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Friday, September 11, 2015

A Tale of a Lost Mountain Biker

On our last day in the San Juan Mountains, the plan was that I'd go for a ride with Shyla, hand her off to the Runner, and then I'd take an easy downhill ride to meet the pack at the highway.

On paper, it was such an easy ride down to the highway that I took my time enjoying the high ridge views first.
When we hit a boulder-strewn section, Shyla decided to pose for me like a statue in the sky.
The world was still super smoky, as you can see from this view.
Eventually, we met the boys so that I could hand off Shyla before starting my point-to-point ride. We felt no time pressure because we figured it would take me about an hour to ride down to meet the rest of them.

R looked fabulous in the purple flowers!
After the short photo session, I took off on my own to ride down to the highway. I quickly found the trail that I was taking. It had a great big sign and number. It was NOT labeled as a "neglected" trail like some trails in the area were.

Here was a "neglected" trail sign I saw earlier in the day.
The beginning of the trail was great. It was well worn and well signed. It seemed like things were going to be easy. It didn't seem like a "neglected" trail.

As I rode, I looked down on the area where we'd camped the night before. Late the previous afternoon, we'd taken an off-trail hike to find a lake that was on our topo map.  As we approached it, we saw a bunch of structures made out of tarps and saw smoke from campfires.

My past experience has been that grubby-looking camps made out of tarps harbor individuals who we don't want to run into in the backcountry. They tend to be itinerant camps, and the campers are very territorial. So, we quietly backed away that afternoon. Here was the view of their camp from above. There were more structures hidden by the trees to the right.
Just after I took that photo, I began to realize that the trail was no longer obvious. Then, I saw a group of about 10 people who acted really oddly when they saw me.

Two people ushered younger people away from me, well off into the trees. One person approached me, saying that they were running a program for emotionally disturbed young people and they didn't want me to interact with them. In fact, she said they were trying to avoid all people by staying off of trails. I pointed out the camp down below us and said she might want to avoid that camp. I added that I was probably going to call the ranger about it because it looked like a long-term encampment. She got visibly upset - saying it was their camp and "PLEASE don't call the ranger about it".

At that point, I got suspicious about the hidden kids but there was nothing I could do right there and then. The person also asked that I *not* pass the group again. Very weird.

I put that odd encounter out of my head, and I started to try to find the trail. It was invisible. Seriously, I systematically walked semi-circles from the last trace of the trail, and I couldn't find another trace. I wanted to turn around and take a different route. However, I had this large suspicious group behind me who I didn't want to encounter again. So, I walked my bike in what seemed like the right direction, and after about 10 minutes, I found the trail, super-clear again!

I started happily riding, making great time, following markers that were nailed to trees. Then, I came to a meadow, and the trail vanished again. I spent a huge amount of time figuring out where the trail went back into the forest on the other side of the meadow. When I was in the forest, it was easy to follow the trail, although I was moving very slowly due to all the downed trees that I had to lift my bike over.

To make a 5.5 hour long story short, the trail finally vanished for good. No trace. Fortunately, I had a GPS, and the trail was marked on it. On the map below, the trail is the thin brown line that is sort of dashed. My route is a line of tiny dots that has a red arrow on it. The part to the left of Grindstone Lake is where the trail vanished. You can see that I followed a decent approximation of the trail based on my GPS (I was generally traveling right to left on the map).
Even when my GPS said I was on the trail - there was no trail. In retrospect, that makes it even funnier that I ran into this sign. There was not a trace of a trail anywhere near this sign. It was a sign plunked down in the middle of a meadow not near any trail.
It was a very long afternoon of walking my bike and carrying it through areas where trees were fallen all over the ground. I was fighting panic... The San Juan Mountains have huge open spaces where someone can get really lost and not intersect a trail or a road for a long time. I kept reassuring myself that following the GPS's line was my best strategy. My map agreed with the GPS so it made sense to keep using logic.

