Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

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rllcat
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Joined: July 11th, 2017, 2:11 pm

Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by rllcat » June 13th, 2021, 11:17 pm

My partner Nick and I spent Memorial Day weekend backpacking in the Mill Creek Wilderness in Ochoco NF. It was a great trip, however we also had some unwanted excitement with getting lost and separated. We learned some lessons and I think the story is valuable.

I've separated this into two parts - the TR, and the getting lost story. The TR is first, getting lost second.

Trip Report

**Friday:** We drove down to Wildcat Campground from Portland on Friday evening, arriving 7:30pm. We passed Steins Pillar on the drive, which is such a wild rock formation.

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Steins Pillar

I was a little worried that since it was late-ish on the Friday of a holiday weekend there wouldn't be any campsites, but probably 5 of the 17 were still open. There were also spots to camp along Mill Creek Road, but a lot of them were already taken.

**Saturday:** Saturday morning we moved our car over to the South Twin Pillars TH parking lot (right next to the campground). The pit toilet at the TH parking lot seems to still be locked for the season, but all the ones in the campground were open (and some of the cleanest pit toilets I've ever encountered). There were no empty wilderness permits to fill out either.

We got started at about 9am. Headed up the Twin Pillars trail, crossing Mill Creek a number of times. We managed to mostly keep our feet dry rock hopping, with one spot we took off shoes.

There are a lot of camp sites along Mill Creek - many were already occupied for the long weekend, but definitely some still free. We saw a number of day hikers plus a couple other groups of backpackers.

The loop description goes counterclockwise, but we decided to do this trip clockwise. Reached the Belknap trail junction but continued up Twin Pillars trail. We entered a more burned area and started being able to see the Twin Pillars. We grabbed water at Brogan Creek and stopped for lunch (there was a nice tree for some shade). There's a spot you could put a tent at.

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Brogan Creek

From there we began climbing up more and more towards Twin Pillars.

It was hot - no shade in the burn. There was a weird tree that looked like it had a rock halfway up it... as we got closer to turned out it had a puff (a foliage puff, that is)!

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Twin Pillars from below... plus a weird tree on the right

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Foliage puff

This whole section was where we saw the most people, and there were a number of day hikers at Twin Pillars. However, even on the Saturday of a Memorial Day weekend it was nowhere near as crowded as any Mt. Hood hikes on a typical summer weekend.

Past Twin Pillars it became more brushy, and our legs got a little scraped, but it wasn't for too long and I don't regret wearing shorts. At the top of the ridge the burned area gave way to newer forest, and behind us we could just see the tops of the Three Sisters.

Getting into the North Twin Pillars area, we grabbed water at another stream crossing, soaked our feet, and had second lunch. This was the one area we encountered some mosquitoes, but they were pretty lazy.

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Stream

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Bingham Prairie

From the Bingham Springs trailhead (which has a pit toilet but no trash) we turned right on the road. There wasn't a ton of traffic over the 3 miles of road walking (maybe 7 cars and a couple dirt bikes) but our noses/throats still got a bit scratched up from dust (very glad we brought saline spray and some ointment that we put in our nostrils - we both were getting bloody noses from the dust and dry air). But as far as road walking goes it wasn't too bad. There were a number of folks camped at spots along the road, and we met some dogs who were very! excited! about new people.

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Road walking

The turnoff to Whistler Springs campground/north Wildcat Trailhead wasn't marked - I think it just had a stake that said "500." I was glad I could check on Gaia because we almost walked past it.

There were a number of folks camped here. Alas, while old TRs mention a pit toilet here, there is no longer one (this becomes relevant later...). Apparently there is a spring down the hill, but we didn't check it out.

The Wildcat Trail was very obviously much more faint than the Twin Pillars trail from the start. We passed around the base of Whistler Point, through a cattle gate, and back into a burned area.

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Burned area

We hiked around a mileish to where the trail crosses Mill Creek and set up camp. There's not a ton of space here, but there was a nice spot for one tent.

