Chapter Six: The Final Miles
After a good nights sleep, I woke to the pink glow of the morning’s dawn on a few high clouds. I daydreamed of eggs and bacon frying in a pan. The smell of fresh biscuits and sweet creamy butter. The feel of a soft tongue kissing my ear… Breeze you little shit! I stretched and sat up and evaluated my head wound. It was beginning to scab up some and still felt quite deep and painful. I retired the towel and crawled out of my tent. On the outside of the vestibule was something I couldn’t quiet make out. It was a pheasant hen. Breeze had provided again.
I pulled on my long johns and fleece shirt and went about stoking the fire back up. Breeze sat and watched I as prepared the hen as best as I could to be breakfast. Again Breeze got the parts I couldn’t quite stomach including a lot of internal stuff I couldn’t quite identify. I gave him the last of his canned food. I was down to two bags of food. Everything else had been washed out of the pack when it tore open. I was glad I separated the freeze dried food from the fresh and canned food. At least I had something and with Breeze being my provider, I doubt we would starve.
I pulled out my Garmin to see what kind of signal I might get… if it worked at all. The screen had been shattered and one button pushed inside. I knew it was waterproof but with a busted screen I didn’t want to take the chance of powering it up till I was sure it was good and dry. I had separated the batteries and left the back cover off. Wrapped it in my wool sock, yes I only had one left, and hooked it to the top of my pack where it might get some sun. It was the moment of truth. This was the biggest clearing I had come across in two days. Would it power up and triangulate? If it did would I be able to see anything on the busted screen?
I put it back in the sock and broke down camp. I figured I would need to get to the lake by noon and I might catch another hiker passing through. I still felt like the Trail should be north. Breeze was excited to hit the trail again. I pulled out the Garmin and flicked the switch. At first there was a sorta white glow on the busted screen, then a flash or two of color. I watched with my fingers and toes crossed. My heart sunk as the screen went black. Damn boy, we are on our own…
I could see the mountains in the distance, snow capped and silent. I could see a familiar landmark that I remembered reading about in the guide book. I pulled out my phone that had been saved by days in a bag of freeze dried chicken and rice, and opened up the picture I had taken. I guessed the trail shouldn’t be too far off and with the trees thinning out I might actually find it today and soon. I set off towards the north keeping the land mark always at 11:00. At 9:36am we stumbled upon the trail. I dropped my pack and scrambled up a tree and could see the lake I had seen from the top of the last pass! We had found the right trail. Only a few miles to go…
Chapter Five: In the End… It’s the Little Things That Matter
Dawn comes early this time of year. Over twenty four hours have passed since I woke up in my own bed, complaining about how hot it was. Since I had a good breakfast and double checked my pack and called everyone on my team of drivers. This morning I am lying here awake wondering which way to go? Forward or back? Do I call in a rescue if I can get the Garmin to work? I still need to find the trail before I can decide which way to go. I sat up and looked around.
Breeze was lying with all fours in the air, head cocked towards me and smiling, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. I looked around and all I could see was dead trees. I struggled to get to my feet as I swooned as I attempted to stand. My head was pounding with the worse headache I have ever had. I am pretty sure I have a concussion or something. I sip down the rest of the water I boiled the night before but it did nothing to quench my thirst. I dug through my pack and laid out my clothes on a few dead trees anticipating the sun to come over the ridge soon. I pulled out another bag of food, boiled some more water and made breakfast.
Breeze had taken off to do whatever it is he needs to do. I sat down and enjoyed my meal. I sipped down two more pots of boiled water over the next hour and called for Breeze. I hear him bounding through the trees and he arrives with a squirrel in his jaws. He gently places it in front of me and gives it a nudge. I pick it up and checked it out for bugs or whatever lives on squirrels. Seemed pretty clean and was obviously killed by the dog. I dug in my pack again and found my Leatherman, yes the one I was bitching about. I carefully slit the belly of the squirrel open and gutted and skinned it like I saw on Bear Grylls. I stoked the fire and stuck it on a spit I cut from a nearby live tree. It smelled a little like chicken and tasted like a rabbit I had eaten once on a dare. I gave Breeze the head and a back leg along with another couple scoops of his canned food. We both sat back against a tree and felt the life course back into our veins.
