Death on the Deck
Outing Takes a Tragic Turn in the Backcountry
Author’s Note: This story was originally written for The Independent in June 2008, but after communicatiing with the family and realizing how much the impact of Jackson’s death had both on his mother and the friend who was on the trip with him, I decided not to publish it at that time. Enough time has passed that I think it is important to share it with those who know, love, and visit the Santa Barbara backcountry often.
A Weekend at the Schoolhouse
If anything, the temperatures were on a downward trend in the Santa Barbara area when two local men headed out for a backpack trip in the San Rafael Wilderness on Friday, June 6. The forecast was for a high in the mid 80s that day with temperatures closer to the low 70s for the weekend — perfect for hiking in the backcountry it seemed.
The two friends, Jackson and Devin planned to be out for two days. On Friday they headed downstream from Nira Camp, their goal a historic camp known as Manzana Schoolhouse located at the confluence of the Manzana and Sisquoc River.
The area had only re-opened recently in early April after being closed due to impacts from last year’s Zaca Fire. While the fire had burned across the Manzana and then east along the flanks of the almost vertical cliffs of Hurricane Deck, much of the Manzana itself had been spared from the fire.
Though in wilderness, the hike down to the Schoolhouse is at best marginally wild country. Unless the water is high, the hike is a mellow one and the creek crossings (there are plenty) easy to negotiate. Downstream there is even a private inholding and for the last two miles a rough dirt road that hikers can follow to the Schoolhouse.
More than likely, the two hikers must have realized that the backcountry heat was much different from that on the coast. Temperatures in the interior part of the county are often 15-20 degrees hotter than near the coast and if there is a breeze it is usually a hot, searing one. If either Jackson or Devin had been concerned by the heat, more-than-likely their proximity to the creek, easy access to water and shade may have lulled them into thinking that they could handle it with no problems.
Looping Back on the Deck Trail
The loop back from the Schoolhouse to Nira on Hurricane Deck is one of the great round trips you can make in the backcountry, though for the past decade or so it has been an almost impossible one because of the brush. From the Schoolhouse the trail switches back and forth, rising steadily for 800 feet or so up onto a spiny ridge. From this point, the climbing is steady for the next several miles until a point where you reach a plateau of sorts.
The views are spectacular. As you rise up out of the canyon the full extent of the Sisquoc comes into play, ten miles or more of the wide river valley at your footsteps and in the early summer the hills come alive with the rich, vibrant yellows characteristic of California gold. Further up the ridge views along the Manzana provide a different perspective. Though the scenery is easy on the eyes, once this far up on the Deck you’ve reach country where you are truly on your own.
Little Understood Impacts
One of the Zaca Fire’s most celebrated but least understood impacts is what happens when a closed environment such as the chaparral is suddenly opened up by a wildfire. In typical chaparral, access is only along the trail corridor and that’s only if it is brushed regularly. Let the chaparral go untended for more than three years and it begins to close in and within 6-8 years travel through it can be almost impossible.
Fire by its nature opens things up once again, even if only for a few years, making it possible to explore new country and re-visit old haunts that haven’t been available for a while. Without a vegetative cover, the temptation is to think this means the hiking is easy and the route finding relatively inconsequential but that is most definitely not the case.
Take away the brush and what is left on the Deck, for instance, is one long, hot dry waterless and dusty ridgeline. In its post-fire starkness the Deck is truly impressive. The ridges seem even steeper than ever and the bedrock juts out more impressively than ever without the chaparral to cover it. But if it was tough country to hike in previously, now there is a harshness not present before. Without a vegetative cover to reflect the sunlight, the radiant heat can be oppressive.
The trail can also be difficult to find, filled with loose sediments that are hard to negotiate and full of obstacles such as deep gullies, down trees and loose brush. Of course there is also no shade, no sources of water and no easy way out if there is a problem.
District Ranger Gets in Trouble
When Jackson and Devin left the cool morning temperatures at the Schoolhouse behind them, no doubt they thought they had plenty enough water with them. The loop back isn’t a long one by backpacking standards — just five miles up the Deck to the intersection with Potrero Trail, three miles of downhill back to the Manzana and a quick last mile back to Nira.
