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Amateur Radio Saves The Day

Posted: October 22, 2009 16:27:25 • 1959 words

After a frigid, rainy weekend, I was determined to get out and hike at least one more time before the end of the season. And, well, today was the perfect day. Since this was likely to be one of my last hikes, I wanted to choose a trip that would be truly spectacular, to sort of "go out on a bang" instead of revisiting the same places like I had been. After some browsing of my favourite local hiking info site, I decided to go out to the Brandywine campground in West Virginia, where I used to camp all the time as a kid. There are two good trails there, one of which I've done before, so I opted to try the other one, a ~6 mile up-and-back to the old fire watchtower. Details here (it's the long hike). It was rated a "5" for difficulty, mostly due to the lack of switchbacks to lessen the grade, making over 2100 feet of altitude gain in just three miles.

So, I parked at the lake, and walked the half-mile to the back of the campground to start the trail. When I got there, I almost turned back immediately; had I not seen this trail with my own eyes, I would've sworn what I saw was fake. The first quarter-mile or so of the trail (the part I could see) was a near-vertical climb rivaling the rock scrambles at Tibbet Knob. But, I pressed on with my typical determination, and I made it up the incline without my heart exploding.

The rest of the trail was less steep, with the exception of the last quarter-mile before the top, where I had to climb over rocks and such. The smoother grade didn't make the trail any less challenging, though, because it's one of the least-maintained trails I've ever been on. There were quite a few areas where the blazes were literally my only indication of where the trail was; without them, it just looked like I was wandering through the woods. It's very rare for me to be completely unable to find the trail in broad daylight.

As I neared what I hoped was the top of the peak, I started to be concerned about the time. I got a bit of a late start, and it took me longer than I anticipated to make it up the trail, so at about 5pm, I considered turning back. About that point, I saw a sign that said I was a half-mile from the tower, so I decided to keep going. After three miles of hiking, I wasn't about to let that mountain defeat me so close to the "prize".

At long last, I made it to the top, and was treated to one of the most breathtaking views I've ever seen. Fire watchtowers aren't really in use anymore, but when they were built, the forestry service put them on top of the highest peaks to maximise their effectiveness. In fact, one of my favourite photo spots, Reddish Knob, is the former site of a fire tower (it's been torn down, unfortunately), and it's one of the highest peaks in the region. High Knob, where I went today, is just as high, if not higher. And, the fire tower has been preserved as a historic landmark, open to the public (well, the balcony is). So, I spent quite awhile up there, just admiring the panoramic views. I'm not sure my photos worked out, but I took quite a few anyway.

While on the balcony, trying to figure out what the cables all over the building were for (eventually identified them as ground cables for the lightning rod), I looked up under the roof and saw a clear plastic tube with paper inside. At first, I thought it was a visitor log, but when I opened it up and read the paper, I figured out it was a geocache. Neat! I found my first geocache, and I wasn't even trying! Even though I wasn't technically out there for geocaching, I decided to write my name down anyway, only to find that the paper was full. So, I added a second sheet of paper to keep a record until the cache owner can take care of it. I didn't take the little token inside, either; my understanding of that sort of thing is still a little fuzzy, so I wasn't sure if I was supposed to, and I didn't have anything to replace it with anyway.

At around 6pm, after more photos, I decided to head back. I wanted to call mom and have her pick me up from the nearby highway to save time, but pretty much all of WV is a cellphone deadzone; I had 4-5 signal bars at the top of the peak due to the altitude (I was pretty much at the same height as the nearest cell tower), but my phone couldn't transmit back since the tower was nearly 25 miles away. I had my radio with me, but if I'm going to radio a stranger to make a phone call for me, I'm only going to do it when it's important.

About a mile down the trail, the sun dipped below the horizon (yay mountains), and everything started getting very dark. I kinda expected it, but what I didn't expect was for my night vision to have deteriorated so badly over the years. I mean, it's still decent if I give my eyes ample time to adjust, but in a pitch-dark forest on a moonless night, the light conditions are pretty extreme. I used to pretty much have cat-eyes as a kid, and I had to go on many dark hikes in scouts (where I learned how to navigate in the dark), but I just can't do it anymore. After nearly falling on my face a few times and having no clue where the trail was, I gave up and fired up my cellphone to use as a makeshift flashlight (about the only thing it's good for out there).