I took my trail towel and cut a slice off it to wrap around my head to reduce the headache and close my wound a bit. I checked my watch… 3:45pm. The sun had been overhead for most of the day and I had dried out everything quite nicely. I had to take a few cat naps in between the rotisserie of my belongings. Breeze would take off and come back to check on me every so often. He’d kiss my face and nudge me awake. Probably a good thing with a head injury. I decided I needed to drink a bit more water and be off by 6 pm.
I packed all my belongings into my tattered pack and hoisted it onto my back and decided I needed to head north. Since as far as I could see was dense trees and acres of dead trees standing, fallen to the ground in huge tangles and ones leaning on other dead ones. I choose my direction carefully and wound my way over under and through the forest, so as to avoid as many climbing challenges as possible. The dead leaning trees creaked eerily as the wind blew. It was getting near dark again I still had yet to find the trail.
Tired and hungry, burning with thirst again, head pounding at a dizzying level, I decided to find a camp spot. Breeze was eagerly bouncing about running back and forth from me to an unseen area of the forest. I followed his lead and the trees opened up into a yellow meadow of flowers. There were two 15 foot Aspen trees standing at 15 feet apart. I threw down my pack at the base of one and pulled out my tent and set it up between the two. I love the sound of the aspen leaves in the evening air. I gathered wood and presto I had fire. There was a small trickle of a mountain spring not too far from camp and I boiled as much water as I could before the sun went down then used the last bit in another gourmet freeze dried meal.
Chapter Four: How Dumb Does a Dumb Dog Get?
It was an hour past dark when I finally got through the maze of trees. I found an opening with some soft grass and laid out my sleeping bag and attempted to set up my bivouac. I found my headlamp to be in working order and sought out some dry wood and kindling to get a small fire. My water bottle had been stripped off the pack so all I had to drink out of, carry water in and collect water to boil, was a bit bigger than a good size coffee mug. I thought at least I could get a fire, boil some water and eat a freeze dried meal, I’d be set for tonight at least. I already had a headache and cotton mouth, I felt like my tongue was Velcro and the top of my mouth it’s mate. I was in pretty bad shape… and scared.
In my little safety bag I carry some flint and steel and drier lint soaked in wax. It’s never done me wrong in the past. If I could get a miracle tonight I would sleep much better and stand a chance of making it through the freezing cold night. I smiled at myself as I thought… glad I’m not naked and afraid.
I struck the flint and steel once, twice and the third time a small flame came to life. I held my breath and fed it gingerly. It grew into life and I cried. I sobbed like a little baby. I suddenly heard a crashing coming through the brush and I looked up just in time to see beady red eyes barreling down on me. I braced for impact as I saw it leap into the air. I fell over from the blow and suddenly had a face full of slobber and a very wet 70 lbs of utter joy laying on top of me. “Breeze! You dumb dog… I am so glad to see you.”
I went to my pack and pulled out a small can of dog food I stashed away in case of an emergency. I popped the lid open and dug out a few scoops onto the ground and Breeze scarfed it up in one gulp. “Enjoy your food silly… pickins are getting slim.” I pulled out my little pot and went over to the edge of the swamp and filled it with water. Thirty minutes later I was enjoying a meal made for a king… freezer dried eggs and bacon that was way too salty for my dehydrated state. My mouth filled itself with a spring of saliva as I took a bite.
After my meal I boiled another pot of water, stoked the fire, double checked everything was put away… this is bear country… and Breeze and I covered ourselves up with my slightly drier sleeping bag and passed out.
Chapter Three: Oh My Lord… This is Cold!
It took about thirty minutes to get to the stream. Of course it was way out of its banks. It had even flooded a few low lying areas and fields surrounding the stream. I could see several large animal tracks in the mud surrounding the overflowed areas. I noticed a set of moose tracks, some big cat tracks and many small deer tracks. It was plain that these animals came down at night to drink or hunt those who came to drink. Speaking of which I needed to refill my water bottle. The pass had taken its toll along with the heat of the day. I dropped my pack on a downed tree and pulled out my filter and pump. Five minutes later I was topped off.
