100 Voices from the Little Bighorn Deluxe CD-ROM Bundle Edition by Bruce Brown

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From the New York Times Magazine...
Lost (Self)
And Found (Lesson)
in the Woods...

THIS SHORT essay, which originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine, has been reprinted several times (variously as "Lost in the Woods" or "Kloochman") and anthologized in a marvelous book, Island of Rivers, edited by Nancy Beres, Mitzi Chandler & Russell Dalton.

Published in 1988 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Olympic National Park, Island of Rivers included pieces about or set on the Olympic Peninsula by an illustrious list of American authors. 

"Lost in the Woods" appeared in Island od Rivers between Theodore Roethke's "Meditation at Oyster River" (my favorite Roethke poem) and "Rainforests of the Olympics" by William O. Douglas (my favorite U.S. Supreme Court Justice). Sweet!

-- B.B.

island_rivers.jpg (30347 bytes)

Island of Rivers

Lost in the Woods

by Bruce Brown

IT WAS ONLY later that I began to reflect on the fact that "kloochman" means "wife" in Chinook jargon.
At the time, I was deep in bushwhacking bravado. Trying to hike quickly through the lush, trailless rain forest, I concentrated all my attention on ducking, jumping and constantly reassessing our course. I thought I would be safe if I could just move a little faster, but, as it turned out, this approach was the very thing that would nearly kill me before the afternoon was out.

My wife, Lane, and I lost the trail down from Kloochman Rock on the west coast of Washington state almost as soon as we descended into the forest. No longer maintained by the Olympic National Park, the frail had reverted to an informal, largely inscrutable system of blazes spray-painted on the trunks of trees.

"As the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, we entered a deep dell..." Photo by Bruce Brown.

Lane wanted to double back immediately and pick up the trail, but I was of a different mind. We had just left the splendid vista from an altitude of 3,300 feet at the top of Kloochman, and I was imbued with confidence. Goaded by the knowledge that time was short, I wanted to press on overland to our camp by the Queets River, about six miles distant. We could see the Queets twisting in the valley below, we knew in what direction we wanted to go, and traveling overland was often actually faster than trying to stay on the faint trail. So why not strike out cross-country, I argued. Actually, we didn't argue, even though we probably should have. Lane just rolled her eyes and fell behind.

We made quite good time for the first hour, romping down a long inclined ridge like skiers on a slope of powder. We were enjoying ourselves so much that I failed to notice that we had missed the trail where I had expected to hit it again. By 4:30, as the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, we entered a deep dell along the headwaters of a stream called Coal Creek. Consulting the map, and judging we were less than a mile from where the trail had to cut back again below, we decided to continue down the funneling gorge through lush growths of ferns and moss. Before long, the increasing narrowness of the gorge and the thick growth of devil's club slowed us to a crawl.

At twilight, we came to a particularly narrow and tricky section of the canyon, and here, in a blind on a small island, we found the moss-covered skeleton of a bull elk, complete with its huge antlers. I wondered how this great beast had come here to die. Had he hurled himself off the cliffs, or wandered in along the deep, twisting stream as we had done? Lane was becoming increasingly concerned about our situation. Experienced in the outdoors, she began to say aloud what she had previously let me know only with looks, namely that it was possible that we couldn't follow the creek through to its intersection with the trail. This meant we would either have to backtrack for more than an hour or (appreciable pause) go up the cliffs that now towered over us on both sides.

I was in no mood to discuss this. It seemed to me we were wasting precious time talking. We've got to keep moving, I told myself and bulled ahead, trailed Lane's unanswered questions after me. Lane followed reluctantly. Within a few minutes I nearly joined the old elk when I leapt into a slick bowl of stream-sculptured rock, lost my footing and came with- in inches of plunging over a 90-foot waterfall onto boulders below. Using interlocking wrist holds, Lane was able to haul me back up to her level where we looked deeply into each other's eyes. I said, "I'm too stupid to live." We both laughed, but more from relief than good humor. It was clear that we had an impassable path before us and an hour of daylight left to cover the distance that should take nearly an hour and a hall under good conditions.

Not knowing what else to do, we climbed straight up a steep scree slope on the left side of the creek, wading through hip-deep bushes until we came to our utter surprise -- upon the old Kloochman Rock trail. Our pace picked up appreciably after this, but not nearly enough. We held council. Because I had already led us into the wilderness and nearly thrown myself over a precipice, it seemed logical to me that I should now run back to our camp in a dash against the darkness. There I would retrieve the flashlight, which of course was safely stowed in our tent, and return for Lane. She was dubious, but tired enough to let me try any fool thing I wanted. So we kissed, and I dashed away down the trail.

Running along in the gloaming, I had a strong impulse to pin the whole misadventure on someone else. First I fried blaming it on the Kloochman view (if it hadn't been so stunning, we would have started back sooner), then the forest-products industry (if it hadn't logged so much of the view from Kloochman, the park probably would have continued maintaining the trail) and finally even Lane (if she hadn't let me lead us into this mess, we would have had no trouble at all). Even then, though, I couldn't entirely avoid thinking about my own responsibility for the affair.

By the time I stumbled into camp, vomited from fatigue, found the flashlight and headed back, I began to realize how differently Lane and I reacted to stress and how stereotypical of the two sexes our reactions might be. Like many men, I assumed command and, when difficulties arose, simply pushed harder. I resisted reconsidering my original premises and stuck to my decisions. Meanwhile, Lane, instead of striving to save the day, relaxed to survive. I discovered her a few minutes later dozing peacefully in the soft, musk-smelling bed of a deer.

And so, in addition to the wide vista from the top, Kloochman Rock ultimately provided me with a memorable interior vista. I learned that my physical abilities were greater than I thought, but also that I might have done better if I'd never had to test them. I saw how, given a chance, the sexes can complement each other and appreciated anew what might be called wifely virtue.

Even now, when I get the bit between my teeth and want to force some issue through to some inappropriate or untimely conclusion, Lane has a way of getting my ear.

The code word is "Kloochman."

"Lost in the Woods" originally appeared in the August 25, 1985 New York Times Magazine.
© Copyright 1985 Bruce Brown

Mysteries of the Little Bighorn by Bruce Brown #3

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