On Friday, Matt Denberg set out to backpack the Leach Memorial Loop in three days. The 48-mile route traverses the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, a place known for its rugged and unforgiving terrain. He forded the Chetco River on Bailey Mountain Trail 1109. Then it started to rain.
And it kept raining.
Then he hopped onto Upper Chetco Trail 1102, contouring westward along the Chetco’s rugged banks, and climbed up and over a ridge to Box Canyon Creek. But the raging tributary was too high to ford, and he’d later tell Josephine County Search and Rescue volunteer Ann McGloon that he almost drowned there. “I think he got a scare from that,” she says.
So Denberg headed back the way he came, toward Babyfoot Lake, OK with cutting his trip early with an out and back. But by then, the Chetco was too high to ford safely.
Monday afternoon came, and Denberg’s friends grew worried. By Tuesday, Josephine County Search and Rescue had planes searching for Denberg along the Leach Memorial Loop.
Denberg had heard the planes, and tried to wave them down with his orange bag. “Because of the canyon, they could not see him,” McGloon says.
By Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard had mobilized and McGloon was flying along the loop, which she was familiar with after going to a recent presentation on hiking in the Kalmiopsis in Grants Pass.
She took the helicopter toward Bailey Mountain, and from there down to the Chetco. “We had him in seven minutes,” she says. “He was waving a white piece of Tyvek.”
Then pilots let down a 300-foot rope with a radio so Denberg could confirm his identity and that he needed help.
“These guys were amazing. The helo didn’t move. We confirmed it was him and he was happy to see us. They found a spot and they lowered the basket and got him and all his stuff. They got that done in two minutes,” McGloon says.
Denberg, a Eugene resident, is in good condition.
“He was in good spirits,” McGloon adds. She emphasizes the importance of using a good signal when trying to get found. “A cellphone. The flash of your camera. You don’t think of that stuff when you’re stressed.”
With unseasonably high streams, and the potential of marine storms to bring them even higher, hikers and backpackers need to take careful diligence in planning ahead.
“He was testing the water level with a stick,” McGloon says. “It didn’t go down much.”
Gabe Howe is executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club and writes occasionally for the Mail Tribune.