Safe Tracks

People get lost in the woods every year, but it doesn't have to end badly
A hiker makes his way into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.Nancy McClain

A body weakened from chemotherapy couldn't keep cancer patient Darlene Barnes from scouring Jackson County's rural roads for aluminum cans. But her hike in Gold Hill's Sardine Creek area, on Sept. 1, 2002, turned out, presumably, to be her last.

When the 53-year-old Grants Pass resident didn't meet up with her sister, Andrea Mussen, as planned, Barnes' family and friends searched the area where she was last seen, waiting about 30 hours before notifying police. They said Barnes, an avid hiker, was angry the last time searchers were called to her rescue near Kerby in April 2002. That time she emerged, unharmed, from the woods near Lake Selmac.

Five months later, Barnes' family suspected foul play in her disappearance. But searchers say Barnes — wearing a tank top, pants and tennis shoes — was ill prepared for spending a cool autumn night alone in the woods. Nor did she pack along medication prescribed for her diagnosis of lymphoma.

"This time of year, people go out in the woods and plan for a day ... but nobody plans for the unexpected," says Sgt. Tom Turk, of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department's search and rescue and marine divisions.

Barnes' case remains the only unsolved report of a missing hiker on file at the Sheriff's Department since 2007, when the skull of 70-year-old Alzheimer's disease patient John Winslow was found near Colestin and Mount Ashland roads. Winslow left his Medford home on a warm day in November 2001 preceding a cold snap that could turn deadly in the higher elevations where Winslow left his Honda Civic, authorities say.

"Any type of head covering will make a big difference," Turk says. "They should take a coat, some water and some extra food."

For that reason, two "emergency kits" on Mount Ashland contain cold-weather gear, packaged food, first-aid kits and maps of the area. Responding to numerous reports of lost hikers and skiers on Mount Ashland in 2006 and 2007, the sheriff's search and rescue division installed the old ammunition boxes — painted bright orange — in a creek drainage that most people traverse in an attempt to navigate the terrain's natural slope downhill, Turk says. Taking the box's hat and gloves, one man used instructions in the box to find his way out of the woods early last year and walked right into searchers stationed five miles away, Turk adds.

Wayward outdoor enthusiasts, including some lost on Mount Ashland, often carry cell phones, hoping to make contact with searchers or a 9-1-1 center that could determine their location, Turk says. But while helpful, a cell phone isn't a guarantee, even if it receives a strong signal and reception is clear.

"It may only show us what cell tower you're hitting," Turk says.

In the age of modern technology, putting old-fashioned pen to paper can still help search and rescue workers in their mission, Turk says. Forms describing outdoor activities and hiking plans can be downloaded from the Sheriff's Department's Web site. Completed and placed on a vehicle's dashboard, the documents can help officials determine if a hiker has been gone longer than expected and also narrows the search field. Just writing a simple note is helpful, too, Turk says.

"If you're going out by yourself, at least let somebody know where you are."

Day-long delays until authorities were notified in the cases of both Barnes and Winslow hampered search efforts. When hikers and outdoor recreators like Barnes fail to bring critical medications, the search window is even slimmer.

"That's actually pretty common," Turk says, adding that medical personnel usually are dispatched with searchers in those situations.

"That heightens our alert status."

Although the Sheriff's Department conducted 35 rescues and located or confirmed the safety of 47 people reported missing last year, six bodies were reclaimed from the wild. It's a reminder for everyone venturing into the woods, deserts and mountains or onto beaches, rivers and lakes that nature's most beautiful features can turn dangerous.

"Think about what could happen," Turk says, "and plan for it."