National Flashlight Day!

I bet you don’t know about Flashlight Day. It’s a real thing. And it’s today. It makes sense though; today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. What better time to celebrate the life-saving powers of bulb-in-a-tube’s.

If you don’t own a flashlight, this post will help you understand the importance they have in the life of an adventurer. Let’s reflect on some good and bad flashlight memories, shall we?

 

A good story about flashlights.

We don’t have many positive stories about flashlights. In fact, just one. But this is one of the nicest things we’ve ever done for someone…saved their life.

MENSA Man in the Porcupine Mountains

In 2014 we went backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains (yes, AGAIN! Always). On the second night, we were able to get to camp before it got dark, which meant we were able to set up in the daylight and get a fire going right around dusk. While had set up camp that night right at the bottom of a steep hill, against a river. With the river at our backs, we could lean against a log and ensure that we were not ambushed from the other sides. Just as we were getting settled in front of the fire, we here something (we presumed it was a wolf riding a bear) coming quickly down a hill. Although we were prepared to fight, we were relieved when it was just an older gentleman approaching us. I don’t remember the conversation verbatim, but I do remember that he said a quick greeting then asked us “how many of you are out here?” to which we SHOULD have replied “why, how many do you have?”, but instead we assured him it was only the two of us. He revealed that he was looking to borrow a flashlight from us because he had accidentally extended a day-hike into what would turn into at least an hour of night hiking. His wife had slipped earlier in the day, falling on her head and significantly slowing their progress down. Neither had a flashlight. We gave him my headlamp along with information on how to send it back to me if they made it out alive, and wished him luck. It was fairly dark by now, as the light dissipates quickly in the mountain-y forest. Moral of the story: don’t bring your wife hiking. I mean, always bring a flashlight even for day-hikes.

Also, turns out the guy is a member of MENSA. For those of you who don’t know what that is, you’re definitely not in it. He is also an accomplished traveler and hiker, according to his numerous blogs and business card. Oh, he did send back the headlamp in the mail, along with a business card, thank you letter, and new batteries. Thanks, guy! But second moral of the story: even if you are really smart, and have hiked hundreds of miles of Appalachian trail, you still need to bring a damn flashlight when you go for day-hikes! Be prepared!

 

A few bad stories about (lack of) flashlights.

Sometimes we learn our greatest lessons from our mistakes. Here is a short collection of flahlight mishaps that Andy and I have had over the years. Enjoy. Learn from our mistakes.

 

Porcupine Mountains, Machetes Edition

So like most stories Andy and I talk about, this one involves the Porcupine Mountains, machetes, and mistakes. We had planned a hike to a cliff-side campsite, but for some reason we forgot that the sun sets. So fairly quickly we found ourselves deep in a forest on a moonless night, in a location that we know has both bears and wolves. The trail was muddy and in many places indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor. So there we are, walking through a bear and wolf infested forest in the slippery mud, barely able to keep the trail and carrying 30lb backpacks. Fortunately we had machetes and flashlights. I had a dying flashlight and a dim headlamp, while Andy had a bright flashlight; we both had large machetes. We worked out a system where he would walk behind me and point the light in front of us, and I would keep my flashlight off to conserve battery unless I got scared or lost the path. We lost the path no less than a dozen times, which slowed us down, and I swear we saw at least 3 bears and 5 wolves. It’s hard to tell with the dancing shadows, so in the name of safety we kept our machetes unsheathed and firmly gripped in front of us the entire hike. We were fortunate not to slip in the mud and impale each other, but that was worth the risk.

machete+dark+bridge
Bridge over the Carp River. Just woods, darkness, and rushing water!

