Near Death Wilderness Experience
By Peder Fish
You don't know what real fear is until you've spent the night out in the woods wondering if you will freeze to death. You don’t know real fear until a bear takes an interest in the tent you’re trying to sleep in. There was no way for us to get help if anything happened to us. What was supposed to be a fun camping trip turned into a very bad survival situation very quickly.
On the first night of Thanksgiving break, I headed northbound on 101 with fellow Novato High senior, Carson Ceresa. We had found a nice campground with some good fishing nearby and were really excited to be able to get out to the woods and relax. The campground we were heading to was Bear Creek Campground in the Mendocino National Forest, just 15 miles north of Clear Lake.
We had been following Google Maps for about 3 hours, and once we entered the National Forest, things started to go haywire. Google Maps wanted us to go on a bike-only trail. If we had known that it was a dirt-bike trail, we would have not entered, but the sign had been knocked over, so there was no way for us to know that we were going on the wrong trail. We trusted the map and we pressed forward.
“I realized we were lost as soon as the road became too narrow to be considered a real road,” said Ceresa. “Unfortunately, at that point it was pitch black and there was no way to turn around, so we had no choice but to keep going forward.”
We soon realized that this was not the right way and Google Maps had led us in the wrong direction. When we realized this, the truck happened to get stuck in the mud. At that point, it was 9 at night, we were tired, and we were in the middle of the woods. There was no cell reception so we decided we were going to spend the night and get the truck out in the morning. That night we came to the realization that this was a survival situation; we had plenty of food and water, but we were stranded in an unfamiliar place and we needed help.
We pitched the tent and made a small fire. The temperature dropped very quickly, from the point when we got stuck, it went from about 40 to about 20 degrees in probably an hour and a half. After the fire burned out, we decided to call it a night. We probably got a total of 4 hours of sleep and it did not help that there was a bear coming to visit us that night too.
“The bear was understandably unnerving. That’s the first time I had been so close to one and knowing what could’ve happened since we couldn’t get help was extremely nerve wracking,” said Ceresa.
It had gotten down to 18 degrees that night and we did not bring extreme cold weather clothes. I was actually worried we were going to die of hypothermia, let alone a possible bear attack. Somehow we managed to not get mauled by a bear and to not freeze to death. We woke the next morning to an inch of frost on the ground. As soon as we were up, we knew that we needed to put on more layers, get our blood moving, and get a fire going.
We had to conserve the firewood to use it to get the truck unstuck, so we rationed out a few logs for fire. The rest was to be used as traction for the tires. Eventually, we were able to get the truck out, but we could not go up the steep hill. So after carefully looking at Google Maps, we decided to press forward. This is where things got much worse.
As we kept going down the trail, it seemed like it kept getting more and more dense. At some points, there were some very steep hills that we had to go down in which the truck almost flipped. There were a lot of steep hills where the truck could actually get stuck so we needed to move branches and rocks under the trail for traction. We were very frustrated and concerned with how this was going as we were in the middle of nowhere.
Fortunately, there was a group of dirt bikers that happened upon us, and they gave us a paper map. They said to keep following the trail across the creek until a fire road appeared. This was to be our ticket to freedom.
We thanked them and they went on their way, so we kept following the trail. As we kept following the trail for the short amount of time, it started to get very steep and the turns kept getting sharper. There was a large dirt mound on the side of the trail and a cliff. The front tire of the passenger side went over the side of the cliff and the bumper got buried in the dirt. If this dirt had not been there, I can guarantee you I would not be writing the story and that the truck would have gone over the cliff. The dirt bikers came back up the trail and gave us a hand, helping us dig out the truck.
We didn't have any shovels, so we had to dig out the truck with our bare hands, a hatchet I brought, and some pocket knives. We were able to get the truck unstuck and move it down the trail a few more feet before we had to put on the e-brake, but we came to the conclusion that the sun was dropping quickly and the best option was to leave the truck to get out of the woods.
The dirt bikers were kind enough to let us ride on their bikes back to where they were camping, which was about 8.5 miles from where the truck had been stuck. If it had not been for the bikers, we either would have had to spend another cold night out in the woods, or attempted to walk out in the dark, which probably would have resulted in our deaths.
“The one thing I took away from the trip was that nature isn’t something to mess with. We take a lot of what we have for granted and although we have the perception that we can conquer anything, it’s never really the case,” said Ceresa.
Honestly, I do not know how I am alive today. It was the little things that kept us alive, such as bringing extra water, and remaining silent when we heard the bear. If it were not for those dirt bikers, I can guarantee you we would have come out of those woods in body bags.