Lost in unforgiving territory

By Charles Kocher, Pilot staff writer March 20, 2010 05:00 am

We own four acres of forest on Mountain Drive, within the same distance that little Zoey Dorsey wandered from her home this week.

We were agonizingly aware that she could be lost in “our” woods. Actually, “woods” is too tame a word. We live on steep, rugged and unforgiving terrain. We forget how dangerous it can be.

As native Oregonians, we enjoy the wonderfully green beauty of the Pacific Northwest rain forest, the glorious view of the Chetco River created by our elevation, the music of the small creek across our property, the soothing breezes that come up the hill from the valley, and the occasional sightings of wildlife like deer, fox, bear and cougar.

All the wonderful things we treasure turned a little sinister this week as we worried about a lost little girl.

Word went out quickly Wednesday afternoon that there was a missing child on Mountain Drive. After sending out a Pilot News Alert by e-mail, I headed home to find a sheriff’s deputy already canvassing the neighborhood. A recorded telephone message asked everyone on Mountain Drive to check their outbuildings and their property.

I walked the driveway, hiked up the creek bed, and glanced down the culverts. I checked the greenhouse and the dog house, poked under the deck, walked behind the garage, opened the garbage can and the hot tub, and peered into every corner of the cluttered carport. I saw neighbors out checking the forest roads.

When I actually concentrated on the problem, I was amazed at how many things might attract a toddler, and how many places someone that small might hide.

With the helicopters circling overhead, I worked outside until dark so I might hear or see anything, or notice if the dogs picked up any hint of someone in the forest. After dark, I walked the driveway and checked the out buildings one more time.

Thursday evening was surreal. A horde of volunteers were on the ground. The Civil Air Patrol plane was circling with a heart-wrenching message from Zoey’s grandmother playing over and over and over.

I did the basic search over, and then decided to really check the entire property, top to bottom, corner to corner.

That’s when I began to really understand the dangers, especially to a lost little child.

The brush – salmon berry and salal, blackberry and fern, huckleberry and tanoak – is so thick and tangling as to swallow you. The sunlight does not penetrate the canopy of fir, oak and myrtle. You can really hide in the forest; I cannot see the house from most of our four acres.

It’s steep ground, with lots of loose, slippery material. There are small “landslides” everywhere – some large enough to cover a person. I’ve rolled 20 yards or more when I’ve lost my footing. I’ve sunk into hidden holes up to my hip.

In the back of my mind was the photo of a 150-pound cougar taken three weeks ago by a neighbor. While the clear sky offered light, I also knew it could mean another frosty night.

Flora and fauna, weather and scenery – we enjoy it all  and deal with our choice to live in the forest. While Zoey turned up safely from her misadventure in the forest, it did remind us that our “little bit of heaven” can have a much darker side.