A Public Service Announcement from Hiking with Shawn

Howdy Folks,

These past couple of weeks have been very traumatic in terms of exercising safety in the Shawnee National Forest. We’ve seen several incidents of emergencies occurring within the forest boundary. It was almost as if it was a developing trend of injuries and sadly, a fatality. Shawnee National Forest is an awesome forest that should be experienced by everyone who can visit this area. However, it is important to come back from the forest in the same health you started out in. I wrote this emergency article to touch base on the previous incidents and ideas for the future of exercising safety in the Shawnee National Forest.

The Comment that Made this Exercising Safety Article a Reality!

Today, while checking the new comments for my videos on the Hiking with Shawn YouTube Channel page, I noticed a new comment was made on an older video I filmed in Panther Den Wilderness. The comment was upsetting to me not because of the how it was written, because people were in trouble in the National Forest that I love and I don’t ever like to hear about folks being injured or in trouble in our forest system. The comment read…

My sister and I visited this trail yesterday and got very lost. we were stuck in the middle of the woods for 5 hours. when we went there were NO signs. the trail says it’s a loop but the map showed it wasn’t a loop. We were so scared. we heard coyotes. My legs are all cut up I was covered in ticks. we eventually just followed the sun. it was so sketchy. I don’t think anyone.should go on this trail.

Now some social media warriors would take the defensive side of a response and reply negatively to the author especially for their statement of “I don’t think anyone should go on this trail.” I would disagree with responding in a defensive manner. This is because I understand the emotion of what the author was feeling. Imagine getting lost, being confused and not knowing where to go, then you hear sounds of wild animals that have been known to attack humans especially when in a pack. The two struggled to find their way out and got cut up and ticks all over them in the process. I don’t blame them for saying people shouldn’t use that trail but I do disagree with that statement. Panther Den Wilderness is an excellent section of the Shawnee National Forest to visit, it is our smallest wilderness area and has bluffage and rock formations that are very worth seeing. I wish the author of that comment would had reached out to me before they went and invited me to tag along, then I’d have given them an awesome experience and wonderful memories to share with others. Sadly, that was not the case.

That comment really set it off for me to write the blog post. The other factors were the recent headlines of local news that have been happening here as of late, including:

Now there has been a lot of debate on social media about the response to this series of harmful and fatal events that have occurred in and around the Shawnee National Forest. Some people feel that trails and recreational areas should be closed to the public – this isn’t realistic because the public needs access to outdoor recreation, restricting it will not only give a black eye to natural environmental awareness but it paints a picture that the People can’t visit the Public areas they pay for. Some folks want an increase in forest rangers, forest police officers and park rangers – again, this isn’t realistic because of the fact that southern Illinois forestry and state parks have very low budgets, we’re a rural area with very little means of revenue gains especially in the forest and state parks of the region. The answer to this series of trending emergency incidents is YOU! YOU ARE THE ANSWER, YOU ARE THE SOLUTION!

Safety Starts with YOU!

The Shawnee National Forest offer outdoor recreation to a variety of different types of forest users including day hikers, backpackers, horseback riders, road cyclists, mountain bikers, scenic driving, mushroom hunters, game hunters, fishing, educational opportunities and more. But like any National Forest, the environment is natural and therefore rarely offers human modifications to enhance safety because doing so would make the forest not so natural in the end…
The Shawnee National Forest is just that, a forest, a natural landscape of trees, bluffs, fields and natural elements. Nature can be awesome for those who wish to witness it but it can also be unforgiving to those who don’t know how to deal with risk and hazards will always be present.

In order to maintain an natural environment and landscape, little modification is done in terms of human use infrastructure. The more modifications that we add, the less of a chance the trees, plants and wildlife will survive. The forest is more home to the natural elements than it is the human element but we must both be able to cope with one other in order for the entire environment to exist.

SAFETY will always start with YOU!

By reading the comment of the author above, it told me that the two had no maps, GPS or compass. These three tools are so important to possess before venturing out into a wilderness area. A wilderness area is an area of the forest that is managed to be its most natural environment without any human modification besides trails and blazes. This is why bicycles and motorized vehicles are often prohibited from entering wilderness areas. Wilderness areas allow trees and plants to grow without limitation and for wildlife to live among it as their home without being manipulated. By entering any part of the forest without some form of navigation, you take the risk of getting lost very quickly. Most smart phones offer GPS-based applications that do not require an internet or data signal – many of these apps are free. You can also purchase maps and even get free ones from US Forestry offices in Harrisburg, Vienna and Jonesboro. Compasses can be purchased from most large retail outlets as well as online. Don’t get lost in the forest – take something with you that will help you find your way back home.

And to address the incidents being told in the news, which are mainly fall-related but there was also a child who was overheating as well.

Overheating is a serious health concern. Dehydration, heat stroke, losing consciousness and severe cramping are all risk factors associated with the act of human beings overheating. The forest has limited options on shelters, water sources and personnel support. This is due to the lack of budgeting that is present. Before you take a trip to anywhere within the Shawnee National Forest, make sure you dress properly and bring plenty of water. Bring enough water that will last you a couple of days in case there is an emergency. My backpack is often quite heavy because of the amount of water I bring with me and that is fine with me because I want to be able to hydrate when I am thirsty and after hiking, a strenuous activity, hydrating is extremely important. Another tip is to bring a filter system so that you can filter water from a flowing creek or waterfall for emergency water situations. Make sure you know how to properly use the water filter system before using it in an emergency. The human body requires fluid for proper hydration and severe health conditions doesn’t take very long to occur if you are overheating. They say the human body can go a few days without fluids, they don’t mention that overheating throws that theory right out the window.