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Campsite at Mill Creek on Wildcat Trail

At this point it was probably a bit before 6. I went up the hill to the north (with a nice view of the Three Sisters and Bachelor) to try to go the bathroom, then came back to camp and Nick went off SE to do the same... and then got lost for 5 hours. (I've moved this story to the end because it's probably less useful for future folks who just want info on this trip, but I think it's a good story/lesson about getting lost and separated.) We finally made ourselves dinner sometime after midnight, got into bed and asleep by 2, let ourselves sleep in and woke up at 10 am when the sun hit our tent and it got unbearably hot.

**Sunday:** by the time we got back on trail it was noon, and the sun was HOT. We were criss-crossing through a very burned area for a while, but there were nice views of mountains to the west (Three Sisters, Broken Top, Bachelor)

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Burn and mountains to the west

Eventually we were following a ridge through more wooded areas with lots of different wildflowers.

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Three different types of wildflowers

Although the Wildcat trail was more faint than the Twin Pillars trail, we never lost it or needed to use GPS. There was one spot with some blowdown that we needed to pause and look for the trail, but after a moment we spotted it again.

We passed the Belknap trail junction and continued on to White Springs campground. We were in really beautiful Ponderosa forest.

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Ponderosas

At one point the trail crossed what Gaia indicated was a spring but just seemed like a mud puddle.

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"spring"

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Wild iris

We reached White Rock campground around 5pm. Our hope had been to get water and spend the night there. But both the water and the campground were disappointing. The water trough was filled with algae and dead bugs and the water coming out of the spigot was barely a trickle. There were two other groups camped at the campground, and not a lot of other nice spots to camp (there is a pit toilet though!).

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White Rock Camp from the Wildcat TH

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Water trough at White Rock Camp

After contemplating our options, we decided to get as much clean water as we could from the spigot trickle, then head back on the trail, cut down to the road below us (FR 200 I think), and try to find a creek + spring that we could see on Gaia (marked as "Wildcat creek") (we really wanted to soak our feet and have enough water in the morning for second coffee).

It took about 30 minutes to get 4 liters of water from the pipe (which we then filtered).

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Filling up at White Rock Camp

We headed back down the trail, cross country down the hill to the road, and found the spot marked as having a spring leading to a creek... it turned out to be another mud puddle. But we found a really nice spot to camp a bit off the road, and having spent all that time getting water we did have enough to dry camp. There was another tree puff at the campsite! Also some bones (cow?).

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Campsite puff

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Campsite bones

**Monday:** We cut back up the hill from the road to the Wildcat trail at the intersection of the Belknap trail, and headed down the Belknap trail. A previous TR had mentioned some water about .8 miles down the Belknap trail where it makes a turn. There was a trickle you could probably get some water from, but it would take a while.

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Trickle on the Belknap trail

We got some nice views back towards Twin Pillars, which I thought really looked like a space ship from this point of view.

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Twin Pillars space ship

At the intersection of the Belknap Trail and Twin Pillars trail there's a really nice campsite (which had been occupied on Saturday) - we took a break, had second coffee and a snack, and soaked our feet. It was perfect.

Then we headed back to Wild Cat campground on the Twin Pillars trail. On one of the many Mill Creek crossings I lost my balance on one of the rocks and dunked my foot in the water. Oh well, we were almost done. At the campground we cleaned up a bit in the creek (and used the bathrooms there, since the one at the TH was closed), then grabbed burgers and shakes in Prineville before driving home to Portland.

Saturday night's unwanted adventure/the "lessons in getting lost" part of the trip:

Saturday evening at our camp on Wildcat trail where it crosses Mill Creek. Nick had gone off to poop. Around 6:55 I realized "huh, it's been a while and Nick is still not back." Ok, I decided, no need to panic, if he's not back by 7:15 I'll go look for them. 7:15 arrived and I grabbed our first aid kit, a headlamp, and my phone and went down the trail a little bit, starting to shout "Hey Nick!" and then when that didn't result in anything started to blow my whistle - one 3 second blow, wait 30 seconds, blow again. I did that for a while, occasionally returning to our campsite to check that he wasn't there.

At some point I discovered that up on the bump of a hill I was wandering around looking for him I could get cell phone service. Wow that was a relief. After a couple minutes debating whether I was being ridiculous, I looked up the number for Crook County Search and Rescue. But when I tried to call my phone died. Back to the campsite, grabbed my charger, back to the hill, searching for cell service. But now I could only manage to grab one bar, and whenever I tried to make a phone call it switched to No Service and the call wouldn't go through.