But as they began the ascent up onto the Deck, more-than-likely the issues facing them began to mount. First of all, though Zaca Fire consumed some 240,000 acres of the backcountry, there are always pockets of brush that never get burned. The first mile or so of the Deck Trail has lots of unburned chaparral and complicating things, hotshot crews had cut hand line in places that led off the main trail, making it easy to lose it.
Cindy Chojnacky, Ranger for the Santa Barbara District of the Forest Service knows this well. As a new ranger, her first overnight trip in the backcountry was up on the Deck with her husband, Dave, is the same as the one Devin and Jackson have taken but in the opposite direction.
For Cindy, the trip was both an opportunity to explore some new country but also to get to know her forest. As she and Dave began the long uphill hike on Potrero Trail to the high point on the Deck, they began to encounter sections of mid-slope trail that was something akin to trying to cross a sand dune. “We were constantly sinking into the loose gravel,” she remembers. “There were places you’d slide down a foot, ankle deep in sand and then have to catch your balance to take the next step. It was really difficult.
“There were also places where we couldn’t see the trail because it had been covered over with soil that had washed down on it. We eventually made it to the top of the Deck but it probably took us an hour or so longer than we estimated we’d need.”
Once on the Deck, guessing they still had plenty of time to make it to the Schoolhouse, Cindy and Dave took a side hike east on the Deck Trail to the top of what is known as Bald Mountain. “We wanted to do a little sight seeing too and it was spectacular up there,” Cindy added, “plus we thought it wouldn’t take us more than a few hours to reach the Schoolhouse. Were we in for a surprise.”
The extra time needed for the side trip turned out to be a problem later on. “We could see the route was pretty open,” Cindy continued, “and it seemed like we could make really good time.”
Cindy and Dave began descending a series of very steep knolls, each 300-400 feet in height, then followed a long almost level section to a point where they began to get in trouble. “We began to encounter sections of brush that didn’t get burned,” Cindy remembers, “and pretty quickly things started to get a lot tougher.”
From this point, the route finding became difficult enough that she and Dave made the decision to make camp on the trail and deal with getting to the Schoolhouse the next morning. Fortunately it was early spring, the days were cool and they had plenty of water.
Past Point of No Return
As Jackson and Devin passed the point where Cindy and Dave had camped, temperatures were probably reaching the 100-degree mark, which is common on the Deck. With little shade, high temperatures and a hard climb ahead of them, even a gallon of water might not have been enough.
Finally, as they reached a point perhaps a half-mile from the Potrero intersection, apparently Jackson could go no further. Ahead of them they still had the series of knolls to climb that Cindy and Dave had descended so easily. Heading back up them can be torturous as I can attest from my own trip up there in January.
By this time Jackson is almost unconscious and his water is gone. Devin barely has any left to give him. Quickly, at about 3pm Devin finds as shady a spot as he can for Jackson and heads towards Nira for help.
It takes Devin almost 7 hours to reach Nira and drive far enough up the road to a point where he can call 911. Being unfamiliar with the trail and heading into an area heavily damaged by the fire, Devin has a tough time finding his way. At one point he begins scrambling down a series of gullies and criss-crossing several of them before he locates Potrero Trail and is able to make his way down to the Manzana. By the time he is able to call it is almost 10pm.
Aviation Unit is Activated
Shortly after this, the SB County Aviation Support Unit is activated and begins preparations to get a helicopter in the air. Piloted by Don Harris and assisted by crew chief Jon Simon, they are being used increasingly in rescue situations. Just a few weeks before, the Unit had been called in to snatch an injured hiker off Cathedral Peak.
Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue (SAR), is also called in and members are heading to Nira by 11:15pm. Over the next several hours ten SAR will respond to the scene. One of them, Jon Sullivan, becomes the SAR Incident Commander. As soon as he arrives at Nira about 12:30am, he meets with Devin and quickly realizes the situation is extremely serious.
By this time the helicopter is over the Deck and using its spotlights in an attempt to spot the victim, Jackson. But the wind is gusting and they have a difficult time getting close enough to the ridge to see anything. It is also a moonless night, meaning they have almost zero visibility save what can be seen with the spotlights.
At Nira, Sullivan has Devin checked out medically and it appears he is OK. After some discussion Devin is sent back up the trail with Gabe and Wally, two of the SAR team members to see if he can help them locate Jackson. Several other SAR members follow them with a wheeled stretcher in case it is needed.
