When you have spent as much time as I have wandering in the woods, there are bound to be situations that qualify as more tenuous, or scarier than others. I’ve already written about some of these, like the time I woke up in the middle of the night with a bear standing on me. Over the next few weeks I am going to relate other incidents on my Wednesday posts— assuming I haven’t disappeared into the wilderness again, which is always a strong possibility.
I’ll start by going back in time with my first three stories, back to when I was still shooting things. My first tale is about being caught in a lightning storm. The second relates to being lost in a snow storm. The third is about encountering Patty Hearst, aka Tanya, and her gun-toting SLA buddies on an early season fishing expedition in the Sierras. Let’s get started…
I grew up in the country where hunting and fishing were common. So, it isn’t surprising that I returned to the sports in the 70s. Actually, desperation drove me to the action. It isn’t that I was particularly enamored with catching or killing things. The meat I got from the local butcher tasted much better than anything I could shoot out in the woods. Freshly caught fish are good for breakfast, particularly when backpacking food is the option, but the process of gutting, cooking and cleaning up detracts seriously from the experience, especially when your objective is to get out on the trail. My general philosophy is live and let live unless necessity intervenes. Starvation qualifies, as does discouraging some large creature with big teeth and sharp claws that regards me as dinner.
No, my desperation had to do with my need to escape into the woods on a regular basis. I think of it as going home. It’s what led me to create the Trek program for the American Lung Association, and it’s what led me back to the hunting and fishing.
I am not sure whether I recruited my old friends from elementary and high school days (Bob Bray, Hunt Warner and Chuck Lewis) to go on expeditions or that they recruited me, but it wasn’t very long after I returned to Sacramento that the value of trout season and deer season became apparent: Fishing in the spring and hunting in the fall extended serious outdoor time by another four months. And then there was bonding, the old tribal ritual of going off into the woods with your friends on adventures. Generous allotments of beer consumed around the campfire helped.
Normally our trips involved little more than lots of good exercise and an occasional hangover. I enthusiastically joined in the efforts to entice fish with a Panther Martin lure, but usually avoided shooting anything. Killing a deer meant dragging it back to camp, hanging it up by the feet, gutting it, and skinning it— all of which was much more work than it was worth from my perspective, not to mention the deer’s. I had enough of that helping my friends. Occasionally I would shoot near a buck that was foolish enough to appear in my sights. I figured it was my job to remind him he was only a leap away from the stew pot.
On three occasions our expeditions became a little more adventuresome than we had bargained for. The first involved a much too close encounter with lightning.
Bob, Hunt and I were deer hunting north of Interstate 80 in the Tahoe National Forest on a high ridge. As usual, we were spread out, the theory being we might jump a deer and send it blundering into another member of our party. Usually bucks are too clever for this ploy. They send their does out into the line of fire while they sneak out the back door. This was apparently one of those days, thankfully. The car was at least two miles away down in a steep canyon. We’d be forever dragging a deer to it. I was wandering along, blissfully thinking of absolutely nothing when the distant sound of thunder caught my attention.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a huge, dark, cumulus cloud had appeared and was ominously working its way in our direction. I sat down on an old white fir stump and watched as it turned a ridge north of us into a battle zone of thunder and lighting. Having a front row seat was highly entertaining and, as it turned out, extremely foolish. Ten minutes later the storm hit our ridge. I was literally surrounded; Blinding flashes were instantly followed by ear-splitting booms. There was no counting 1000-1, 1000-2 to see how far away the lightning was. (Seven seconds is a mile.) It was right there. Pieces of tree were flying through the air and my hair was standing on end with electricity— or maybe it was fright. I was as frightened as I have ever been in my life. I knew I had to get off the ridge, and quickly.
I don’t exactly remember my run down the mountain but I do believe I broke some kind of world record for the two-mile dash. As did Bob and Hunt. We quickly climbed inside the truck to relative safety and called it a day. An ambulance met us as we were leaving. We read in the paper the next day that a hunter had decided to hide out under a tall Jeffrey Pine. Lightning had struck the tree and killed him. It could have been any of us.
Next Blogs: 1) Back to Burning Man; 2) Pt. Lobos Part II; 3) Wilderness survival: It was a dark and stormy night.