I decided to go up the taller hill to the north in hopes there would be cell service. Throughout all of this I was continuing to blow my whistle. At this point it was probably around 8:15, getting darker, and I was trying not to panic but not always managing. No service on this hill either, and now the sun had set. There was a really nice sunset with a view of the Three Sisters and Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor though! (I did not take a photo.)

Ok, I couldn't get any cell service, so next step was to head the mile back to the TH and get help. Coming down the hill I realized I needed to stay calm to keep myself safe, after almost tripping and falling. I took a lot of deep breaths and tried not to sob. At the campsite I stuffed my sleeping bag and several layers into my pack, made sure I had water and some snacks, and left Nick a note "Gone to get help @8:40pm." Then I hiked as fast as I could up to the trailhead.

I walked into the first camp there (some people we had talked to earlier in the day) and said "I think I need help" and explained the situation. The folks there were AMAZING. They had walkie talkies. 5 of them came with me, with 2 walkie talkies, 1 stayed (with a walkie talkie) up at their campsite where they had cell phone service. We hiked back to Nick and my campsite. They kept me talking the whole time to distract me. We decided I would stay at the campsite with one walkie talkie (a good idea, I wasn't in a good state to do any searching) and they would go in groups and search, 10 feet apart grid-like. I paced back and forth.

At some point, the guy at the TH radioed down - "when should we contact search and rescue." I was pretty convinced at this point that Nick had fallen and hit his head and was unconscious somewhere (otherwise wouldn't he have heard my whistle?!), and I was worried about how cold it was going to get, so I was in favor of calling (plus it takes a while to activate search and rescue). He called, then I relayed information (what Nick was wearing, his age, etc.) via walkie talkie to him to the sheriff's department. After an hour and a half of searching, the group decided I should head back to the TH with someone to meet the deputy who was coming (while in the meantime S&R got activated). One or two of them would remain at the campsite (with 1 walkie talkie), the others would continue searching for a bit (with the other walkie talkie).

As we headed back to the TH (again, being well distracted by my new friend), we heard some shouts behind us, but kept going - we didn't have a walkie talkie and we'd find out anything once we got there. Walked into the TH camp and were immediately greeted with "did you hear? they found him, he's fine!" Wow, what a hugely massive relief. They called off search and rescue, and after some radio-ing back and forth, we made the decision to go BACK to our campsite where Nick and the group was waiting - this time a much less panicked walk down (although with me muttering about how we were going to institute a buddy system for pooping from now on) (also we brought a can of beer, which was really nice to have to chill out a bit).

I can't even express how happy and relieved I was to see Nick and hug him. By this point it was 11:30pm. He had been lost for 5 hours. He had gone off the trail at a point where it made a sharp turn to do his business, and when he was coming back he thinks he went past that turn and so missed the trail. Then he tried to retrace his steps but messed that up. Then he tried to go to higher ground to see if he could figure out where he was, but that just got him more lost. Finally he realized he was just completely lost and he needed to stay in place, so built himself a sketchy shelter and prepared to spend the night (with a bad plan that the next day he could head north and find the road again - no! just stay in place!). All he had was a trowel, some TP, and a half liter of water. He was wearing shorts and a sun shirt. He said afterward that he was about 90% sure he could've survived the night, but it wasn't a sure thing.

I always wear a whistle around my neck (this one - would highly recommend). We did realize afterwards that the whistle sound didn't travel super well here due to the whistling of wind in the trees (there's a reason it's called Whistler Spring?) and the sound of the creek. But if he had stayed in place as soon as he realized he'd missed the trail and had whistled then, I probably would've found him pretty quickly. He didn't take his phone, which had offline maps and Gaia GPS on it. If he had, he could've found his way back.