I was nearing exhaustion when I found this tree on my route. It had something carved by a human on it a long time ago ("this fence ain't no good"). It didn't bother me that there was NO fence anywhere in the vicinity because I was overjoyed to see a sign of human activity.
Of course, I still couldn't see any sign of a trail. This was what my route looked like. There was no rhyme or reason to it. The little brown bare patch in front me was NOT a trail. But, according to the GPS and map, I was standing on the trail.
Finally, about 30 minutes later, I spotted a real trail down below me. I'd been in contact with the Runner via our DeLorme satellite messengers all day, and I told him I saw a trail. He could see my location (sent by my DeLorme) and confirmed that it was the right trail. Holy Moly!!!!

It took me another 30 minutes to negotiate the crazy steep cliff-like terrain to get down to the visible trail (lower left corner of the map shown up above). By the time I was standing on the trail, I was utterly exhausted. I was also all out of water and food. I just wanted an easy coast down to the trailhead.

I didn't see anyone for a while after I started riding down the real trail. Finally, I spotted a horse camp, and I went over to talk to the campers. They told me it was EIGHT miles to the highway. I almost fainted. I felt like I could barely ride a mile at that point. The people were super kind - they gave me water, which was a huge lift. They also told me that I was the second person that day to tell them exactly the same tale. Apparently, there was another mountain biker 30 minutes ahead of me who had been as lost as me due to the very "neglected" trail that was advertised as a normal trail.

I eventually made it to the LabMobile. I rode those last eight miles extremely cautiously because I knew I was too tired to think or maneuver my bike well. And, I made it in one piece - only about 5.5 hours late!

After I got home, I called about that suspicious group that wouldn't let me see the kids with them. Apparently, at least part of their story was true although the National Forest authorities planned to look into it further.

What a day that was!


  1. Oh my gosh! That sounds so scary! I'm glad you finally found the trail and made it back to the labmobile! Yikes!

  2. glad you made it to the Lab-mobile safe and sound!

  3. Oh my gosh and Whew and thank the Lord - all of that and more!!! As we have said before, you are one very brave woman. So glad this tail (and trail) had a happy ending.

  4. I would suggest staying on the main trail may be the right course. Glad you are safe

  5. Gosh, KB! It's a good thing you have all of Blogville encircleing you when you take these trips!! WOW!! Glad you're safe!

  6. Goodness - you were lucky! It's easy to get lost out there. Even on trails I'm familiar with, in deep woods if I'm not paying attention, I can get disoriented. I passed a squatters' camp on a forested ridge last week and felt very uneasy. I was alone and the camp seemed deserted, but there was so much debris scattered around that I knew it was being currently used. A couple years ago, a squatter was killed in this area and as I climbed down the ridge, I came upon what I think was his old camp. It gave goose bumps! I won't be taking that trail again! Sure glad your story ended with you safely back at the Labmobile.

  7. That sounds terrifying! I'd've freaked out (especially as a Floridian not used to anything bigger than a hill ;)). Glad you got back safe! Those campers do sound odd. Sounds like the start of a crime novel.

  8. You are amazing. I would have totally freaked out. You are so very brave
    Mr Bailey, Hazel & Mabel

  9. Wow, what a story. I have to say I would probably be more scared of the humans than the forest, but of course being lost in the woods is no laughing matter. I'm not sure I could do what you do, riding all by yourself. I just don't trust other humans enough.

  10. Holly Cow! The people (not the horse ones) seemed to me like the most scary thing. Very strange. But you did get some very beautiful shots.

  11. Well, my friend, that was worth the wait. what a great, scary, exhausting, exciting, blood pumping adventure. have you ever had any trouble with reception on your GPS? I was on a search and found myself disoriented for about half an hour because for some reason the GPS was not getting input.
    I'm so glad you got back safe. The nights are pretty darn cold right now......

  12. Well, my friend, that was worth the wait. what a great, scary, exhausting, exciting, blood pumping adventure. have you ever had any trouble with reception on your GPS? I was on a search and found myself disoriented for about half an hour because for some reason the GPS was not getting input.
    I'm so glad you got back safe. The nights are pretty darn cold right now......

  13. Nothing I love as much as a happy ending, KB! I would have been very distrusting of the story told re the kids and I am glad you called the rangers about them. I hope you will follow up with them.

    I'll bet the Runner was worried about you when you were so late.

    Cheers and hugs,

    Jo and the Petz

  14. Wow! Thank goodness you managed to make it out in the end. That would have been very scary.

    By the way, it's so nice to see R looking so well!

