The first canoe trip I led in 1967 was to Little Island Lake in Algonquin Park, where I was responsible for 3 other staff and 8 campers. I wore the red neckerchief signifying my head man status, a big deal for me. I was 18.

What I remember most about that trip, however, which I didn’t foresee, was swim time. When the campers started playing in the water, I stood on shore counting heads, over and over.  If I didn’t count enough, I stopped the play until I was satisfied. When they got out of the water, I was relieved. At night, if one cried out, I awoke and lay awake wondering it I needed to get up. 

They weren’t wearing life jackets or PFDs (personal flotation device), either. We didn’t do that back then; it wouldn’t be until I was working for the Forest Service in Minnesota in 1992 that I wore one, far too late in life to start, but alive to do it, and I have never since been in a canoe without wearing a PFD.

I thought I knew what responsibility was and that being a head man would be great. I was humbled and often frankly scared at times at what I was doing. On my fourth and final trip as head man, on the Tim River, I still remember carrying a canoe on my head and a pack on my back on portages, 140 pounds. Nine years ago, back at Pathfinder for a reunion (where I would again go to Little Island Lake for a day trip), I carried one of those Old Town canvas canoes a mile. It was so difficult; the previous century, when I carried a canoe across that portage, I trotted. 

Back at Pathfinder for the first time since 1967; August 2013.

Recently, I was Crew Leader for a work party in the Willamette NF. This was my fifth time doing this, but the first time where I had no past supervisor with the Forest Service, BLM, or NPS along. I knew the each of other six had more experience than I, but none of them chose to lead the Crew that day, and I did, because I wanted to be in the woods the week the regular leader was out of town and nobody else stepped forward.

It was different being in charge. Right away. We needed to power brush the Oregon grape, Sword ferns and Salal off the trail, and I asked two people whom I knew had experience with the brusher to start. I offered myself at any point to help out. In the meantime, I and another went the other direction downhill to a stream. I let him put in drainage spots on the way down; I wanted to go directly to the end, see the bridges, including a failed one, and then started working my way back up. We soon met and hiked back out, noting that this section needed brushing as well, I was supervising more than working, and it felt odd.

As we rejoined the other group, there was an issue with the brusher’s idle that was an annoyance, but we didn’t have the tools to fix it. I moved on, deciding that we could probably finish this trail early and maybe continue part way up the next section, but I would have to scout that. I could afford to be absent for a half hour. I went further and saw Mary, asking her if she could go back to the brusher and take over from Sam, who didn’t tell me he needed a break, but he looked like he wouldn’t complain if he had one. Mary said she would go back, and I walked quickly to the end of the trail, up the road, and uphill on the next section.

I wanted to get to the top of the switchbacks, but after a couple hundred feet elevation gain and a third of a mile, I had seen what I knew I needed to, and by the time I returned it would be time to take over from Mary. So I retraced my steps, down, across, and up to reach her. Mary needed her pack, so I went back to get it, while she continued brushing. 

I hadn’t planned on brushing, but nobody was nearby or interested, the work wasn’t too difficult, and I finally stopped at 11:30, a couple hundred yards from the end of the trail. My pack was well back up the trail, and I was hungry. Fortunately, Jim, who was back raking had been kind enough to move my pack forward. When brushing, whoever is in back raking should bring the packs forward.

After lunch, when I finished the trail, Mary was working on the tread near the end, but three others had gone ahead to work the next section. I still had to brush the western part of the trail where we entered, which meant a mile walk back and then more brushing. I asked Mary her thoughts about who should do what.  We decided we would all meet at the cars at about 2. She offered to go after the others to bring them back. I would then walk back to the cars, up to where we began, and do the brushing on the west side of the trail.

Finished power brushing sword ferns. Not exactly Leave no Trace

When I finished, at 2, nobody was present. So, I broke down the brusher, put it in the trunk, then drove to the other end of the trail, passing 3 of the crew coming towards the cars. They hadn’t seen anybody, and that bothered me, since one of them had been with the group. 

Now I’ve got 3 people I need to find, and probably will, but at least 2 of them know we were supposed to be at the cars by 2, and it was after 2. I’m in charge, and that sort of stuff bothers me. It should. I don’t know with certainty where my crew is. Not good. About 200 yards up the trail (and quite a bit of up, my second time doing that today), I found them. They had misjudged the time it would take to get back and the leader of that group saw a yellow hat in the woods and thought it was one of the others, when it turned out to be a hiker. They wanted to walk to the cars, not realizing it was uphill and nearly a mile, and others were waiting.

It’s different when you are in charge. Minor communication problems don’t seem so minor, and you are responsible. It’s one thing to be in a clinic and have an attending physician around. It’s another thing to be moving away from the California coast at 20 knots, 1500 miles from Hawaii, way out of help range, and a sailor tells you he has bad abdominal pain with tenderness in the right lower quadrant.

It’s different when you are leading a hike and somebody is lagging behind, so you have to decide whether to turn them around, turn around the hike, or stay with the individual and let the hike continue. One person I knew posted my picture on Facebook several years ago saying, “Mike never smiles.” Could be true.  When I led a trip, I couldn’t just drive up and hike, carefree. It was and is responsibility for the others there.

It’s different when there is a diabetic woman with a stiff neck and fever, and she is too obese to do a spinal tap. It’s 2 am, no attending physician to call, and you need to do a cisternal puncture to prove or disprove the diagnosis. 

It is so different when you are working on the trail, an 80 year-old slow-motion falls to the ground and seems a little dazed, and you are a retired medical person trying to figure out what is going on. It seems straightforward on paper; it’s not that way when you are a long way from a road, you don’t want to call in a very time and person-intensive emergency if it isn’t, but you don’t want to lose time for a golden hour, clot buster drugs, or daylight, either.

In short, it is really easy to play expert and opine on a variety of topics. It is quite another to be in a difficult situation, alone, with only your judgment and your knowledge to deal with it. 

I’m going out to brush Winberry Divide Trail this Thursday. I walked it today, I know what needs to be done, and I can do any job that needs to be done on it. But I want the others to do the work and I will both supervise and help.

View of some of the Lane County Cascade Foothills from Winberry Divide Trail, part of the E2C or Eugene-to-Crest trail.

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