I had an interesting experience while hiking today that caught me off guard and provided valuable lessons. Fortunately everything turned out ok, but a series of small missteps for some nice people I ran in to could have ended in disaster. Here are the details.
It was unusually beautiful for January today. Some morning rain gave way to partly sunny skies and temperatures in the low 60's for the afternoon. The trails at Barn Island in Stonington, CT were my second stop of the day. I did about 4 miles at Ninigret Conservation area earlier in the afternoon and was now heading out on a 3 mile loop at 3:15 in the afternoon. This is a very flat area that passes through salt marshes. The loop I chose was about half in the woods and half through the open marshes. Because it was late in the day I didn’t plan on spending much extra time on this hike. Although my day
pack was ready to go, I reasoned that I probably wouldn’t need anything in it and would only be out an hour. I decided to just bring my camera, GPS and phone, leaving my pack in the truck.
The first mile was uneventful. There were several other people out enjoying the beautiful weather as well. I stopped a few times very briefly to snap photos of the very brown grassy landscape leading up to the water. The trail I was on was actually a service road around the conservation area. There are several connector trails that ran between service road segments, and the service road does make a few loops through different parts of the property as well. At about the halfway point of my hike I came across a family of 6. They were moving much slower than me. My intention as I caught up to them was to just simply pass and keep moving. I did want to keep this loop to about an hour. As I approached however, I saw that an elderly gentleman in the group was being almost held up by the father. He had two walking sticks the kids in the group found for him and yet he was still listing badly to one side.
“Can you tell me if this is the right way back to the parking lot” asked the mother as I caught up to this family. My immediate thought was that if grandpa’s walking condition wasn’t bad enough, this group also has no idea where they are. I knew they still had close to 1 ½ miles to walk before they were safely back at their car, assuming they could find their way.
“well, yes, eventually this path will get you back to your car.” I showed her where we were and where we needed to go to get back to the parking area. She was initially relieved that they now knew where to go, but immediately anxious that there was still so much ground to cover and that her father wasn’t doing so great. Apparently, they thought they were reasonably familiar with these trails and wanted to get out for a nice walk with their 3 kids and their grandfather. Somewhere they took a wrong turn and got lost. Having already walked much further than they intended the entire hike to be, there was some legitimate concern about getting back safely. I decided that I would walk back with them. The father helping his 80+ year old father-in-law was notably concerned. When I said that I’d be happy to stick with them and lead them back, I didn’t get the often heard “oh, we’ll be fine but thank you anyways”. Instead I got a look of some relief and gratitude.
We made the decision to leave the main road for a smaller, less groomed trail through the woods that would cut off at least a ¼ mile of walking, but would potentially be more difficult to pass on. An argument could be made for staying on the open path, in the event that we did need to call in help for the grandfather. Given his desire to press on and determination, his son-in-law agreed that shaving distance was a good trade off and we took the shortcut.
To complicate matters further, grandma was calling her daughter to report that her oxygen wasn’t working and the aide the family had hired to sit with her while they took grandpa out for some fresh air couldn’t figure out how to set up a portable oxygen cylinder for her. After the mother shared this in a tone of frustration and helplessness I offered to talk the aid through it. She was extremely grateful, as her only other alternative was a call to 911 for some help. The aide and I were able to walk through getting the oxygen changed over without too much difficulty. We all made it to the parking lot together, albeit a bit later than any of us had hoped! The family was very grateful for some help and made several very generous offers to reward my kindness. I told them that I was just happy I could help a little and we parted ways with some handshakes.
I’m really glad that this turned out ok. I immediately thought about how things could have ended much differently. What if grandpa couldn’t go on and needed to be evacuated out? What if this family got lost further and found themselves in the woods past sunset? They had nothing with them other than the clothes they were wearing. From this I have a few lessons-learned to pass on.
First, I had a perfectly good, stocked and ready to go pack in my truck instead of on my back. I left it behind because “this will just be a short trip” and “I’ll be fine and probably won’t need anything in there”. In this case, had grandpa needed to be carried out I happen to have a new hiking product I designed with several functions including use as an evacuation seat to carry someone a distance down a trail. My pack also carries water (which grandpa could have used) and first aid supplies that I should have with me even on the “short and quick” hikes. None of this gear is any good if you don’t bring it with you.
The second lesson is that it is possible to get lost in familiar places, even on short and flat hikes. These people had been here before. The trails are all easy to follow and marked. They still ended up somewhere they didn’t intend to be. I think that it’s good practice to always have a map of the trail you’re following, electronic or paper, any time you’re out of eyesight of your vehicle! In this case I had the trails downloaded on my phone and brought my GPS as a backup just in case.
My third take away from this is that it’s easy to underestimate your environment. I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. The family in this story wasn’t either. We were all too comfortable with the perception that we were just taking a short hike on some easy trails. What could possibly go wrong? The reality is that sometimes the answer to that is “more than you think!”.