By 3am the lead SAR group is within a mile of the Deck but even with Devin’s help they are having trouble following the trail. Finally they reach the top of the ridge when they come upon the helicopter. Because it has become impossible to work the ridge, Harris has put it down on the lee side of the Deck in an open area.
They all settle in to wait for first light, which should be in about two hours. Shortly after 5am the helicopter is up again searching for Jackson. Within an hour they have spotted him and are able to land to see if he has survived. The news is not good. Jackson did not make it through the night.
I talk with Cindy later to get a better understanding of what might have been done to prevent such a tragedy. This is an exercise in what is known in the Forest Service as a “Lessons Learned” type of activity. The point isn’t to place blame but simply to ferret out what happened and more importantly — make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“First of all,” Cindy told me, “we all have what I call ‘big eyes’. We tend to overestimate our abilities, what we can bite off and underestimate the challenges. If there is one thing I would always encourage is when you are heading out into the backcountry that you’re realistic. Know your limits and learn as much as you can about where you are heading.
“Have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. That can mean knowing where cell phones will and won’t work, alternate routes you can use, places you can head to if trouble comes up. The best thing here might have been to turn around and head back down to the Schoolhouse. Better to be a day late and be near water than up on the Deck without it.
“Of course, once you are committed to a route it is hard to back off it. Loop hikes may not always be the best choice, especially if you don’t know the country, because if you need to go out for help you are heading into unknown territory at the worst possible time.
“Consider the seasons too. When Dave and I did our hike one of the big issues was the creek crossings. Many of them were thigh to waist deep. Having too much water was the issue. But by June not having enough, especially when hiking on the higher ridges where there isn’t any, becomes a huge issue. From June through September I wouldn’t recommend hiking anywhere that you can get to a source of water within an hour or two at most.
Sierra Club Close Call
Tony Biegen who is the Outings Leader for the Santa Barbara Chapter of the Sierra Club knows this well. In 1994 he made the decision to hike the Deck with a number of friends on what he called the hottest day of the year. By 11am the temperature was 104 degrees and he and two others were in trouble. Fortunately others in the party were able to call out and get help. All three were flown out by helicopter to the Marion Center in Santa Maria.
“I had stopped sweating after a while on the deck and that is usually a bad sign,” Tony said of the incident. “I gave me five bags of fluids intravenously and one of the others guy took six. They wouldn’t let us out unless we peed. The doctor said I had enzymes in my blood that indicated either a heart attack or severe muscle damage.”
“It is really, really easy to get in trouble under these conditions,” Cindy summarized for me. “Getting out of it can be really difficult too.
“Be realistic, be cautious and always give yourself a cushion. That may be carrying more water than you think you’ll need, following the same route back out in more extreme conditions, or planning for shorter pack trips. That also might be choosing not to out in some parts of the backcountry at all when it is hot.
“The last thing I think everyone needs to keep in mind, even those who have spend a lot of time out there, is the backcountry is completely different now than it was a year ago. Yes, there are plenty of places that are easier to access now but even more where you can get into a lot of difficulty. Mid-slope trails are the worst. There are miles of trail covered by loose sediment that has come down the hillsides and lots of gullies that can be dangerous to cross.
“The route finding can be really easy at times but others it can almost be impossible. What might have been a simple route to follow last year might be a nightmare today.”
No one can be sure if Jackson and Devin had done this or that the tragic outcome that cost Jackson Still his life could have been avoided. In the summertime the Deck is a hard place to enjoy let alone survive. More than 30 years ago I led a Search and Rescue expedition up onto the Deck in hopes of rescuing a Boy Scout party that had found themselves in similar circumstances, ironically almost in the exact same location where Jackson spent his last few moments. Like Tony, these scouts were lucky.
“More than likely it won’t be the last time someone is stranded up on the Deck with little water and their life at risk,” long time SAR member Jim Frank (who was with me on the Deck rescue in the 70s), told me. “But let’s hope we can get the word out that this isn’t where you want to be when it is hot and perhaps we can keep it from happening again.”
For more detailed information about the Santa Barbara backcountry including links to additional information, photo galleries, maps, KML downloads and lots more, check out the Santa Barbara Outdoors (SBO) website. Created by long-time outdoor expert and Indy Outdoor Editor Ray Ford, SBO is the place to go for information about where to hike, bike, ride or walk in Santa Barbara County.