by Jonathan Shipley

A Tragedy in the Oregon Wilderness

The family sat down for a meal. It was at a Denny's Restaurant, right off of Interstate 5 near the high school in Roseburg, Oregon. It was dark out. The restaurant had its regular crowd of customers. Maybe a few more. It was November 25, right after Thanksgiving, and families were making their ways back home from the holiday. The husband, 35-year-old James Kim, and his wife, 30-year-old Kati, sat down with their two young daughters, four-year-old Penelope and seven-month-old Sabine. They ordered. It was around 8:00 p.m., close to Penelope's bedtime. They were hoping to get to the Tu Tu Tum Lodge in Gold Beach along the Oregon Coast before too long. They had called the lodge hours before when they were near Portland to confirm that there was room for them. There was, and they were eager to get there. But they were hungry and so they ordered a children's macaroni and cheese, a Boca Burger and a chef salad. It would be the last meal James Kim would ever eat.

They had spent Thanksgiving in Seattle with family. They had a long drive ahead of them. They lived in San Francisco. He worked for CNET as a senior editor, writing product reviews and producing video and audio podcasts for both CNET and MP3 Insider. CNET, based in San Francisco, is a media company offering programming about computers, technology and the internet. Before that, he was an analyst for an international cable TV network, Tech TV. His wife ran a couple of family-owned shops in San Francisco. They were busy, down by the Bay, but were committed to each other and everyone noted how much they loved each other — they had married in June 2001 in a small ceremony in Big Sur — and how much James doted on his children.

The family left Seattle in their 2005 all-wheel drive Saab station wagon, making their way to Portland to visit a college friend (Kati graduated from the University of Oregon in 2007) and to do a little shopping. Darkness descended and they decided to continue south. They ate dinner at Denny's and then, further down I-5, missed the exit onto Oregon Route 42, the main highway connecting the interstate to the coast. Tu Tu Tum Lodge sat on the coast, nestled in the woods near where the Rogue River meets the Pacific Ocean.

Grants Pass, Oregon, the county seat of Josephine County, was soon approaching and so they pulled out a map of Oregon, realizing they had missed their road connection. They saw on the map a road that was a straight shot to the nearby coast. It was Bear Camp Road. James pulled into a gas station to confirm with the attendant there about the map and directions. The attendant didn't give him any indication that it was a dangerous route.

It was. The road wound through rugged wilderness, traversing the Klamath Mountains. Paved and one-lane, with few turnouts and with gravel stretches in spots, Bear Camp Road climbs the crest of the Coast Range. It reaches over 4,000 feet in elevation. It's narrow, crooked, challenging, steep drop-offs are regular. It is nearly impossible to cross in winter. In 1996, Dewitt Finley, a camper salesman from Montana attempted to drive it. He became snowbound and died after having been stranded there for nine weeks. In the journal he kept, he wrote, "I have no control over my life; its all in His Hands. 'His will be done.'" Finley's body wasn't found until the following spring, discovered by a gaggle of teenagers. In the spring of 2006, just months before the Kim's journey, the Striver and Higginbotham families had been stranded in their motor home for two weeks. They watched the search efforts for them on their TV inside the motor home. Two hiked out to find help. They found it. No one was injured or died.

The Kims turned onto Bear Camp Road at 10:30 p.m. to make their way to the lodge. The Kim family drove higher, deep into the Siskiyou National Forest until they ran into snow. Dark now, cold, heavy snow falling, the conditions were treacherous and James Kim, behind the wheel, stopped. He tried to back-out. Now, gas getting lower and lower in the Saab's tank, he backed down the road to an intersection below a warning sign that read "Road May Be Blocked by Snowdrifts 6 Miles Ahead."

The snow kept coming. They called 9-1-1. There was no reception this deep into the woods. They tried again. Nothing. To get to a lower elevation and out of the snow, they took a U.S. Bureau of Land Management side road, a logging spur that wound deep into the forests towards the Rogue River. The road as usually locked in the winter. The Bureau of Land Management had accidentally left it open. The road led to nowhere. It was a dead end.

2 a.m. now, they parked the car. They were below the snow line. They tried to sleep, hoping a snow plow would come by in the morning. It didn't. The next day, November 26, they awoke. Low on gas and food, they did not want to run the risk of driving through the snow again. They found a gate near where they had parked. In Crayon James wrote, "Low on Gas, Low on Food, 2 Babies" and stuck the note to the fence. No one saw it. No one came. They spent another night in their car hoping someone would find them soon.

