A firsthand account by Ken DeCamp
Special to the Trinity Journal
Nobody wakes up on a Saturday morning thinking “this is the day I might not survive -- that I might never see home or family again.” In all my years it’s a thought that has never crossed my mind, not even a whisper of -- maybe -- it could be. We go about our business as if we are immune from the dangers that surround us never giving survival a second thought, until in an instant we find ourselves entirely at the mercy of things totally out of our control.
On Saturday, Aug. 15, I found myself in one of those situations. Fortunately, all the stars lined up for me on that day and I can honestly say I am very happy to be sitting here relaying my story from the relative comfort of my studio.
So, on Saturday morning, I stuffed everything I’d need for the day in my day pack, grabbed my camera gear, said my goodbyes and headed for the East Fork Lakes Trailhead in the Trinity Alps. My aim was to re-visit this pretty and somewhat isolated basin, maybe find some new wildflowers to photograph and then spend some time documenting a beautiful relict population of Quaking aspen found not too far below the lakes.
This trail is not for the faint of heart and one most casual hikers avoid because after leaving the trailhead it quickly turns straight uphill and remains so until it breaks out into the country around Buck’s Ranch. I’ve been up that trail several times through the years and am very familiar with it. You just put your head down and go for it and after 45 minutes or so it flattens out somewhat at Buck’s Ranch.
At 10:30 a.m. it was already 97 degrees and I was hot and thirsty so I stopped on the far side of the last creek crossing below the lakes, dropped my pack and camera in the shade of some willows, grabbed my water bottle and stepped down to the edge of the creek to fill it with cold water. I took a long drink, re-filled my bottle, replaced the cap and stepped back up onto the bank next to my pack. I put the bottle back into the side pocket, zipped it closed, hoisted the pack onto my shoulders, stooped down to grab my camera and shouldered it.
It was at this point that, in an instant, my day came crashing down around me. As I turned to start back up the trail I found myself face to face with a juvenile black bear. It was a shock to me and I believe the same for the bear. In the instant it took for it to react and take a swipe at me all I remember is that I ducked. A paw caught me above my eye, a claw ripping down through my forehead and eyelid. The force of the blow spun me around and threw me down into the creek headfirst. I vaguely remember the blow as my head hit the rocks. I was knocked unconscious.
I am not entirely sure how long I laid there in the creek; maybe 10 or 15 minutes but when I finally came to, I found myself almost entirely in the water where it was actually washing over my eye and my mouth. Two inches lower or two minutes longer and I could have drowned. At first, as I struggled to sit up, nothing registered except the pain in my head and all the blood pouring from the wound. I had a hard time coming to grips with the seriousness of the situation.
When I was finally able to gather myself together and crawl up the bank and out of the creek I was on my hands and knees, soaking wet, my eye bleeding profusely and my head pounding. Survival mode set in and all I could think about was trying to stanch the bleeding -- get on my feet and get back to my truck.
I pulled a handkerchief out of my camera bag and held it to my eye and started back down the trail. Even with the handkerchief and pressure I could not stop the flow of blood which had me very concerned because I am on blood thinners. On the downhill side of the creek I saw that the bear had walked right over me and headed down the trail for about 20 yards and then down into the brush along the creek. It dawned on me that the bear hadn’t even messed with me while I was out and to this day I consider myself very lucky that it wasn’t hungry!
With my limited vision I struggled to follow the trail back to Buck’s Ranch. It was extremely difficult and at about this time my headache grew significantly worse and I began to get very dehydrated. I stopped long enough to drop my pack and dig out my water bottle. I drank maybe 1/4 of the water, slung my pack back up and continued on.
It was only about 10 minutes later that tremendous waves of nausea overtook me and I had to sit down. I remained seated for a few minutes and then it hit me. I threw up until I experienced nothing but dry heaves.
I sat there for several minutes trying to stop the blood flow and regain a little composure before I stood up and started walking again. Just past Buck’s Ranch the trail disappeared into the trees and deep shade. It was at this point that I lost it because I just couldn’t see through all the blood and sweat. Everything was swimming before me even with my good eye.
It is fortunate that I know this country so well because even with the condition I was in I knew how to get back to my truck, trail or no trail. Because I couldn’t see very well and had lost the trail I knew I had to take the route of least resistance which meant sliding on my back side down the steepest parts of the ridge through any opening I could find, all the while fighting nausea and a severe concussion headache.
It took me about an hour and half to get to the creek crossing that morning and almost six to get back down to the road. By that time I was beyond exhausted and very sick. I did the one thing you should never do with a concussion -- I laid down at the edge of the road and nodded in and out of sleep for about half an hour before I finally got up and started up the road to my truck. Over and over again I could walk about 25 or 50 yards before the headache and nausea overtook me and I would have to rest. I don’t know how many times I had to throw up on the way out, but let’s just say dozens. It took me over an hour to walk the quarter-mile to my truck.
In my state of mind all I could think about was getting to a hospital before it became impossible for me to keep moving. I set my sights on Mercy Medical Center in Redding and after about 2 hours finally made it to the emergency room parking lot. I got out of my truck and began walking toward the entrance and pretty much collapsed.
Excellent emergency room doctors and nurses took me in immediately and for three days initially and several days afterward took excellent care of me. They stitched up my wound, settled the pain to manageable levels and monitored me closely.
It is now almost two months later and I am still dealing with wonky vision in my left eye, making it difficult to drive in low light or at night and to read or work at my computer. But, I survived, and in the end that’s all that matters. I am hopeful that further work on my eye will take care of the bothersome “eye wonk!”
There is no way to prepare for the possibility of something like this happening to any of us but what it all boils down to is something my dad told me many years ago -- “You do what you have to do, no matter what the situation because you ALWAYS have to come home.”
Ken DeCamp is an avid and well-known author, photographer and outdoor enthusiast. He is the author of “Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps.”