Yesterday morning, five buddies and I set off for a 16 mile day hike on the Secret Canyon trail down the gorge of Pine Valley Creek in the eastern mountainous area of San Diego. Never mind the difficulty was rated as strenuous, that it was February, and that rain - maybe a thunderstorm with hail - was expected, we were a stalwart band of a mountain climber, a marathoner, a kick boxer, and three strong and experienced hikers. Bring it on!
With a good start at 8:05 AM and overcast weather, Linda Case, her friends Roger and Sharon, my friends Wayne and Kathleen (from the West Highland Way) and I entered this beautiful and rugged canyon.
I noted ours were the only cars in the trail head parking lots, but chalked it off to most people not liking to hike in the rain. Good! We would have the trail all to ourselves.
Besides the hike, I was looking for a couple things along the way, the huge Pine Valley Bridge completed in 1974,
and a never completed flume built in 1895 to bring water from a reservoir in Pine Valley to a tributary of the San Diego River, and then on to the rapidly growing San Diego new town. Sections of the old flume were used to construct our trail into Secret Canyon, a name evidently that refers to its inaccessibility until the trail was built in 1992.
Discarded clothing, backpacks, trash and water bottles became increasingly evident along the trail. Linda climbed down to retrieve a backpack at one point. It contained only a stone from the trail. After putting two and two together we realized the strewn clothing and trash came from "coyotes" and their illegal immigrant clients.
For these first few miles, other than off and on rain, the hike was uneventful. The view down into Pine Valley Creek was spectacular.
Our little group was bonding, and we didn't realize how literal this would be by the end of the trip. Our first clue came with taking a wrong trail down into Nelson Canyon, winding up instead in a maze of "coyote" trails, remnants of migrant camps, and having to bushwhack up through chaparral looking for the hikers' trail. Kathleen, usually a strong hiker, tweaked her knee over the rough terrain, and it became increasingly painful to walk.
The next few hours were spent scrambling rocks, jumping streams, hiking overgrown trails, and trying to sort our hiking trail from the coyote trails. We were soaked from the rain, wet vegetation, and creek crossings, but by 4:30 PM we reached the confluence of Pine Valley and Espinosa Creeks. From here it should be only a mile and a half to two miles out of the canyon, but the trail ended and there was no other visible trail or navigable terrain. We backtracked, checking out three false leads up over the mountain with no luck. Just more "coyote" trails.
Nightfall came by 6:00 and we realized we would be spending the night in the canyon, and what a long night! Wayne and Roger gathered dry grasses to make a dry sleeping palette and we settled down for the night, spooning in a tight bunch to conserve body heat. Eleven hours of off and on cold rain, temperatures that dipped to the 30's, thoughts about how we were going to get ourselves out of the canyon, wondering when family would start to search, hoping beyond hope that relief would come during this wretched, unending night and knowing it wouldn't. Only Roger, the ex-Navy man, slept a bit.
About midnight, we heard voices approaching our bivouac but realized they were Spanish speaking, a "coyote" and about 6-8 illegals who stopped to check us out. It was a scary minute, but Linda was a sheriff and black belt in karate and Wayne was a kick boxer who got his knife in hand just in case. The "coyote" pack was able to convey they were going to Los Angeles to look for work, and we stated simply we were "camping". What must have gone through their minds at six gringos lying on the ground in the cold and rain, and calling it "camping".
At daylight, with Girl Scout cookies for breakfast, we set out to backtrack to find the main trail and from there, hopefully, find our way out. At 7:50 came that welcome sound of a helicopter, first one from the San Diego Fire Department followed a few minutes later by one from the Sheriff's Department. After checking that we had no injured, we were directed back to that creek confluence to meet up with Search and Rescue. From them, we learned the three ways out of the canyon were impassable due to the recent rains, and they guided us about a quarter mile up the creek, sometimes wading in icy cold water up to the butt, to the helicopter. We were pre-warned a lot of people would be at the landing area and there were - Search and Rescue, Sheriffs, Fire Department, Border Patrol, a Mobile Command Bus, ambulance, ASTRAE, television media, even a bus from the Salvation Army. It looked like they were pretty determined to find us.
Regarding our worry about when some type of search and rescue would come to show us the way out, we learned that Linda's sister, daughter, brother-in-law, and husband set out at 7:50 that night and attempted to hike down the beginning and ending of the trail in the dark. They set off a Border Patrol alarm for illegals and the Border Patrol joined the search for another two hours. About 1:30 AM, the family contacted the sheriff. ASTREA, Fire and Rescue, and even the Coast Guard were contacted for a helicopter at 2:00 AM but the cloud level was too low. By 4:00 AM the volunteer San Diego Sheriff's Search and Rescue showed up with dogs, horses, quads, ambulances, food from the Red Cross for everyone, fuel truck for the helicopters and the complete command post. They popped the doors on the vehicles left at each end of the trails for the dogs to sniff personal items and set off with the dogs on the trail. Unfortunately, the scent was lost after a while due to the rain.
No one could find a sign of us during the night until - guess what - while scouting for us the illegals were apprehended and said they came across some crazy gringos "camping" at about midnight. With that the Border Patrol was able to get an approximate location and the rest is history.
We are grateful to all those involved in getting us out of the canyon, and to those who keep us in shape to have our adventures. To a person, we hikers agreed this was the most physically miserable night of our lives. To that, my daughter added "aren't you glad you have a home and a warm bed". And to that I added, "yes, and what doesn't kill you, makes you better looking".