Unexpected Camping: A Tale of Lost Keys and Ancient Trees in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

A tale illustrating why it can be a good call to let someone back home know where you are riding your mountain bike.
These western red cedar leaves were shot in Northern Idaho, but their awe-factor is similar to those in southern Washington.

Some months before I moved to Italy, my friend Kaden and I packed up a pair of bikes and drove to the Lewis River Trail. It’s an old footpath that ribbons in a northwesterly persuasion from Swift Reservoir in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It would be my friend’s first proper ride on singletrack, and I thought that after experiencing the undulating riverside trail, with its ancient moss-carpeted red cedars pillaring alongside like elders, the trail hook would be permanently set. It was late enough in the season that we wouldn’t encounter many horseback riders or hikers, and should generally have a peaceful day to enjoy the trees.

Fortunately, I chose well. We both had a fantastic ride, and we spent as much time pedaling as we did admiring the ethereal history surrounding us. We decided to roll out most of the 14-mile track before turning back, and when we swapped directions we first stopped to drain a bottle of wine we had been lugging along. The air was just warm enough that sitting on the deep moss alongside the river felt like autumn’s final dying gift.

We pedaled back a tick faster than we had on our plod out, try to stay with the sunlight which was quickly exiting the thick forest ahead. Kaden had crashed a few times, as we all do on a first ride, and was being cautious to keep the bike upright and on track. We arrived back at the car with roughly 30 minutes of daylight to spare, and were ready to imbibe the other hoppy suds waiting in the trunk.

Lewis River trail photo: Fit4Life28

When I reached to unclip my keys from my belt loop, they were missing.

I had been riding in denim shorts, as I often did, and the carabiner that attached my keys to the belt loop was no longer connected. I quickly emptied my pockets, then my bag, then re-searched everything several times over. I asked Kaden about seeing the keys anywhere, and the answer was a definitive no. The car would only lock when the keys were in the ignition or outside its doors, so they couldn’t be locked inside. We went over all the steps of our departure, and we agreed that I had hooked the keys to my jorts before the ride. The keys were lost on the trail.

Kaden is an advanced trail runner and immediately offered to start jogging up the trail in search of my keys. It was too dark to ride, so running was the best shot. I jogged behind, flogging myself for never learning to enjoy running. At some point Kaden turned back my direction, both of us gasping with hope that the other had found the keys. No dice. We needed to get back to the car to regroup. It was too dark to stay in the forest and the glow from our mobile phones wouldn’t last much longer.

Lewis River trail photo: dustyspokes65

There wasn’t a lick of cell coverage on the river. With a tiny collection of cabins just a 30 minute pedal away, I had the notion to ride to a phone, call my partner, and ask for a key delivery. My friend was smart enough to talk me out of that plan. I had a lighter and matches, there was dry wood around, I packed some snacks in my hip-pack, and Kaden had a space blanket we could both sit under to keep warm. We would be just fine until daybreak when we could safely locate a working phone. Kaden lit a roaring hot fire and we settled in with “would you rather” queries, and some memories worth sharing. The night was cold enough that neither of us slept much at all. We were still wearing shorts and t-shirts from the ride, and the plastic space blanket wasn’t playing so well near the fire.

At some point, after we had burned all of the dry wood we could find, the sun returned as it always does and we were ready to sort this little mistake out. I rode over to the cabins and started knocking on doors. I think it was a holiday, as I recall not expecting anyone to be home. I rarely remember dates nor do I care for holidays, but I remember that there was a reason I didn’t expect to find anyone at the first spot. The third or fourth door I rapped on had some sound behind it. People were stirring from their beds for all the noise I was making.

My next hope was that they would look before pulling the trigger. I put my hands behind my back and looked down at their soiled doormat, trying to appear as harmless as possible. A groggy middle aged hippy-looking cat opened the door and asked “what do you want?” I could hear other people stirring inside, but the room was too dark to make out their faces. I was deeply relieved to find a gaggle of chill folks behind the door, in place of the fear-filled, rifle-gripping redneck I had expected. I grew up in the woods of Northern Idaho, and have seen the cold end of a gun barrel enough times for one lifetime.

The dreadlocked cell-phone-saint closed the door to throw some clothes on and root around for the communal mobile. He eventually came to the door with an old T9 cellular and said that it might work if I went to the right edge of the “property.” I found a signal and called my partner, Megan, who was more than a little relieved that I was alive and speaking. When we left town I wasn’t sure which trail we were going to ride, so I hadn’t told anyone exactly where we were headed. Megan had called search and rescue the night before, but it was too dark for them to take action. Megan promptly called off the dispatched rescue team and caught a ride with our gracious neighbor to the trailhead with the spare car key. Needless to say, I owed them both a thoughtful apology and thanks in tandem.

I arrived home, tired and more than a little ashamed of myself for not having told anyone where I was going. It’s a simple rule of backcountry fun that I overlooked. I reckon I’m an experiential learner.

These giant creatures live on the Idaho/Washington border, about 40 minutes south of British Columbia.

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