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Outdoors

Dan McCaslin: 1990s Back Country ‘Disaster’ Trifecta a Lesson Worth Re-Learning

Sometimes even an experienced hiker can make mistakes, but going solo probably isn’t the wisest idea

On the trail to Horseshoe Bend on Manzana Creek. Click to view larger
On the trail to Horseshoe Bend on Manzana Creek. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Joyfully backpacking and day hiking locally since 1971, your columnist has also had his share of unpleasant and “wrecked” backpacks, including last June’s Manzana Camp fiasco.

Among my handwritten archives, there’s another thick manila folder facetiously labeled “disaster hikes,” and of these only one brought out the Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue Team, and I managed to wave off the helicopter and complete that backpack unaided down to Upper Oso Campground.

But the combined bike/backpack/dayhike trifecta described below, made before the 1992 Marre Fire, involved two unlucky hiking trail mistakes that amplified the misdirection.

Only a chance encounter with some mountain bikers on the Catway Road got me turned around and headed back to my truck.

This over-ambitious solo effort came about for two reasons: My employer, Crane Country Day School, was holding a two-day educational “retreat” at the Zaca Lake Resort, and it’s fun to combine different backcountry traveling modes, in this case a special trifecta involving bike, backpack and day hike.

Zaca Lake is Santa Barbara County’s only large natural lake, and two nights at our retreat there would provide the springboard for the backpack portion. The lake is now owned by the Zaca Lake Foundation.

Ernest Seton has written, “For a man who is lost, the three greatest dangers in order of importance are fear, cold, and hunger (The Book of Woodcraft, 1930).

None of these afflicted me when I got badly off-trail on the Catway at the end of this misadventure, but another 24 hours would have brought them to the fore.

After a Friday teaching as usual at my school, with the planned Zaca Lake teacher retreat beginning the next day, I drove my truck to Figueroa Mountain Campground, a large U.S. Forest Service camp with more than 30 sites, but no water.

A colleague had all my backpacking gear in his car, and we met early the next morning in Los Olivos after I had mountain biked the 13 easy miles down from Figueroa Mountain, past Midland School, to the small Santa Ynez Valley town. (The fellow teacher also kindly hauled my bike home to Santa Barbara.)

After our three-day/two-night retreat at the Zaca Lake Resort, as the other 45 participants were driving back to Santa Barbara for another urban weekend, I cinched-up my 40-pound pack and trudged northeast alone and away from the shimmering lake to ascend Cedros Saddle with its alluring tall trees.

On this first backpacking day, after surmounting the 3,500-foot Cedros Saddle — it had beautiful cedars then but these burned out in the 2007 Zaca Fire — I crossed the Catway Road and hiked down the Sulphur Springs Trail to beautiful Manzana Creek and the junction with the Lower Manzana Trail.

The sign for Coldwater Camp. Click to view larger
The sign for Coldwater Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

There is a private jeep road here, which the Sulphur Trail crosses several times on the way down to the creek, and although it’s more twisty the footing is better, so I strode on it part of the way.

It’s almost four miles to reach the Manzana’s muddy banks, and near this point you enter the San Rafael Wilderness.

Historic Dabney Cabin is just a half-mile downstream (this site is marked on Conant’s map).

For a break, I left my pack creekside and hoofed it to the early 20th-century cabin. Built in 1914 by Charles Dabney, it’s in pretty good shape at 102 years old.

Returning to my gear, I turned “right” (upstream) and hiked another two miles along a former road next to the gurgling Manzana, and made my overnight camp at the enchanting “Twin Meadows” free camp, today signed as “Horseshoe Bend” Camp.

The water was sufficient if not copious, and necessary after hiking seven miles (mostly with backpack).

The second, and final, day of the backpack/dayhiking portion is where I wandered off the trail: twice.

The 4-mile backpack section from Horseshoe Bend camp remains close to the flowing creek, passes through Coldwater Camp and then Potrero Camp, bringing you to Sunset Valley Road close to Nira Camp.

I removed the top of my Barad backpack (by Jandd Mountaineering), which then served as a fanny pack for the new third leg of this trifecta: day hiking up to Figueroa Mountain Road and back to my pre-parked truck.

Potrero Canyon Camp. Click to view larger
Potrero Canyon Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

After stashing the Barad’s truncated torso in some brush close to Davy Brown Creek (a Manzana Creek tributary), and keeping essential survival gear and water in the fanny pack, I fairly leapt the 1.2 miles up the road to Davy Brown Camp sans 30 pounds!

On the other hand, it’s accepted practice that you never separate yourself from your backpack.

After watering up and refilling water bottles at Davy Brown Camp, I planned to ascend the steep 4-mile Davy Brown Trail through lush Fir Canyon all the way up to Figueroa Mountain Road, a 1,750-foot elevation gain from Davy.

