Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Melakwa Lake: Does "down" intuitively mean "back to the car"?

Highly publicized this past winter was the plight of a female snowshoer who became disoriented and lost after making the wrong turn back from Melakwa Lake at the end of the Denny Creek Trail. Fortunately she was found after spending two very cold days in the snow of the Pratt River Watershed.

The problem has happened more than once as the route back from the lake is not intuitive and many hikers assume that downhill is the way back. Melakwa is topographically a somewhat confusing area: you forget that you have crossed a divide into another watershed (that of the Pratt river) since there is no elevation drop. On the return trip, "down" intuitively means "back to the car", and so people are merrily off down into the difficult Pratt River instead of doing that quarter-mile traverse to the correct trail.

Denny Creek (and on further over Hemlock Pass to Melakwa) are easily accessed and popular skinny-dipping and nude hiking places. I know that I've had to think twice on the few times I've been up there and I know how easy it is to miss the correct trail and really believe you are headed back down to the trailhead. Denny Creek is so popular in the summer that few people even bother with maps and compass (certainly essentials). I've suggested better signage in the past, yet it still eludes the ranger district. Now King County Search and Rescue has chimed in with emails to hiking forums:

Jon Wartes, SAR officer with the King County Sheriff's Office:

"There is a history of hikers unintentionally turning to the west when hiking near Melakwa Lake; to them this turn feels very natural at the time. Melakwa Lake is at the terminus of the Denny Creek Trail near Snoqualmie Pass. Such hikers tend to get caught in the Pratt River drainage--a difficult and strenuous cross country hike. In cold weather there is an extremely high risk of hypothermia.

WHAT ARE WE SEEKING? To find people who have experienced this confusion while in the Melakwa Lake area. We suspect that for every one that becomes a search mission, there are likely dozens who start going the wrong way but correct themselves before it becomes an official search. We’d like to talk to these people to learn more about what happened.

HOW CAN THEY CONTACT US? E-mail Officer Jon Wartes, King Co. Sheriff’s Office, at Provide your name and an evening phone number. A search and rescue volunteer will call you to obtain more information. Some people will later be asked to return with us to Melakwa Lake and to re-create, if possible, the early part of their experience.

The goals are to identify the source of this confusion, work with the U.S. Forest Service to correct it, and to prevent future search missions."

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