My trail navigation at that point basically consisted of following what kinda looked like a trail, and checking every nearby tree for blazes. That may sound easy at first, but since the cellphone's screen produces tinted light, it took the color out of the blazes, making them nearly indistinguishable from the tree they were painted on in many cases. And, as mentioned before, the trail was nearly invisible, with the only way to identify it being the presence of ground cover plants or lack thereof. If it still sounds easy, I dare you to try it sometime.

I wasn't particularly confident that I was on the trail most of the time, a situation made worse by the lengthy distance between trail blazes, but I kept finding blazes, so I figured I was doing ok. But, at one point, I went nearly a quarter-mile without seeing a blaze, so I started to get a little worried. No big deal, though, I've trained for this, so I first tried a straight back-track. Normally, this isn't recommended, but for an experienced navigator, it's worth a try. I didn't find the trail, unfortunately, so I switched to plan B and pulled out my map and compass. Good idea in theory, and that combination will easily get me un-lost in daylight, but at night, it wasn't particularly effective. Normally, I'd use the contours on the map to identify my position (doing it purely with a compass is difficult and time-consuming even in daylight), but the aforementioned tint of the phone screen's light made the contour lines the same colour as the background. I had only a vague idea of my position, but I was able to set an approximate bearing on my compass that would get me back to the campground in a straight line, so I went with it. That was another bit of frustration; my phone put out a strong enough EM field to completely confuse the compass, but if I pulled the phone far enough away to not have that problem, I couldn't really see the needle.

Anyway, I followed the compass for awhile, but as the underbrush got thicker and less navigable, I finally decided to give up. I knew I was no more than a third of a mile from the trail at most, and I had reasonable confidence in my ability to eventually find my way back, but with as steep as the mountain was in many places, I didn't want to risk injury or getting even more lost. So, I pulled out my handheld HAM radio, called CQ on the VHF simplex calling frequency (no repeaters accessible from there on a handheld), and said I needed assistance. I've never heard much of any traffic on that frequency, but someone in/near the town of Brandywine heard my call and responded loud and clear. At first, I asked him to call my mom; I figured she'd be worried by then, and my initial plan was to have her come out, since I was certain I'd be able to find the trail if someone went up it. He said he'd make the call, and asked if I wanted to call the local fire department, since they regularly deal with lost hikers and hunters. So, I said sure, and after verifying that I didn't need medical attention and the only help I needed was to find the trail, he said they were on their way.

One of the firefighters turned out to be a HAM operator too, so he kept me informed of what they were doing, asked more detailed questions about my location, and so forth. The initial HAM I talked to also came to the campground, and hung around the area, chatting with me every once in awhile. The firefighters went through their typical search-and-rescue yelling, though they mentioned it was easier on their throats to know via radio whether or not I heard them.

Eventually, they came within visual range of me, and I met them as they were walking toward me. Turned out, I was only a hundred yards from the trail (I'd been travelling parallel to it, so my compass navigation worked to an extent), but while I thought I was north of the trail, I was actually south of it. Close enough. The firefighters were very nice, and brought me a jacket even though I said I didn't need one. I was rather amused, actually, they were all bundled up in their hunting gear, while I was in just jeans and a t-shirt and very comfortable.

We kept encountering more and more firefighters on the way down (only three found me initially), and by the time we got back to the trailhead, there were nearly a dozen firefighters, two EMTs (they rolled out an ambulance even though I said I didn't need one), and two WV state troopers, and my HAM friend. I felt a little bad for getting so many people out there just for me being a little lost, and I apologized a few times, but they said it was no trouble at all, since they come out for this sort of thing a few times a week almost year-round. The team leader added "If every lost hiker were as prepared and level-headed as you were, this part of our job would be a breeze".

That's about all there is to tell, really. Overall, it was a memorable experience, but aside from finding a small flashlight to keep in my hiking bag, it's not really going to affect my future trips. I must say I'm eternally grateful to that wonderful person who heard my radio call, and to the Brandywine VFD for finding me.