 

 

We eventually made it to the cliffs! But as we navigated the path, we found ourselves blocked by a giant animal with glowing eyes. We stopped but didn’t turn to run; we were pretty sure we were imagining this beast the way we had imagined all along the trail…but this one was real. We took another step forward, making sure to keep our flashlights and machetes at the ready. The beast barked. It was a giant but adorable but scary dog. Turns out he was guarding the hammocks of some other backpackers. We decided not to machete the dog, and we scooted back down the path to settle in a different camp. The flashlights helped us set up camp and guard our camp against scary things, and for that we are grateful. Moral of the story: get to your campsite before it gets dark. Even if you have flashlights, it gets scary out there!

 

Knights Track, Sunset Surprise 

I never took a real interest in poetry, but I’d like to take some time to quote some and twist its meaning to support my choices. Robert Burns once said, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Great Scott, is that some great Scot poetry! It means, obviously, that you should never ever plan for anything because your plan is stupid and dumb and won’t work. An example of plans going absolutely tubular (I wasn’t alive in the 70’s, so I assume “going tubular” is roughly equivalent to “going down the tubes”) is seen in my attempt at the Knight’s Loop Track in New Zealand. Well, it can’t actually be seen; it was way too dark for that.

We planned our departure date; we left at least two hours late. We planned our party; we left without one person. We planned our drive; the directions were wrong. We planned our route; we got lost in the dark. We spent 3 hours in pitch darkness descending and navigating through the forested mountainside with one, put very generously, flashlight. Fortunately, Alex had brought his phone. Unfortunately, it was a $20 (20 New Zealand Dollars; so think American dollar store quality) brick phone. If you ask Alex and Harry whose fault this was, they’d say it was mine. If you asked me whose fault this was… yeah, I’d say mine too. Like, 100%. We shouldn’t have needed flashlights. Nowhere in our plan did it call to be out anywhere near sunset, and there were plenty of times that we could’ve avoided it even with our unforeseen circumstances. But I got summit fever. If I had a nickel for each time I said, “We can’t turn around now, we’re so close; just 15 more minutes,” I could’ve bought a second, equally crappy phone. In my defense, we would’ve totally made it, had there not been waist deep snow for the last several hundred meters.

knights
The sun: nature’s flashlight. Unfortunately, it only has a battery life of about 12 hours. But it’s also rechargeable. 

Sense finally caught up to us, and we turned around short of the summit, something I had never done before or have done since. Memory of the ensuing three hours of stumbling down tricky track, tripping over tree routes, and retracing steps to rejoin the trail at various points is reminder enough to me to always bring at least one flashlight per person, even when the situation doesn’t call for it. If it weren’t for Alex’s solid decision making (he probably just forgot he had it in his pocket when we left the car), we’d still be out there to this day.

 

Routeburn Burnout

When Andy and I were in New Zealand, we had an epic day of hiking. This short story concerning flashlights only covers the last few miles of our 25 mile, 16 hour hike. See Andy’s other blog for the full description. On our way off the Routeburn Track, we met some sponsored trail runners filming a trail running movie. Pretty sweet, pretty irrelevant. But while we chatted with them, we missed out on precious daylight…forcing us to hike the last 3 hours in complete darkness. Some of that hike was along a two-lane mountain road, which afforded some incredible views of mountain silhouettes and stars, but most of the hike was uphill on a poorly marked, ridiculously difficult trail. Enter flashlights. On the roads, flashlights saved us from being hit by cars and being tossed off the side of the mountain, and on the trails they saved us from getting lost, falling down, and crying. After an hour on the road we got to the edge of the forest, where the trail started. The trail would wind upwards into the mountains to a lake. Mirror Lake.

mirror lake light, sign
No, sign, we haven’t turned our lights off. 

Honestly, I don’t remember too much about that 2 hours. Mostly just blackness, steep steps, unmarked “trail”, and scary noises from the river and wind and ghosts. We trudged on with our trusty lights, stopping constantly to rest and look up from the path to shine our lights and assess our surroundings. Without flashlights, we wouldn’t have been able to make it 20 yards on that trail. Moral of the story: PLAN. YOUR. DAYLIGHT.