Figueroa Mountain Campground is nearby, and that’s where I would rendezvous with my pre-parked truck, fetch the hidden backpack, and then drive home to Santa Barbara.

Over the years, however, the signage along Davy Brown Trail in Fir Canyon has been very mixed up, and I’m sure some individuals had removed or even switched some of these official U.S. Forest Service trail signs.

About a mile up Fir Canyon from Davy Brown Camp, I mistakenly took an unmarked but very visible “trail” leading west by south, and it was absolutely the obvious choice since a huge tree had fallen directly across the main trail I needed to follow (I only saw this on a subsequent trip).

I had no doubts at the time, and in the 1990s Bryan Conant hadn’t yet made his more precise map. If he had, and I had checked his San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide, it would have been clear I was on the Willow Spring Trail; and was in fact traversing the southern face of mighty Figueroa Mountain (elevation 4,500 feet). 

Davy Brown Camp and creek. Click to view larger
Davy Brown Camp and creek. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

This trail really seemed to stretch out, and although I had ditched the backpack, on the space-time continuum I was at hour 5 and mile 6 in midafternoon of a hot backcountry day.

Stubbornly, I kept to my route and pressed on, although landmarks weren’t right and I endured growing concerns. Concern and anxiety are just fear’s minor cousins, right?

Finally, I hit another unpaved rough fire road, and in my hiking stupor made a second trail error, compounding the first one.

Thoughtlessly heading “right” (west) on this track, it was encouraging to observe signs of recent foot traffic.

I continued another 30 to 45 minutes downhill, almost certain something was very wrong.

Fear, cold, hunger — I had power bars and water, it wasn’t cold at all (but would be if I had to overnight: no sleeping bag), yet anxiety and fearful premonitions had begun to nag.

“Stay the course, show some grit” I instructed the flagging body, but my true hope was to run into some other hikers and ask for directions. (Note: this is before the age of cell phones.)

The sounds of approaching mountain bikers made exquisite music in my ears. Three young guys slowly pedaling uphill toward me.

Sure, there’s a time for diplomacy and smooth talking; this was not one of those moments.

So I plaintively blurted out, “Where am I?”

Fir Canyon Pool on the Davy Brown Trail. Click to view larger
Fir Canyon Pool on the Davy Brown Trail. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

They might have laughed, but instead took pity on the poor misguided hiker.

“This is the Catway Road on the west side of Figueroa Mountain, you’re heading toward Zaca Peak, which is three miles on. Where do you want to go?”

Yikes, at least I wasn’t leading a student group! (I never do that without going over the entire route myself first.)

“Uh, I guess I’m heading the wrong way since my truck is parked over at Figueroa Mountain Campground.”

Then they chuckled, but I felt little mirth. My exhilaration, however, was such that I remained ecstatic about learning which way to continue.

“Figgy Camp is back the way you’ve just come, heading way up the Catway toward Figueroa Mountain where it meets Figueroa Mountain Road — you have at least another three miles to get to Figgy Camp. Hey, where’s your backpack and stuff?”

Chagrined, I explained about the pack, refused their generous offer of extra water, and quickly made a 180-degree turn and hiked back up the very steep Catway Road to paved Figueroa Mountain Road — which I had biked down five days earlier (feeling like five centuries).

I arrived at my truck, completely tired but also happy: It had been a long (10-plus miles) and weird day.

Fear had not overwhelmed my thinking, I’d simply made one trail mistake and then a second one making the first worse.

No one else was affected by my stupid errors, and the serendipity of meeting the bikers encouraged my belief in the cosmos and humanity.

If I had continued another mile or two along the Catway heading the wrong way, I would have seen Zaca Peak and Grass Mountain, and I would have recognized their distinctive silhouettes and then reversed course.

It was good to learn from my errors, and the hubris was evident and pretty lame.

Still, it was more than 20 years ago, and retelling this account would serve as a teaching story for students.

My survival gear in the fanny pack was complete and sufficient, and a night out “on the mountain” would not have been threatening, just uncomfortable.

In the Tao, they say “disaster is where blessing perches,” but this means control your hubris. Read this account, and be sure to check your maps and compass regularly when unsure on the trail.

Faring forth solo isn’t always intelligent.

My very long day was not complete since once at the truck I had over 10 miles to drive back to Nira Camp to retrieve the hidden backpack, then back yet again to Highway 154, and then home on Santa Barbara’s Westside.

30-Mile Bike/Backpack/Day Hike 4-1-1

» Distance: Summary distance is about 17 miles hiking and backpacking; another 13 easy miles coasting on your bike from Figueroa Mountain Camp to Los Olivos (need bike portage here)

» Map: Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide shows all you need

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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