I looked around for Breeze. He was rolling around in something he found that obviously smelled so good he felt he needed to take some with him. I whistled and he stopped what he was doing and came right over.
The bridge had been torn up pretty good and a foot underwater by the Spring run off and there was no sign of any attempt to build an extension. The approach was about waist deep and had a very sticky muddy bottom. I poked around with my poles to find an area that was a little less sticky. I took another step… my first step was sucked deep into the mud. I wiggled it loose and planted it in front of the other foot that was now faster stuck into the same river mud. Again I had told Breeze to “STAY!” and he paced back and forth along the edge of the water. I looked back and reiterated my “STAY”. I continued to take it one small step at a time until I finally found the first step on the bridge. It was about knee deep in water and I couldn’t see through the muddy torrent so I used my hiking sticks to find my next purchase of solid ground. I am not sure when things went wrong.
Breeze couldn’t hold himself any longer and he jumped into the water almost doing a belly flop. His paws got stuck in the muck and he was knocked off his feet. “Swim dumb dumb”, I yelled, as I stood on my own unsteady footing. He attempted to paddle but the current was too strong and his pack was acting like an anchor. In my concern for him I lost my footing and fell through the bridge where there was a missing plank. I went down to my crotch and the water pushed me and my pack backwards and under water. I attempted to release my waist band and get my poles off my wrists. I failed at my attempts. I finally got my leg loose and sunk like a stone. I tumbled and tumbled down the river until I finally got my pack released. I continued to float in the icy water till I saw a downed tree coming up fast. I knew I had but one chance to grab the tree up high or I would be a permanent part of the strainer it was creating. I saw my pack float up to it an immediately get pulled under. I was next…
I could feel hypothermia kicking in… I couldn’t feel my hands or feet. Seconds seemed like hours, everything moved in slow motion as I was sure I was rushing towards my death. I timed my grab so that I could try to push off the bottom and catch the tree as high as I could. From there I would have to muster up every last bit of energy I had left to pull myself out against the rushing current that would want to strip me free and pull me under to my watery grave. Would anybody ever find me? Three, two, one kick and grab!
I am not sure how long I hung there. I was pinned against the tree. I was freezing and the shivering made it difficult for me pull myself up. I tried to see if I could touch the bottom but it was too far below. I prayed for the sun to find me so it could give me the life force I needed to get myself out of this jam. I hung there for what seemed like hours. Finally the sun found my numb fingers, then my arms and face. I can’t explain what happened next… it was like the hand of the creator reached down and scooped me out of the water and up onto the tree far enough I could pull myself to the edge of the river.
I laid on the bank of the swollen stream and again found the sun. I was shivering uncontrollably. My teeth chattered together with such force I thought they would break into a million pieces. My head tingled and my brain hurt. I felt something warm running down the side of my nose… blood!? Oh shit… I’m bleeding!? I felt my head and found a pretty good gash just above my hairline. I actually explored it for some time because it was warm and brought a little feeling back into my finger tips. I laid there and thought of the guys I had seen on NATGEO that would climb inside a dead animal to warm up… BREEZE!?
From out of nowhere I found an unworldly burst of energy and got myself to my feet. I looked around and yelled for him. No sign, no happily bounding pup, no barking, whimpering… nothing. Only the sound of the damn river. I next knew I needed to try to find my pack. I needed to try to free it from the strainer. It was my lifeline, my only connection with the outside. I needed my Garmin… I needed to get away from this river as soon as possible. The sun was sinking behind the mountains and I was hurt, freezing and alone.
I wandered around until I found a large stick. I was bleeding pretty good and had to stop every now and then to wipe the blood from my eyes. I slowly shimmied out on the tree that just minutes ago tried to take my life. Looking back I am not sure what I thought I was going to do. I don’t think I was thinking clearly. The water was so muddy you couldn’t see more than a few inches down. I tried to remember where I saw it get sucked under. I poked around until I felt something soft… Breeze? I began to sob then caught myself, “get it together girl!” I poked and prodded until I finally caught what I thought was a shoulder strap… dogs don’t have straps… oh but he did have his pack on… CRAP! I took a deep breath and pulled with all my might. Pop… like a cork from a bottle out popped my pack.
