Day trip to Punch Bowl Falls becomes harrowing overnight adventure
The warning note was scribbled on crime-scene tape, tied to a rock and thrown from a helicopter.
"Stay put. We see you. Danger."
Four college friends, including Tigard resident Renee Padia, 20, had planned to spent a hot Saturday swimming and cooling off at Punch Bowl Falls in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It's more of a walk than a hike: the four friends wore bikini tops, shorts and flip-flops. For supplies, they had apples.
Padia and Portlander Yuliya Bortnyak were showing off the town to their Oregon State University sorority friends, Mallory Yan and Jessica Miller of California. Their adventure ended by avoiding not one, but two forest fires, being led to a safe zone by a forest ranger, and sheltering overnight with an estimated 140 other people while helicopters tried, and failed, to drop supplies to them.
All four made it home safe, after a harrowing march along steep cliffs.
"We just wanted to show Mallory and Jessica around," Padia said Monday. "It didn't work out that way."
The idea had been to hike up to the falls and spend some time avoiding the heat. They had planned to hike in, swim a little, and hike back out. "We weren't really prepared for anything but to have fun," Padia said.
They packed up to walk back around 4:30 p.m. Saturday. That's when they started seeing giant pillars of smoke, not too far away. "We could see it was a forest fire," she said. "We had no idea it was the trail."
Other hikers had left earlier, but now they returned to warn the 140 or so others that the trail ahead was impassable.
"That's when we saw the helicopter," she said.
The note, thrown down and weighted by a rock, warned them to shelter in place.
But as the smoke grew thicker, the group began hiking away, moving along rocky cliffs toward Tunnel Falls.
It ended up being a 13-mile hike.
"It was starting to get really dark," the Tigard High School graduate said.
They met a forest ranger who told them they'd have to spend the night in the woods: there was no safe route out.
"That's when we knew we were spending the night with no food, no water, no tents," Padia said. "It was really cold. But everyone was in this together. That sort of kept us going."
The ranger told them that the helo intended to airdrop supplies but never found a safe flight plan back to them. With no supplies on the way, the OSU friends huddled together for the night. Someone lent them sweatshirts and an extra sleeping bag to keep their legs warm.
Looking back from the safety of her home in Tigard, Padia said she has no idea where they spent the night. "Just somewhere along the trail."
Around 5:30 a.m. Sunday, the ranger was joined by a firefighter carrying a flashlight. They took a headcount — to make sure everyone was accounted for — then got them moving.
The hike out took close to six hours, Padia said. They didn't spot the trailhead, and the buses waited for them, until about noon Sunday.
Padia, Bortnyak, Yan and Miller were on the last bus out.