On the morning of November 27, they awoke to another heavy snowfall. They were stuck — snowbound — immobilized. They had to think now, make plans, set rules. It was time to start thinking about survival. No getting wet. No getting hurt. No getting sick. They melted snow in bottles for water. They fed on bites of baby food, crackers, rice cereal, some berries they could find in the woods. Kati breast fed her two children. James stayed up nights to rub their feet to keep them warm. No one saw them. No one came.

They were officially reported missing on the November 29 by their house sitter in San Francisco, a day when it snowed harder on the Kim family. When were their rescuers coming? Where were the search parties? Where were the plows? The sheriff? The helicopters? The dogs? Who would find them snowbound and lost in the middle of nowhere?

The car finally ran out of gas. They had turned it on intermittently for heat until the gas ran out. It was Thursday, November 30, and they were desperate for heat and desperate to be found. They stamped SOS and OUT OF GAS in the snow. The car's battery went dead. The day before they had burned magazines and wet wood to try and keep warm. Today they burned a spare tire.

Desperation set in. They burned all the tires in hopes the smoke would alert the searchers as to their whereabouts. Tempers flared. Blame darted between them for the dire predicament they were in. James wanted to set out alone for help. Kati wanted him to stay. They consulted their Oregon map again and again. They thought Galice was four miles from where they were. He could get there in a matter of hours. It was only four miles away. But it wasn't. It was 15 miles away, separated by rugged streambeds, gullies and forest.

On Saturday James told his wife that he would get help. Galice was not far. They were all weakened, hungry, tired, scared, fearful for their lives. He left the family in the car, kissing his children. It was 7:46 a.m. He told his wife, his watch affixed to his wrist, that he would return by 1:00 p.m. if he had found help or not, perhaps with Cokes and chocolate. Kati would never see her husband alive again.

It was Sunday now. Search parties scoured the Oregon wilderness, looking for the Kim family. Ten government agencies were involved in finding them. Rescuers, on snowmobiles, on ATVs, on foot, in the air, on horseback, they all set out to find the family of four. As they tried Kati picked up her children, close against her trembling body, and walked, hearing helicopters overhead. She turned back to the car hours later where she had left a note, "James left at 7:45 yesterday morning. He didn't come back. I've taken the girls and have tried to hike out." She was exhausted. There was no hope, she thought, in making it out alone, in being found.

And then, on Monday, December 4, she was found. A helicopter spotted her waving a pink umbrella. It had been nine days since they had become snowbound. With a mild case of frostbite, Kati and her children were transported to Three Rivers Community Hospital in nearby Grants Pass. They were all in surprisingly good condition. Kati pleaded for the search to continue. Her husband was still missing and he didn't have much with him — a sweater, a couple pairs of pants, a flashlight, some tennis shoes. Where did he go?

James Kim, after leaving the car, had walked down the road he had come down for a few miles. Then, for reasons known only to him, he walked off the road, down a steep forest hillside to a creek he had seen from the road. Perhaps he thought he would follow the creek down. Creeks lead to rivers. Rivers lead to towns. While he hiked, he left traces of himself — footprints in the snow, torn bits of map, pieces of his daughters' clothing — so the trackers could track him, or possibly so he could find his way back. He continued along the creek, hoping to find someone or something that would save his family.

On Wednesday, December 6 at 12:03 p.m., James Kim's body was found face up in three feet of water in Big Windy Creek. He had died of hypothermia, wearing a heavy dark jacket, a gray sweater, a T-shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes. He had walked more than 10 miles on his trek and yet his car, from where he lay, was only a little over one mile as the crow flies. He was also only one mile from Black Bear Lodge, a resort that, though closed for the winter, was fully-stocked with supplies.

A helicopter lowered Jackson County SWAT team members to Kim's body. His head was brushing against a rock. His body was slightly submerged in the frigid creek water. The helicopter lowered a red-orange stretcher and Kim, covered in a blanket, was placed in it. The helicopter lifted the basket up and James Kim was lifted out. The watch he was wearing was returned to his wife. It had stopped.



Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer living in Seattle. He's written for a variety of publications including the LA Times, Boston Globe, Lexus Magazine and Diner Journal.

Articles in this Issue

Introduction, by the Editors
The Bobcat, by George Getschow
Aileron, by Margaret Combs
Odd Birds, by Mark Kurlansky
Hollow Earth, by Chelsea Bauch
Snowbound, by Jonathan Shipley
Staking Claims, by Chantal Corcoran
The Seven Pound Lion, by David Helvarg
Yosemite's Twin, by Sam Kean
Diagnosis Alaska, by Charles Wohlforth