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A Late Life Hunter and Angler: Lost on the River

My excitement has been growing over the last few weeks as I have been planning this trip. Honestly, the area had been on my radar ever since I looked down a cliffside from a trail I hiked the year prior. The river below had perfect water with everything an avid angler likes to see. Pockets of fishey pools of water, and little eddies that just made it so tempting. There was one problem though, getting down there. Observing the area from the trail it looked rather difficult due to tall brush and possible boggy terrain covered by tall grass. Finding some sort of trailhead down was not hard but observing the trail from the trailhead proved it could be rather difficult to hike with a fly rod and gear. Before setting out down towards the river I needed to check the area out more. I took time and multiple hiking trips to observe the river below with binoculars, and even “E-scout” with google earth and On-x maps. I could see from the images provided that there are either trails or at least game trails down from the trailhead. The topo lines showed that it starts out rather steep but quickly levels out to manageable terrain in way of elevation. That last thing that needed to be done is to actually carry out my plans. I committed to a day and made sure my gear was ready to go by the door. The next day I woke up early and set out, excited to explore the forest and fish along the way.

As I traveled down the trail I began to notice that my unfamiliar surroundings were gradually starting to look the same. Not a good sign when I have only been hiking for what seemed no longer than ten minutes. I kept moving forward, trying to take a mental note of unique features that I could remember as landmarks for my hike out. As I was taking mental pictures of my surroundings, I noticed some trees and bushes along the path that had some blue tape on the outer most branches. Someone has already been down this path. If I was not blinded by my excitement, I would have taken that as a sign that the path is going to get harder and my chances of losing the trail grows the closer I get to the river. I find myself using the blue tape as a guide and help to get to the riverbank. I can hear myself saying, “blue tape, where is it?”, followed by a feeling of relief as I would find the tape and the path was made clear again. My growing uncertainty was overtaken by joy and excitement as I pushed through the last willows and brush to the sight of nearly crystal-clear running water.

I scouted the river for a few minutes. Once I found a good place to approach and mentally noted a decent route to fish that would move me upstream, I assembled my rod and tied on some flies. Nymphing has been my go to lately. It is enjoyable and always fun to feel the satisfying tug and subsequent head shakes when hooking up a fish. This technique proved to be effective this time. The fishey pools that I had observed months before from the cliffside were home to rainbows and brown trout. Whitefish also found their way onto my line, a welcomed fish in my books. I made my way up stream casting into seams in the current made my different sized structure in the river, my heart racing as the familiar tug on my line traveled down the rod. This excitement made hours pass by in what seemed like minutes. I caught a glance of the time as I looked at my watch. Admittedly a small sense of dread stifled my excitement knowing that I would have to find my way out of the valley. Reluctantly, I made a few last casts, as these last few casts came up empty I took that as a sign to pack my rod up and start my journey out.

It did not take a long time for me to realize that my “technique” of taking mental note of different structures was woefully ineffective. Just getting back to wear I initially met the river was proving to be difficult. I found myself having to double back a few times to find the actual “trail”. In the end I had to bushwhack my way back to the original trail out of the valley. I came out into a clearing and stopped a minute to get my bearings. I looked around. The direction I needed to go was easy, it was up a hill. I knew there was a road used by off road vehicles at the top of the hill. The problem was finding the same path I took down from that road. Steep cliffs gave me a general idea where it was as the original marked trail would be funneled in between them. I looked around again and something stood out to me as I did. Blue tape. It was a welcomed marking. The hike out of the valley was relatively easy and almost familiar as I started to see familiar trees and structures moving on this makeshift trail. I also noticed that the distance between blue tape markers was growing, making it harder to stay on the right path. It did not take long to find myself surrounded by familiar trees while on an unfamiliar path.

I had to consciously suppress my anxiety and panic as the reality of being lost in bear country started to set in. It felt instinctual at how fast the panic and anxiety started to take over. Realizing I was lost I took my backpack off and sat down on a nearby log to help calm myself and to take a rest from the hike. I mentally retraced my steps as far back as I could remember. The instinctual panic and fear made it difficult to keep a clear timeline of events on the hike out of the valley. Luckily the fear started to subside, and I was able to accept my situation and focus a little more. I knew the trail was close so staying in place was not my best option. I decided to trace my recent trail back to the makeshift path until I was able to find blue tape again. I traced my path back for five minutes but it felt more like an hour. As I hiked with no clear trail being found the familiar anxiety was creeping up as I realized how lost I truly was. As I was about to take another break and gather myself again my searching eye caught a glimpse of a familiar blue tape trail marker.

A wave of relief came over me as I found the original path. That relief and excitement carried me the rest of the way back to my truck. The last part of the hike seems like a blur. As I started up my truck and headed home I realized how lucky I truly was that someone smarter and better prepared than I, left those markers up on the trail.

I try and learn from moments like these. I always reflect on the experience, good or bad, for days even weeks after. I find that I often learn the more important lessons when I do this. Life can be hard and pretty relentless at times. Often times you can find yourself in familiar territory but unfamiliar circumstances. If you look up and find yourself off trail and lost or discouraged the best thing that can be done is to be calm and take a quick rest to gather yourself. Do not let fear or anxiety take over. I know that can be easier said than done but if you are able to calm yourself and keep your mind sharp and alert you will be able to handle the inevitable fear that comes with being lost. As you calm yourself and think back to the trail you have come from you will find that you may have not deviated too far. But most of all you will find that there is always someone or something along the way to leave blue tape markers. Who knows, you might even be the one leaving the blue tap for others.

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