Falling is a significant hazard in the Shawnee National Forest. If you have watched most of my videos, then you know that I have fallen a few times. As much as I hike and as much as I am pro-safety, I have still taken quite a few falls. Some of my falls could have been fatal if it wasn’t for my quick reactions. I react quickly through education and training that I have received from my time in the fire department and from my educational degree in emergency management. I always look at everything I see and create an escape route – not everyone does this but they should. It is better to be prepared than to not be prepared and don’t ever for one moment think that you are completely safe. My falls have made me learn more about safety and what I should and should not do in the future.

The hazard of falling reminds me of what a group hiking assistant once said in one of my videos, “If it’s wet, it’s slick. If it’s green, it’s slick. If it’s wet and green, it’s triple slick.” That statement rings true to my ears the very moment that I am writing this article. This is because that statement is very true. Before you go to the edge of some awesome and high bluffage, ask yourself if it is safe or not. Look down before you walk. Can you trip over anything? Is it wet? Is it green? When moss and other vegetation on top of the bluffs become wet, it is often as slick as ice. Really, as slick as ice – I am not even remotely exaggerating here. If you lose your footing and slip, you might find yourself falling from the bluff. I’ve watch videos of hikers who have broken ribs, penetrated lungs and nearly died by just falling 4-6 feet. It doesn’t take height to injure you, it really matters about how you land and where you land. With the utmost apologetic respect for the family of the victim who perished at Burden Falls, I must make this statement – if you fall from the top of Burden Falls main waterfall, the landing is nothing but rigid, uneven and large rocks that will not be forgiving. Again, knowing that statement could upset folks, I only say it to warn those who wish to go there and look over the edge.

Be a role model for safety in the Shawnee National Forest. YOU, yes YOU – you can be a role model and an ambassador of safety for the Shawnee National Forest and our state parks. You don’t have to register. You don’t have to apply. You don’t have to pay anything. All you have to do is look out for your own safety and the safety of others that are around you. If you see someone else (even if you don’t know them) doing something that could essentially leave to injury or worse, kindly and calmly tell them that they might consider against doing the act to increase their safety. Don’t be negative or hateful about it, talk with a voice and with words that will show that person that you care about their health and safety on the trail. You might even mention these previous incidents that have happened in hopes to give them a sort of a grim reminder that accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. You are a powerful voice of the forest and with that powerful voice, you can make a difference in the safety, health and well-being of your fellow forest user. Remember what Smokey the Bear says, Only you can prevent forest fires? Well Hiking with Shawn says, Only you can prevent safety concerns of your fellow forest users. Now if you are ignored or laughed at, you can’t say you didn’t try. If the act is extremely dangerous to the person or group and/or threatens the lives of others around – then it can be reported to the US Forestry Tip Line for the Shawnee National Forest by calling or texting 618-201-3364 which is available 24/7 and allows you to remain anonymous.

Why it Matters to Me, Hiking with Shawn

Since the creation of Hiking with Shawn, my YouTube Channel and fan-base has grown to a level that I had never expected it to grow to. Each week, I find myself getting messages, comments and emails (and even written letters and notes on my vehicle) from folks thanking me for filming the forest and our state recreational areas. I get fans who will tell me they never knew a place existed before seeing my videos about it and that they are extremely excited to visit these places.

The reason exercising safety in the Shawnee National Forest and our State Parks means so much to me is because I don’t want to ever feel like a victim from an incident discovered my videos before they went to visit a spot in the forest. It could likely happen especially as my channel grows. I make videos to celebrate the forest and parks and to promote them in hopes to make southern Illinois even better than what it is today because I feel out forest and state parks can make this area a lot better if more attention was placed on them. But I don’t ever want to think that my videos were the reason someone visited an area and then got hurt in that area. That saddens me, worries me and encouraged me to go head-on into a safety campaign for the forest and our state parks. I want you all to be safe and I want you to be able to come back home to your friends and family. I don’t ever want to see anyone get hurt.

As a final plea, I urge everyone who reads this to take these words into deep consideration. Before your next visit to the forest or the state parks, make sure you tell yourself and practice the act of putting safety before anything else and please encourage others to do the same.

Thank you for reading this article, I care about each and every one of you. I’m so sorry to the families and friends of the victims who perished in the forest and our state parks and I hope that everyone who visits our awesome natural areas are safe and sound in the end. Remember – you are the safety of the Shawnee and beyond!

Please feel free to comment below telling me what you thought about this article, adding additional safety advice and additional ideas on how we can all promote more safe acts to visitors of the Shawnee National Forest and our state parks. Lastly, please share this article with others and especially on social media in hopes that many people will read it and hopefully learn from it. This article will not ever run ads or sponsorship – no commercial gain will be from the direct result of this article.

Shawn J. Gossman

Shawn J. Gossman


Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.
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