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Be wary of treacherous back roads

The Washington Post

GALICE, Ore. – John Rachor, a helicopter pilot, has spent much of his life hiking in, driving through or flying over the thick forests and rocky Siskiyou Mountains that rise from the Rogue River here.

It was Rachor, acting on a hunch, who found Kati Kim and her two young daughters in December, a week after the Kim family disappeared down a remote federal logging road while trying to make their way to the Oregon coast for a vacation.

"The best thing I have ever seen in my life was Kati running around in the road waving her umbrella," Rachor recalls.

At the same time, Rachor remains haunted by the footsteps he spotted leading away from the site. They belonged to James Kim, Kati's husband and the girls' father, who died of exposure after setting out to find help for his stranded family.

Having played a role in the story, Rachor knew what he was talking about when he posted his custom-designed sign at the beginning of Bear Camp Road near this tiny hamlet in southwestern Oregon a few weeks ago:

DANGER

Remote Road System Ahead

DANGER

You Could Get Stranded and Die!!!

DANGER.

But federal land officials made him remove the 3-by-5 sign from federal property, saying it violated signage regulations for the wilderness area.

Rachor has put it back up on private land nearby, though he worries the spot is much less visible than the place he first put it.

"They need to do something radical," says Rachor, 58, who uses his small helicopter to shuttle among the eight Burger King franchises he and his wife, Susan, own in southern Oregon.

"There is just not adequate enough warning to people that this road, as beautiful as it is, can be very treacherous."

A Bureau of Land Manage-ment spokesman says a panel of federal, state and local officials is indeed considering just how strongly motorists should be warned about the winding, narrow mountain road – both in the summer, when it is most heavily used and considered safest to drive, but also in the winter, when snow and icy fog return to southwestern Oregon.

There are more than 600,000 miles of back-country roads stitched across the country in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management systems. Many are used not only by loggers and miners, but also by hikers, hunters, campers cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and families in search of a Christmas tree.

But such access will always carry risk, and there are still plenty of cases in which drivers become lost, stranded, stuck or snowed in.

Last month, a big rig pulling a 53-foot trailer got stuck in snow and mud on Bear Camp Road and caught fire. The driver, who was unhurt, told police his dispatchers had told him to take the road as the most direct route to the Oregon coast. In another incident last month, a car carrying two young women got stuck in snow after it slid off the road. Unlike the Kims, they were able to make a cellphone call for rescue.

The issue of sign warnings and even closure of some roads flared last December after the death of Kim, a 35-year-old Internet journalist from San Francisco who made a fateful decision on a snowy night to try Bear Camp Road, a logging route, as a shortcut to the coast. The question of how an ordinary family could vanish on a routine holiday trip -- and not be found for a week -- captured media attention from around the world.

For Rachor, a burly, friendly man with an infectious laugh, the solution is not to close the roads. It is to make sure that drivers are better warned of the potential perils and prepared for survival if they do venture into the wilderness.

``Shoot, I might not survive nine days in San Francisco,'' says Rachor. ``I'd be way out of my element there. It's a question of being able to cope with your element.''

For now, with only a few wisps of snow left along the road, the Bear Camp Road is open for travel, remaining by far the most direct route from southern Oregon cities such as Grants Pass and Medford to the southern Oregon coast. v

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