Last month, Mike McLaughlin headed out on a hunting trip of a lifetime in the Jefferson Wilderness Area.
McLaughlin and his partner, Brett Yeager (who happens to be his son in law) planned every detail for a trip into rugged and remote central Oregon mountain wilderness.
“I had applied for the hunting tag for three years…and I finally got it and wow, I was pretty excited!”
“I wanted to get to a place where there’s no one around,” added Yeager, an experienced hunter in Oregon’s most remote areas. “To be able to sit back and enjoy nature is the real pleasure – this trip gave give us a chance to get away from people.”
After a seven-mile hike, the two reached the heart of a truly remote region and an extremely difficult area to access.
That’s because much of Jefferson Wilderness Area is marked by charred snags from the devastating “B and B Complex Fire;” a blaze that burned nearly 100,000 acres in 2003.
“You can’t see much for the blow downs and tall under brush that’s grown up since the fire,” noted Yeager. In fact, there are lot of places where it’s three feet over your head – ten foot tall – can’t move, you can’t see. It is just some nasty, nasty country that has grown up but the animals seem to like it.”
The wildlife are right at home here, but it’s hard for people to access the terrible terrain.
After hours of hiking across steep, brush choked country, Mike climbed a downed tree – and then, the unthinkable happened:
“I lost my balance,” said O’Laughlin. “I reached back with my left leg to try and gain my balance, but wrote a check my body couldn’t cash … I went on over – landed on my pack and screamed.”
Yeager added, “ I heard him yelling and screaming behind me. I knew we had a problem.”
As Mike hit the ground holding his knee, the pain instantly rocketed in his left leg from zero to ten.
He had torn the tendons that hold his quad muscles in place.
His leg went limp as a noodle! It was a one-in-a-thousand injury and it was quickly followed by a new sobering reality: Mike wasn’t walking out of the wilderness.
“I realized that I’d really blown it out,” said O’Laughlin. “Now, the question was – what are we going to do?”
Mike needed medical help quick before his leg got worse, but cell phones didn’t work and there was no radio contact either.
Yeager, a Newberg, Oregon volunteer firefighter, said that had only one option:
“It was an easy decision and it was a quick decision: I can’t do this, but I know who can.”
Yeager had to race back the way the team had come – a hike that took them hours – and he had to leave his father in law alone - perhaps for days.
First, he carried Mike to a nearby lake, set up a tent and left him in a sleeping bag.
Despite the agonizing pain, Mike wasn’t in a panic. In fact, he admitted, he felt just the opposite.
“I could rest knowing that we hit every contingency possible. That’s everything! Preparation is everything.”
The two had planned for the trip with plenty of food, water and shelter.
“It causes you to relax, so you know – all things being equal we’re going to get out of this and I will be okay.
Meanwhile, Brett – already tired from a long night and day of hiking and hunting – raced back to the trail head and cell phone range where he called the Jefferson and Linn County Rescue Teams.
Within a day, they responded, organized and made the long arduous trek to reach and rescue Mike O’Laughlin.
Mike was able to ride – on horseback – out of the wilderness.
It is an experience that provides a valuable lesson: how to stay safe in Oregon’s most remote areas.
“Anyone who travels in remote country – for a an afternoon, a day trip or longer should ask ‘what’s the worst case scenario that could happen and how are you going to get out if that happens?’ said Yeager.
“Take a lot more equipment than you think you’re going to need,” added O’Laughlin. “If this happens on a day-hike, seven miles back in the wilderness and you’re not prepared – it could be horrible! At the very least, you must have sleeping bags, tarp, a tent, water and food.”
“Having all those things stacked in your favor makes a difference in getting you out,” added Yeager.
After his rescue, O’Laughlin returned home safely. Extensive surgery followed and now – back at home – he faces eight to ten months of recovery.
So, will he ever go back to the wilderness?
“Oh, Ill go back,” he noted with a smile. “On horses. I won’t go back to the same area even if my son in law twists my arm. I don’t think I’ll go back to the same area on foot.”