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Into the Woods With a Witchy Woman

July 25, 1999|SAM BRUCHEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hunched over a glass-encased map while plotting an imaginary course through San Bernardino National Forest, Heather Donahue furrows her brow, studies a compass and sighs.

"We need to head east," the 24-year-old star of "The Blair Witch Project" says tentatively. "But this definitely isn't the same as the Thomas Guide."

The actress, a native of rural Pennsylvania who now lives in Hollywood, grew up a self-described mall rat. She never owned a wool cap, much less ventured into the great outdoors before taking on the role of a documentary film student intent on investigating a legend of murderous witchcraft in the Maryland woods. That's when Donahue got a crash course in camping and hiking.

Today, she has taken us to the Manhattan Beach REI, the outdoor sporting and equipment store, to point out her favorite gear and talk about her newfound interest in nature.

"I thought I was a regular Grizzly Adams because I prepared for the movie by reading books on how to survive in the woods," Donahue says. However, dressed in a sky-blue sleeveless top with pleated black slacks and high-heeled sandals, she looks anything but an outdoorswoman.

"Getting out there for eight days with no toilets and showers is the only way to learn," she says.

Striding over to a display of tents, Donahue kneels inside a roomy octagonal model and talks easily about the benefits of nylon that breathes and vestibules that keep leftover food safe from nocturnal critters.

"Ours didn't circulate air very well, which started to get to me after about the fourth day together," she says, referring to the tent she shared with co-stars Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard.

Sleeping bags, she says, should be fitted, clipped to foam sleeping cushions and insulated against temperatures below zero.

Such lessons were never a part of her own family's vacations. The oldest of three children, Donahue says her family, like many others in Pennsylvania, packed their cars whenever possible and headed for New Jersey water parks, where the air hung thick with the smell of French fries and peanut oil.

Since filming "The Blair Witch Project," Donahue has spent several days testing her new skills by camping in Big Sur and hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains. These latest excursions were tame in comparison to the film's rigorous shoot, Donahue says.

"For the movie, we carried heavy camera equipment and tons of extra batteries in our bags, which we couldn't drop or get wet because it was all rented equipment. So we learned pretty quickly how to balance a pack or cross a stream without getting wet," she says.

"You have to accept that what you are doing is actually sleeping on dirt. That took about four days. But after that, I was fine."

Donahue acknowledges that her hay fever and allergic reactions to horses, cats, dogs, bees and honey might curtail any burgeoning passion for the woods. It's one reason, she says, she's looking into water sports as a more practical hobby.

"I'd love to do a sequel with a boating theme," she says, easing into a one-man plastic boat called a Yak. "They could call it 'Blair Witch on the Water.' "

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