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A Drone Stalked Me in the Woods Last Night

It was kind of romantic, but also really dystopian.
View from Mitchell Point/Wikimedia

Like most people that tend to see strange stuff in the sky, I like being out of doors at night and I do it a lot. Sometimes that means having an end of day beer by the river. Sometimes, like last night, that means scaling steep volcanic rock formations. It was warm even at twilight, and a near-full moon turned the sunset tendrils of fog from purple to matte grey. Perfect. And it turns out the pilot(s) of a small unmanned aerial vehicle agreed.

As I took in some of the moonrise I heard a kind of strange sound behind me peeking out from the usual muffled din of highway and train tracks at the bottom of the gorge: a tinny electrical motor. There hovering just off the point's precipice was a smallish rectangle of green and red lights, about 30 feet away and right about the same elevation as my face. We watched each other for a minute or so, and then the drone dipped away. A few minutes later it returned to the same spot. I shouted at it like some kind of idiot and waved it over, but nope, after another minute it buzzed away for good.

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I mostly thought, “Hey, weird” while it was in front of me. But after it left and it was just me, my dog, some inky fog and dark trail, I managed to freak myself out pretty good with the idea that the UAV would just pop out of some bushes all like HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. It did not. The whole thing culminated with my giving a kind of hard time to a dude in a RV in the trailhead parking lot—“was that your drone?" I asked—and a phone call into Jill Vacek, the press rep of Insitu, a tech startup cum Boeing subsidiary that designs and manufactures drones in a town three or four miles from last night’s encounter.

To my surprise, Vacek told me that it was not in fact Insitu's drone: "We only operate our aircraft in approved areas in Eastern Oregon under a Certificate of Authorization (COA) for maintenance and testing purposes," Vacek said.

So, a random drone? The situation mostly implicates the dude with the RV, I guess. I asked him straight out if it was his UAV up on the point and his response was, literally, to turn out all of the lights in the vehicle and pretend to be asleep. But then in a gorge full of weirdos living in RVs, that's actually not exceptional behavior though it might fit not wanting to talk about your drone stalking.

Mitchell Point, where I met my new UAV friend, is remote mostly in terms of elevation. An hour upriver from Portland and just a few miles from the windsurfing paradise of Hood River, the 1,200-foot outcropping is easily accessible. In fact, it has its own exit ramp from an interstate highway.

But the trail from the parking lot is straight up and overall a moderately brutal ascent; the net effect is like scaling a skyscraper of grass, rain forest, and basalt talus. A showpiece of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and nestled next to the Mark Hatfield Wilderness, Mitchell Point is also a fairly protected and quiet spot, despite its proximity to the Portland metro area. Scaling it will usually involve a fair amount of noise from the highway and railroad tracks below, but make no mistake, it is an away place. I like it a lot. And I can also see how a hobbyist drone cinematographer, say, might like it a lot too. The place is gorgeous—ideal, presumably, for sweeping GoPro pans of piney stands at twilight.

Am I making my meeting last night too much of a thing? Maybe. But I’m usually more levelheaded about drones than 95 percent of the technology press. I've just never cared about drones very much, and I think hype is corrosive.

But I guess I do care now because that particular feeling there on the point right after the drone dropped from sight is a feeling that I’ve never had before. Nothing even comes close, to be honest. More people will have experiences like mine in the future, no doubt, if not hiking Mitchell Point at dusk, then somewhere else in their day-to-day lives. That’s when all of this drone stuff will get really interesting, when people begin to feel that particular feeling chipping away at the edge of everyday life.

@everydayelk