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This is the first of three stories by Roger Bell from his 30 years as a trail contractor. See the second story, "A near death fall," and the third story, "Surviving a Chain Saw Accident." He tells many more stories in his book of poems, Trail Tales.
Roger Bell is the author of several articles and editorials published by American Trails:
SURVIVAL 101: LIVING TO TELL THE TALE
Anyone who has read my poems in Trail Tales— written in the last few years of a 40 year stint building trails all over the country— will recall that we had some scary, even death defying moments. Since those experiences didn’t kill us, hopefully they taught us a thing or two about survival. I will admit that a liberal dose of self-deprecating gallows humor, especially in retrospect, probably has made these stories more palatable.
I’m guessing all serious trail users and builders can recall at least a few intense, cautionary moments when things got harrowing, where quick decisions were crucial, and from which you gathered wisdom about being prepared in the wilds. And invariably such experiences help tap inner resources of inestimable value to our lives beyond the trail.
So I want to tell about a few of our most challenging times in backcountry environments and what we learned as a result. Two of these were almost tragic, while one was mostly funny. My book, Trail Tales (available form the American Trails online bookstore) shares these in poetic form.
Bees and Cliffs (“Bee Careful” in my book)
My son and I were doing some drilling and blasting on a remote section of the Pacific Crest Trail near Deep Creek in the San
Bernardino National Forest not too far from my home in southern California.
After we set up the shots, I hid behind some rocks while he went to shoot them with the detonator. After one raucous blast, I came back to the narrow ledge we were widening carrying two buckets of the component explosives. A beehive in a large snag nearby was disrupted by blast rock and its occupants determined somehow that I was the cause. For some unthinking reason, as they hit me on that ledge and as I attempted to protect myself, I held onto those damn buckets, so that when I tumbled over backwards down the slope they just became part of that chaotic jumble of bees, dust and confusion.
I somehow missed the worst of the boulders and was able to right myself enough to release the buckets and head on down to dose myself in the creek trying to dissuade my attackers. It turns out I never actually got stung and wasn’t seriously hurt, so everything turned out okay. In fact, later after I climbed back up the slope and dusted myself off, my son and I sat down some distance away and had ourselves a good belly laugh (Doug was allergic to bees so needed to stay away).
What did we learn, other than just another sterling day on the trail where we tempted fate and lived to tell the tale? How about: drop whatever you might be holding when bees attack! More seriously, be sure if someone is allergic to bee stings to have an antidote on hand always.
That section of the PCT goes from Splinters Cabin in the Lake Arrowhead vicinity down to a connecting piece we later contracted to
fix. It passes by a famous Deep Creek hot springs where clothes are optional (memorialized in my humorous poem called “The Naked Hiker”). Over the years I estimate we built or rebuilt something in the neighborhood of 150 miles of this magnificent north south trail and had many adventures, both funny and scary, in those scenic and challenging backcountry environments.
Trail building, in remote areas especially, taught us so much about the natural world and about how to accomplish significantly hard work often under very difficult conditions, to survive the harsh elements and the foibles of fate with an equal measure of skill and good luck. Certainly what we learned in this instance and in so many others was that anything that can go wrong often did, so staying alert and being prepared were essential survival modes.
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.
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.
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 the last 30 years.