 

Abel Tasman, Mouse Attack

Robert Burns said that “The best laid plans of mice and men OFTEN go wrong,” not that they always go wrong. In this case, mice laid a plan to make my life a living nightmare, and it went as smoothly as an Ocean’s heist. I was doing the Abel Tasman Track in the region of New Zealand that looks like the only part of Australia that might have any value. That is it is beachy and oceanic. It was a nice change of pace from the strenuous ups and downs and frigid nights of the mountain tracks I had been doing. The ground under my tent was soft and sandy; the type of ground that beech trees like to grow in. This year was particularly good for whatever type of leaf or seed or whatever that beeches drop and that mice love. So the mice were lovin the region at the time. I get that. That’s cool. Fine. Be mice. I don’t care. But if you love your sandy beech forest so much, why did you feel the need to invade my tent? There’s not sand or leaves or seeds in there.

I woke up in the middle of the night and turned on my headlamp and two mice just scatter to the corners. I think I almost cried. I examined the tent and found two small holes, about the diameter of a mouse that’s trying to squeeze through a small hole. What now? I shooed them towards the holes, but even if they wanted to get back out through them, they were too high off the ground. Fantastic. So I built them a little staircase with my books, and after about 10 minutes, managed to get them out. I plugged up the holes with plastic bags and went back to sleep. Glad that’s over. Wrong! I woke up to those scurrying devil clawed rodents what seemed like only a moment later. Prepared to try the same solution, I turned on my headlamp. But it was out of battery… Great. Turn on my phone flashlight. Phone dies. I pull my sleeping bag over my head and curl up in a ball thinking, “they can eat through all my stuff, but they can’t have me.”
mice attack
Andy curled up, mice crawling all over his food and openly mocking his lack of light. 
I woke up the next day with more holes in my tent, but the mice were gone. Thankfully the extent of the damage was only that and like 70% of my sanity. The lesson here is that flashlights mean nothing if they are out of battery. I learned that the hard way and developed a new phobia for it.

Porcupine Mountains, Zombie-Andy Edition

This may be the worst experience of Andy’s life, so be prepared to feel bad for him. No, we didn’t set him on fire and use him as a flashlight, although that may have been an easy solution to our problem. We had been walking around in the Porcupine Mountains for what turned out to be 20 miles worth of ground in 10 hours. That’s a lightning quick 2 miles per hour -we stopped a lot to play on the rocks the first 10 miles, then scuttled quickly the last 10 miles. We had planned a day hike and didn’t think we needed to bring flashlights. Psh. Who uses flashlights anyways? Answer: hikers who want to survive.

Terry, Chris, Andy, and I had been hiking for about 5-10 miles when we realized we didn’t exactly have food or a plan. We needed to get back to camp before dark so we could eat, and we needed to get back to camp before dark so we wouldn’t be eaten by bears or wolves. Andy was feeling pretty sick the past day or so and arguably should have not come on this trip at all, but we convinced him it was totally a smart idea. The darkness hit hard in that forest, and we only had two very small novelty LED lights with a few lumens between them. We also had a camera to take a picture and flash our surroundings with bright white light from time to time.

lost, no light
Camera flash shows zombie-Andy stumbling through what is probably poison oak. 

We had the flashlight-wielders go in front and in back, the front person was in charge of yelling, “where the hell did the trail markers go?!” and the person in the back was in charge of being terrified of bears sneaking up on him. The people in the middle were in charge of concentrating on not dying (Andy) and helping to find the trail. This was the first time many of us were ever in a dire situation. I don’t know how “dangerous” this was, but we were definitely in a do-or-die situation…because we had no food and protection from the elements if we decided to give up, but carrying on was slow going, exhausting, and seemed impossible. But hey, here we are! And grateful for those small flashlights we accidentally brought with us on a day hike. And from that night on, we always carry flashlights even on day hikes. At least I do, I have a powerful mini-flashlight I keep in my day-pack. If I am ever venturing more than a few miles from my car, campsite, or light-source…I have a flashlight with me.

Click the thumbnails to learn about the authors!

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