**Lessons learned:**
1. Always carry a whistle *on you*. It does nothing if it's attached to your pack and you're not wearing your pack.
2. STAY PUT as soon as you realize you're lost. Don't try to get a different vantage point. It's really hard to do this, you think "wait, I was just there" but really it's so easy to make the situation worse.
3. If you have GPS on your phone, take it with you to poop (especially if you don't have a great sense of direction, but even if you do it's a good idea to have!)
4. If your partner goes off to poop, look at what time they leave. It does take some time to find a spot, dig a hole, do your business, but probably not longer than 30 minutes.
5. A satellite messenger is probably a good thing to have. Ironically, I had ordered one earlier in the week and it just hadn't arrived yet. I was lucky that I was so close to the trailhead and was able to go get help pretty easily.

When Nick read over this TR, he had the following to add:
1. The thing that drove me to get more lost was just wanting to KNOW more about where I was, but in fact there was no new knowledge to be gained. It seems like you’ll get something in payment for the risk of getting more lost but you won’t.
2. You actually WANT to sit uselessly for long enough to get really truly bored. That’s the signal that you might finally be having a clear thought or two, is when you finally get bored.

I feel so lucky that after all that terrifying adventure of Saturday night, we were able to have a great rest of our trip. I cannot thank the group of campers who helped us enough. We exchanged numbers after all that, and most of them are in Portland - we're going out for tacos this week! And we'll be bringing them some scotch, which is nowhere near enough repayment for their help.

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retired jerry
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by retired jerry » June 14th, 2021, 5:58 am

Thanks for the report and the lesson learned.

That area gets pretty hot in the summer. I was there a couple months ago and it was cold.

Nice of those people to help you, good it ended well

Maybe a lesson that you have now well learned is to keep looking back where you came from. Keep in mind where you're going to be going. Remember this experience.

I must say I've gotten "lost" before.

keithcomess
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by keithcomess » June 14th, 2021, 8:38 am

As Retired Jerry advises: Always look back over your shoulder to familiarize yourself with the terrain. As obvious as it seems, the view ahead is oftentimes very different from the view behind. Perhaps you can mark the return trip with a couple of strategically situated stacked rocks to create a "mini cairn".

Since your report featured a "lost" scenario, here are a couple of my thoughts:

It's hard to keep your wits about you when the expected becomes unexpected in the wilderness. I've never been lost, but (in pre-GPS days) I've had to use map and compass navigation to cross several miles of the scrub oak covered (and therefore visibility limited) "Hurricane Deck" in the San Rafael Wilderness (California) and again several years later in SW Utah high desert (near the infamous Blue John Canyon). Another thing I've discovered is that electronic devices will fail at the very worst time. A map and compass will not disappoint, even on marked trails without good signage at junctions (and if you step off for a "convenience stop"). Plus, Green Trails maps and Gaia aren't necessarily up-to-date on trail conditions and maintenance. Sometimes "well marked" trails are not navigable (as I most recently discovered on a trip in the Pasaytan Wilderness last year), so be prepared to improvise, if needed. If you're not sure how to go forward, turn around and go back.

It's always a good idea to carry a whistle, but (in my experience) the sound dissipates over a very short distance in wooded areas. If you're really intent on finding absolute solitude to poop and the "mini cairn" idea is too low-tech, consider carrying a small walkie-talkie. If cost is no object, the ~$350 "Garmin inReach Mini" will send an SOS anyplace (supposedly).

The severe, ongoing drought in the western US will make some previously dependable water sources problematic. Burn zones render tenuous water spots more exposed and so more liable to evaporation and drying up. Because wildlife also depends on the same water we do, it's good practice to "freshen up" at least 200 feet from the stream or spring.

Anyway, it seems like an interesting trip! Thanks for the report.

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sparklehorse
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by sparklehorse » June 14th, 2021, 9:48 am

Besides taking a whistle, water and your phone on a poop mission, it's also a good idea to have a decent pocket knife on you at all times as well as a good fire starter like a mini-Bic or a ferro rod. Fire could make all the difference on a cold night lost in the woods.
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BaileyBoy
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by BaileyBoy » June 14th, 2021, 10:35 am

Thanks for the excellent trail report and the excellent "he's lost" report. Your post mortem had lots of good ideas as did all the other hiker inputs. I'll be changing some of my "lost" strategies based on your experience as well the reader feedback.
One thing my wife or hiking partner have used in circumstances like this was to carry orange ribbon when we wandered off to lighten our load. We'd hang it close enough so that it was easy to follow then remove all the ribbon on the way back.
If no trees then we'd put it around rocks or other visible appurtenances.