  15. Wow - you had us on the edge of our seats, KB. Thank doG you made it!

  16. Once again your focus and determination shows in this post! Being able to navigate and think clearly through all the "obstacles" of the day, certainly shows that -- Others probably would have just given up, and gone back the way they had come, and called for help. I'm glad you're safe, and I'm glad you reported that group, with her behavior towards you, it may bear the rangers looking into it to make sure the youth are okay.

  17. wow that was a scary adventure... that group of people was really weird, I've got the shivers while reading. I'm glad you came back to the LabMobile in one piece. It always was my greatest fear to get lost ian an area without people... now I think it's better to be alone than to meet such people you met that day...

  18. That's some lost trail you were on and it even had lost people on it too. I'm glad you safely returned from that adventure!

  19. I'm sure I would have panicked, and meeting suspicious-acting people in the wilderness is my worst nightmare. Thank goodness you had GPS and were able to communicate with the Runner. As I was reading I was thinking that he must be panicking too, when you were so late. Thank goodness for good people who shared water and information near the end of your ordeal, and that you made it out safely.

  20. Wow - pretty scary on multiple levels. Glad you got home safely. We got a little lost in Big Bear once, but only for about 10 minutes, so nothing like your trek. Glad you reported on those people - that's just weird.

  21. Wow-that is a crazy story! I'm soooo happy you guys have DeLormes now-this could have ended much worse if you had not been able to text via satellite! Glad you made it to the Labmobile safely! I'm sure you slept early that night!

  22. Whew, glad you made it back okay! Yes, that is a weird story. You just never know!

    Your Pals,

    Murphy & Stanley

  23. Even though we know you made it home, since you are telling us this story, it still makes my heart pound with worry. Glad you kept a clear head and that your GPS kept you on the "trail".

  24. KB. we were so scared for you! Oh please,, I hope this never happens again. Thank goodness you could talk to the Runner..
    The humans in this house would have freaked out for sure.
    Those creepy people,,, gosh, they are everywhere,, and scary.
    So glad you made it safe and no harm came to you

  25. That was scary! But I'm glad you had communication with Runner. I had never heard of DeLorme before --- that's worth a lot.

  26. I do know that feeling of being in the woods and suddenly nothing is a path, or everything might be a path. Sometimes you can be a few steps away from the trail and not see it at all. I remember being on a trail in Sequoia when after a while I thought, gosh, this doesn't look like a walking trail anymore, it looks more like a little deer trail. And two seconds later, there were three deer in front of me. "Why yes, it IS our trail, why do you ask?"
    What a wonderful thing GPS can be! And I was relieved when you mentioned being in contact with the Runner throughout the day, as I kept imagining him trying to decide what to do when you weren't showing up as planned.
    And those people with the tarps and the kids? Yeah, I would not have wanted to run into them again. Or even the first time. But good for you, calling someone to report it when you did get out. It sure sounds like some part of that situation was Very Not Right.
    Whew! What a endurance event. You must feel pretty proud of yourself at least, I hope you do! Not everybody can keep their wits about them and push on through. You must have been completely exhausted. Heck, after just thinking about it, now I'm tired! Let's have a drink ;)

  27. Yikes! Praise the Lord you made it out of there safely and didn't become impossibly lost! I'm so glad you had GPS. I once got lost with Blueberry on a new desert trail and I really couldn't get my bearings and there were all sorts of forks in the trail without any indication of which one was the right one to take. I had a map but those forks made it null and void. Thankfully, there was a creek we found where we ran into a group from a church that allowed me and Blueberry to follow them out. Even they were having a hard time following the trail, but one of the leaders had GPS so we made it out. I was trying not to panic and just praying I didn't end up another blurb on the evening news about a lost hiker. Plus, I felt pretty terrible getting B into that situation! It was March - but it was warm that day. Scary about those people you ran into too! Yay you made it out and had a cool story to share with us! :)

  28. I hope you don't mind a few late comments, KB, because there's so much I want to respond to I'll have forgotten it all by the time I get to the most recent post! :)

    Wow, what an adventure. I was rapt, it really was like reading a novel! Very glad you are okay, I bet the Runner must worry a lot! But of course he must understand your need to live life to the fullest! So intrigued by the camp people you encountered.


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