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This is the third of three stories on"Harrowing experiences on the trail" by Roger Bell, from his 40 years as a trail contractor. See his first story "Bees and Cliffs," and his second story, "A near death fall." He tells many more stories in his book of poems, Trail Tales.


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Harrowing experiences on the trail: Part 3 - Touch and Go

Vice-Chair, American Trails Board of Directors

If any readers feel so inclined, please consider sharing some of your harrowing experiences as a user or builder of trails. We know there are some equally dramatic tales to be told, and I hope these will stir a willingness to recount some of your most vivid ones, along with lessons you learned. My book, Trail Tales (available form the American Trails online bookstore) shares some of my experiences in poetic form.


Surviving a Chain Saw Accident (“Never Bid a Trail Named Rocky”)

Rocky Ridge, a Southern Oregon Forest Service project near Prospect, was undoubtedly our most trying and thankless experienced in some 40 years building trails.

photo of men working from ropes on rock hillside

Working with ropes and drills on the steep cliffs
along the Rock Ridge trail

My poem chronicles how my daughter almost blew up the crew because she misheard their response when she yelled "fire in the hole," how we labored for almost three seasons trying to work our way through sheer rock cliffs with drills that stuck because of the type of rock involved, about installing gabion baskets filled with rock that disappeared down the mountainside when we blasted, about hanging off steep cliffs with ropes, etc., etc..

But the most scary and near tragic event was when one of our crew, Freddie, cut himself on the side of his face with a chain saw and almost died before we got him out to medical care. Those were the days without adequate communication to call in a helicopter. Fortunately, the cut did not go all the way through his cheek; in that case severe bleeding in his mouth and throat quite possibly would have been fatal.

We were several miles back in, and I brought him out on the back of my trail motorcycle through a few bog areas on the trail we had just pioneered. That necessitated pushing the bike in a few places with Freddie not able to help.

My brother, Bruce, followed on his bike to our camp. He held a compress to Freddie’s face while I frantically drove back roads a dozen miles or so to Prospect, only to learn that they did not have an EMT who could adequately deal with the injury. It was another 70 miles to Medford, so we called ahead to the Fire Department to meet us with someone who could insert an IV and drove at super high speeds in that direction.

By the time we met them enroute, Freddie was beginning to fade from loss of blood and may not have survived for much longer. Bruce and I were so grateful for the Fire Department response which, along with our desperate efforts, probably saved Freddie’s life. The scar was hidden in his beard, but some years later he came back to us to fund plastic surgery to reduce the visual impact. So, praise be, we dodged another bullet!

But what did we learn?

This was our first major project after incorporation of the family business and I had to wonder just what we had gotten ourselves into! But I also figured if we could survive this vale of tears we could do anything! After this bad experience, we did better pre-planning and determined not to bid projects we could not carefully check out beforehand. I can’t say we always followed this maxim, but I can assure you we never totally forgot the hard lessons of Rocky Ridge.

So, how about these stories for harrowing times on the trail! And there are more, but I’ll save those for another time. I’m aware of a number of wilderness survival stories that might make these pale by comparison. But, while I am fascinated to read about those, I’ve had as much direct trail drama as I need for one lifetime.


Roger Bell, is a former college administrator with a PhD from the University of Washington. He has served with the Western Trailbuilders Association, Whole Access, and the Redlands Trail Committee. As a contractor, he has completed 300 projects in 14 states over a 40-year career.

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