He wants no one else to get lost

Times Staff Writer

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 its way to the Oregon coast.

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


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 a custom-designed sign a few weeks ago at the beginning of Bear Camp Road near this tiny hamlet in southwestern Oregon:


Remote Road System Ahead


You Could Get Stranded and Die!!!



But federal land officials made him remove the sign, saying it violated regulations for the wilderness area.

Rachor instead put the sign on private land nearby, though he worries the spot is much less visible.

“They need to do something radical,” said Rachor, 58, who uses his small helicopter to shuttle between 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 U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman said a panel of federal, state and local officials was considering how strongly motorists should be warned about the winding and narrow mountain road -- both in summer, when it is most heavily used and considered safest to drive, and in winter, when snow and icy fog return to southwestern Oregon.

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

But such access always carries risk, and plenty of 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 not hurt, told police that his dispatchers had told him to take the road as the most direct route to the 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 help.

The issue of posting warning signs or closing some roads flared in December after the death of Kim, a 35-year-old Internet journalist from San Francisco who made the fateful decision on a snowy night to try Bear Camp Road, a logging route, as a shortcut to the coast.

The question of how a family could vanish on a routine holiday trip -- and not be found for a week -- captured attention 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 warned of the potential perils and are prepared for survival if they venture into the wilderness.

“Shoot, I might not survive nine days in San Francisco,” Rachor said. “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, 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 coast.

Along the road the other day there were a few logging trucks, plenty of four-wheel-drive vehicles pulling raft-laden trailers to get them back up the Rogue River, and a few tourists seeking a scenic way through the forest and on to the Pacific Ocean.

About 12 miles from Galice, a fork in the road offers a sharp reminder of the tragedy that befell James Kim.

“To the coast” is spray-painted in bright orange letters on the road, along with arrows directing motorists left.

To the right, the letters simply say “Dead End.” (The words were covered by snow the night the Kims drove through.)

A few hundred feet beyond, a locked gate blocks passage to Bureau of Land Management Road 34-8-36, the road that James Kim took.

Though passable, the road is not for the faint of heart in any season. It alternates between pavement and gravel and frequently narrows to one lane, so that passing vehicles have to pull over to make room for each other.

Nonetheless, it remains an extremely tempting route for those who want to be surrounded by magnificent forests of fir, pine and hemlock.

“It’s so beautiful up there, it’s almost blue with trees,” said Russ Wittrock, a longtime volunteer at the Grants Pass visitors center. “The problem is, it’s just too easy to get lost.”

Despite some newspaper editorials and letters demanding that the roads be closed to motorists -- in winter, at least -- a Bureau of Land Management spokesman said the idea wasn’t popular among residents.

“A lot of the locals are very pro-access,” said the BLM’s Howard Hunter.

Rachor didn’t meet Kati Kim until several weeks after he found her. It was at a memorial service for James in San Francisco. The rescue was carried out by a crew from another helicopter whom Rachor had directed to the spot.

Below him, Kati kept pointing frantically up the road -- the route her husband had taken. Rachor knew exactly what she was indicating.

So he kept his helicopter over the footprints in the snow, a trail that rescuers quickly followed but that ended at a point where there was no more snow.

James Kim’s body was found two days later.

Kati Kim called Rachor and thanked him for saving her and her daughters. Her father, Phil Fleming, posted a note on a family website calling Rachor “an amazing guy and certainly a super hero to our family.”

Rachor wrote to Fleming describing his happiness when he saw Kati and her umbrella.

“I get choked up with tears every time I talk about John’s letter,” Fleming said.

At the memorial service, John and Susan Rachor, as well as Kati, teared up when they finally met in person.

“It was an extremely emotional moment,” Rachor recalled. “She just kept hugging us and saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ ”