above I saw the mighty human-built towers that carry the electricity that allows me to use this computer, make my morning coffee, and sit cozily and warmly in my study’s overstuffed chair.  If I looked to the side I saw toppled trees from several seconds of nature’s fury.  How strange to be standing in a place where it seemed that we are conquering nature, only to witness nature conquering us. 

I remember commercials and other advertisements from my childhood that touted our superiority over the planet.  “Better living through chemistry,” one of them proclaimed.  Now we have oceans choking on plastic, aquifers poisoned with pesticides, and the devastation of rising global temperatures.  We are such short-sighted little creatures.  So full of ourselves, and so self-centered. We want to believe that we are powerful, but it only takes a few seconds for nature to put us back in our place.

I thought I would share with you some of the photos that I took today in three parts.  The first part consists of the pleasant and quiet path that I walked on.  The second set of photos are powerlines-I think that they look alien for some reason, and the third group shows some of the devastation left from Naperville’s June 20th tornado. Come along and keep me company, won’t you?

Peace

Mike

A country road takes me to the forest preserve.
Sleeping trees and grasses welcome me on my path.
The path was both wide and level.
I spied this little pond on my journey.
For some reason, these plants remind me of wheat ready for the harvest.
Fallen oak leaves.
Prarie, water towers, and power lines. Nature and humans collide.
These towers create their own electrical superhighway.
When you walked under the towers you could hear the electricity coursing through their copper veins.
This tree was literally snapped like a twig by the tornado.
This tree had its bark ripped off by the high winds.
Dozen of trees with their crowns ripped off.

This DIY Kit Could Save A Fellow Hiker’s Life

I’m not a very sporty person, but there are outdoor activities that I enjoy doing, with hiking being my favorite. This long-time hobby got an additional personal boost when I transformed a plain cargo van into Violet the camper van. Violet has allowed me to hike all over the country using her as my basecamp.

I am a day hiker as opposed to a backpacker. I like to return to my camp at night. After all of these years, you may think that I would consider myself an experienced hiker, but that is not the case. I wouldn’t call myself seasoned for one simple fact. Despite hiking for years, it is very easy for me to become disoriented on the trail. I used to feel bad about my lack of ability, but I now realize that I have an inherent poor sense of direction. I’ll never be the person who could find his way home after being dropped off in the middle of nowhere.

I often hike solo, and so I always carry safety gear with me, “just in case.” I bring my own modified “Ten Essentials.” These are ten categories of things that every hiker should carry when they are adventuring. In my case I have emphazied navigation tools because of my inadequacies. Some have told me that I am too obsessive in this regard which prompted me to research the topic of lost hikers in greater detail.

There is a surprising amount of information about hikers who go missing every year. This information is contrasted by a surprising lack of aggregated hard statistics on this topic. Writer and researcher David Politis has made a career of researching lost hikers in national parks. When he asked the National Park Service for statistical information on this subject, he was told that none existed. When he pressed further for this public information, he was told that he would have to pay millions of dollars for the NPS to compile the data.

Mr. Politis’ has written books and produced movies under the “Missing 411” title. He has documented hundreds of people who went missing from wilderness areas, never to be seen again. His reports are both interesting and tragic. Most of his stories involve healthy individuals who disappear without a trace. How often do hikers go missing? That remains a mystery, but I have uncovered some information that may surprise you.

The majority of those who become lost are day hikers, not backwoods explorers, hunters, or backpackers (although they also go missing). Most will be found within 24 hours, but the chance of finding someone alive and well after 72 hours of searching is slim. Day hikers not only get lost more, but they are typically more vulnerable when lost as they are not prepared to deal with an extended wilderness stay. 

Approximately 3000 search and rescue missions are conducted every year in the national parks. The US manages other public lands, but it was more difficult to obtain statistics on these sites. There are 157 National Forests in the US. I was able to find that one of them, the Angeles National Forest, had almost 170 search and rescue missions during a recent year. Based on this number, it is reasonable to assume that the total number of search and rescue missions for all national forests is also in the thousands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) governs almost 250 million acres of other public access lands. I was able to find documentation of hikers and others going missing on BLM land, but I was unable to obtain any hard statistics on these massive areas. 

There are also reported cases of missing individuals who were hiking in state parks. In the US there are over 6000 state parks, but there is no central database that lists lost hikers on these lands. Lastly, there are documented cases of individuals going missing on Native American reservations and private tracks of land. Here too, there is no central clearinghouse of data that catalogs these events.

Another surprising fact is that many people go missing on well-traveled trails. There are reports of people going missing while hiking on short, paved, and popular paths.

One hundred individuals who got lost and then found in the Great Smokies National Park were interviewed about their experience. The most common reason for getting lost was getting off the correct trail. Other common reasons included a worsening of the weather, trying to hike in darkness, various injuries, and falling off the path. Only 24% of these individuals found their way back to civilization independently; the rest had to be rescued. 

Survivalist Greg Ovens says that the number one killer of lost hikers isn’t animal predation; it is hypothermia. He notes that it is possible to become hypothermic even when it is 70F if the weather is damp and windy enough.

After reviewing dozens of missing hiker’s cases, I was struck by the number of instances of hikers who went missing while hiking with another person or in a group. These individuals wouldn’t be able to benefit from the supplies that a more conscientious hiker had if there were separated from that hiker. Because of this, I wanted to put together a small Ten Essentials kit that I could lend or give to those that were hiking with me. The packet needed to be reasonably compact yet contain items that would increase their chance of survival if they left the trail and became lost. I think I accomplished that goal, and you can view my efforts in the video below.

Happy Hiking!