keithcomess
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by keithcomess » June 14th, 2021, 1:01 pm

I forgot to provide context for a couple of my comments above:

1) The excursion across "Hurricane Ridge" in the San Rafael Wilderness (site of the California Condor Preserve) was an unexpected necessity. We hiked that area many years ago just after yet another long drought broke. We saw nobody in 7 days of hiking. The second half of the loop we were planning involved crossing some (supposedly) low volume flow creek. As it happened, there was no trail because the "stream" was a raging torrent and could not be safely crossed. We doubled back as the map indicated the only alternative was an off-trail route across the scrub oak covered plateau called (for some reason) "Hurricane Deck": no hurricanes and no deck. Bottom line: bring a map, compass, know how to use them and plan accordingly. A GPS isn't much good in dense forest or in a canyon.

2) The misadventure in Utah was the result of no maps of the area and a misleading book ("This hike is for everyone!"). It involved an off-road 4WD shuttle. We bummed a ride to the far end of the route from a passing BLM agent. As it turned out, the "water source" was a stagnant, highly polluted (by cattle) "river"; there was no trail; visibility was obscured by tamarisk bushes; it was very hot; and the "road" at the far end (still 5 miles or so from where our truck was parked) was abandoned and overgrown. Our "Steri Pen" failed so we used halazone tabs and filtered water through a bandana to remove (some) of the disgusting particulate matter.

So, yet another couple of examples of the need for topo map and a compass. In short, a non-electronic back-up navigation set-up and some sort of alternative plan, even when there is a "defined route" with marked "trails".

Disclaimer: though I've been backpacking for decades, I don't claim expert back country skills.

Webfoot
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by Webfoot » June 14th, 2021, 4:59 pm

Thanks for sharing your story. It is remarkable how quickly things can go wrong in the most mundane of ways.
rllcat wrote:
June 13th, 2021, 11:17 pm
I always wear a whistle around my neck (this one - would highly recommend). We did realize afterwards that the whistle sound didn't travel super well here due to the whistling of wind in the trees (there's a reason it's called Whistler Spring?) and the sound of the creek.
Pardon me, there may be another explanation for the lack of effectiveness. The product page says "100+ decibel level sound" which is far lower than claimed by other whistles. Decibels are logarithmic such that 110 dB is ten times the sound power of 100 dB, and 120 dB is one hundred times the sound power. If the marketing is not false you may need a better whistle.

rllcat
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by rllcat » June 14th, 2021, 10:51 pm

Webfoot wrote:
June 14th, 2021, 4:59 pm
Pardon me, there may be another explanation for the lack of effectiveness. The product page says "100+ decibel level sound" which is far lower than claimed by other whistles. Decibels are logarithmic such that 110 dB is ten times the sound power of 100 dB, and 120 dB is one hundred times the sound power. If the marketing is not false you may need a better whistle.
Oh interesting, definitely something to explore. I like this one because it is super easy to wear - I can have it on all day and don't even notice it, compared to some of the more bulky plastic ones (and if I don't have it it's not worth anything) The search crew were also whistling and I had a hard time hearing them from the campsite, and I don't think they had the same one as me but who knows. Maybe next trip I'll take a few different ones and when we're far away from everything we'll do a test!

rllcat
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by rllcat » June 14th, 2021, 10:54 pm

BaileyBoy wrote:
June 14th, 2021, 10:35 am
One thing my wife or hiking partner have used in circumstances like this was to carry orange ribbon when we wandered off to lighten our load. We'd hang it close enough so that it was easy to follow then remove all the ribbon on the way back.
If no trees then we'd put it around rocks or other visible appurtenances.
That's a great idea! We've got some reflective paracord - I could see sticking a small length of it in with the trowel to take when we're out doing our business.

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retired jerry
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness 5/28-31/2021 (and lessons in getting lost)

Post by retired jerry » June 15th, 2021, 5:29 am

I don't think you'll ever again get lost going to poop

Hopefully, some people have read this and won't have to learn this lesson the hard way

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