Real and perceived outdoor dangers

Recently, I was in a conversation with several young adults about their favorite outdoor spots in Oregon. They were new to the area, and new to outdoor recreation.

It was a passing-the-time kind of discussion, with no real focus, and so the group aimlessly veered toward listing some of the dangers they perceived waited for them in the outdoors. One said bears, another said cougars, a third said rattlesnakes and even one said wolves.

I saw it was time to place my old-man card squarely on the table and start drawing on some wisdom won not from intellect, but merely from the fact that I’d been on the planet a lot longer than this group and have hiked and climbed and rafted and kayaked and camped for much of that time.

“Guys, believe me, there are so many more things that can do you harm outdoors before you even get to bears, snakes and cougars,” I warned. “And saying you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than get attacked by a wolf would be doing a disservice to the probability of lightning strikes.”

Thinking back on this conversation, and with summer approaching, I thought it might be a good idea to provide some guidance around true dangers in the outdoors for others who might be wilderness rookies. As such, here are my top five dangers of outdoor recreation.

#1 Stupidity

Please note, I’m not calling anyone stupid. All of us, even the most intelligent, occasionally do stupid things. My biggest accident in the outdoors, where I fell and slid 600 feet while descending Mt. Hood, fracturing several bones, was caused because I was too dumb to check and tie my bootlaces before the descent.

And stupidity’s co-conspirators – laziness and recklessness – can create a trifecta of danger. I’m talking about actions like setting out on an unfamiliar trail and not telling anyone where you are going and when you plan to return. Or stand-up paddleboarding on Dorena lake without a life jacket. Or going for a ski trip at Willamette Pass and not checking road conditions nor bringing snow chains.

Look, if you’re going into the woods, understand that you’re heading into an environment that is different from what you are used to Monday through Friday. Overthink, over-prepare and over-exercise caution and you’ll avoid stupid mistakes.

#2 Driving to your destination

We’ve all experienced it. We’re on eastbound 126 on a Saturday morning heading toward Bend, when some “idiot” blows by us and three other cars as he passes on the left because we’re only going five miles over the speed limit. Or we’re driving through Leaburg, and someone is looking at their cellphone checking directions and nearly swerves into us.

Driving is dangerous in almost every circumstance, but here in Western and Central Oregon many of our smaller highways and byways that take us outdoors are undivided and winding roads that require our utmost attention.

Leave early so you’re not in a rush; know how to get to your destination before you leave home; pay attention and look up weather conditions before you head out.

#3 Weather

Forget about creatures that crawl, slither, or gallop along the forest floor. If you really want to know what the truly scariest thing in the Oregon wilderness is – look up. It’s the sky. Most outdoor-related fatalities in the Beaver State are caused by weather. Hypothermia, wind chill, heat exhaustion (and even that lightning I mentioned earlier) are the real monsters to be reckoned with. 

Fortunately, weather-related calamities can almost always be subdued by three simple actions: 1. Check the weather right before your venture into the wilderness; 2. Bring adequate clothing and equipment that can keep you alive in severe weather overnight; 3. Punt if the weather looks bad and go to the movies instead.

#4 Other people

Most people you come across in the woods are friendly and nice and they are there for the same reason you are – to get away from crowds of other people. But a few of them are not. Unfortunately, backcountry crime and even violence keeps forest rangers and sheriff deputies quite busy in our region. Additionally, some people might be actively engaged in #1 on this list and their stupidity can quickly become your problem. I’ve had to dive out of the way on the Jim Weaver Trail around Waldo Lake to miss being run over by a clueless mountain biker bombing around a blind curve. I’ve seen people lazily roll boulders down the steep shoulder of Hardesty Trail, blissfully unaware that hikers were down below. 

Many of the same rules that apply in the city are also relevant in the wilderness when it comes to interacting with other people. Always be alert, go with a companion, be friendly, but cautious, give anyone a wide berth if they seem dangerous – or clueless.

#5 Gravity

Some of the biggest differences between the urban jungle and the Oregon woods include handrails and smooth pavement. If you think about it, our manufactured environment is a veritable playground of protection to keep us from falling or being fallen upon. Heck, I recently saw a set of three stairs leading up to a storefront without a railing and thought about calling OSHA.

But in the wilderness, it’s a whole different world. Trails strewn with rocks and roots stretch perilously over sheer cliffs that fall away hundreds of feet below us. Eroding mountainsides hurl rocks the size of mini-fridges down upon our heads. Indeed, bears, elk, and bobcats aren’t out to get us, but gravity just might.

Again, prevention against falls and falling objects is simple and only requires common sense.

  • Slow down and watch where you are going, especially going downhill where you naturally want to move faster.
  • Know yourself and your abilities. If you come across a trail, slope, stream crossing or climbing opportunity that makes you nervous, don’t attempt it. 
  • Make prudent risk vs. reward calculations. Ask yourself: “Is shimmying across the log suspended over this 50-foot gulch really worth the extra five minutes of trail time it’s going to save me?”

Maybe it’s Hollywood’s fault. There certainly is no shortage of movies and TV shows about killer bears, vengeful big cats, and murderous packs of wolves. That’s why when we think about the dangers of the wilderness, we leap to the idea that some terrible animal is out there waiting for us. And I get it. Steve Spielberg isn’t going to turn my boring list into a cinematic blockbuster. 

But the reality is that the true dangers in our Oregon forests are of our own making, yet luckily, they are easily avoided by our own preparation and reasoning.



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