I watched as it floated and floated and kept floating! “Snap out of it and run girl,” I thought to myself. I was in a trance and there goes my pack around the turn and out of sight. I scurried to the bank and slogged through the river’s edge, my legs felt wobbly and I was still freezing cold. As I rounded the corner and tore through some willows… I saw it! It was about 10 feet off shore stuck on the roots of a downed tree. Further out in mid stream I saw another bright blue object caught in the tree itself. Breeze? I knew it could only be his pack… boy he’s gonna be pissed if we can’t find each other… he’s got no food, and Breeze doesn’t miss a meal. I had to find some humor because my heart is sunk. I stood on the edge and knew I HAD TO GET MY PACK! My brain just ached and my arms and legs felt full of mud. I didn’t have a stitch of dry clothing on so what the hell right?! I found an Aspen sapling and a somewhat axe like rock and eventually got it cut down. Hmm, 8 feet of good solid tree, this will work well I think. On the end was a fork and a few sturdy branches off one side resembling a treble hook. I felt like a knight going into battle with my lance to free the poor madden from the icy river.
I slowly inched my way through ankle deep muck and found the hole caused by the tree’s roots and the river backwash. It was about waist deep as far as I could tell with my lance. I edged into the hole and grabbed a root that was still embedded in the ground and pulled myself over to the root system. I climbed onto the roots and got myself out to the water. Again I was a popsicle and nothing was working quite right. My grip was a strong as I could get it with my hands numb and I knew that I would get one shot… only one.
I positioned myself over the pack and wrapped my one arm around the tree roots and dipped into the water to snag the pack. I could clearly see how it was hooked at least a few inches down… I dipped the pole into the water, hooked the shoulder band and tugged as hard as I could. I moved a little bit and I had to reposition my grip further down which required me to release the tree roots. I balanced myself precariously on the tree and grabbed further down and leaned back. It yielded some more and I could now go to the top of the roots and pull with two hands. I stuck my torso through a strong set of roots and pulled with all my might. It came loose and weighed a ton. I had to grab it and try to fling it into the mud at the side of the river, ten feet away. Success!
I slogged back to the edge and snagged my pack out of the muck. I found a small clearing where a small bit of filter sunlight came through. I felt like a beam of warm laser light as it moved back and forth my back with the breeze. I undid my pack and pulled out its contents. Everything except a t-shirt buried deep inside my clothes roll was soaked. I quickly peeled my shirt and jacket off and put on the shirt. It felt warm against my hypothermic skin. I doubled over and my head just throbbed. If I could find an opening with enough sun I might be able to dry out my sleeping bag and at least I might not freeze tonight.
I dug around for my gun and my Garmin. There was a hole in the side of the pack whereby both of them were stored in an easy access pocket. I didn’t hold much hope when I saw the size of the hole. I struggled with the zipper but finally got my fingers to work and opened the pocket. The gun was gone and the Garmin was there but it appeared to have been banged around. I counted my blessings and hoisted my soggy pack onto my back, cinched it up tight and began to try to make my way in the direction of the lake and the trail.
There were a ton of downed black pines and a ton of dead standing ones. It looked like a giant’s game of pick up sticks. I had to climb over whole piles of trees, go under piles of trees caught in other dead trees, and tightrope on dead trees to avoid swampy areas. It was rapidly getting dark and I couldn’t tell what hurt more… my empty stomach or my aching head. Regardless I had to keep moving.
Chapter Two: A Rocky Start
I checked my watch… 2:34pm. OK… I have 6 miles to cover till my first planned camp, aside one of the many Alpine lakes at around 9800 feet. I had hiked to this lake many times before in the dog days of Summer just to escape the heat of the valley. It was quite picturesque and held a bounty of small brookies that I liked to catch and throw in the pan. The clear cold water seemed to make them taste even better than ones caught at lower altitude streams. There was a particular stand of sub-alpines that I like to camp by. The morning sun came over the far ridge of the lake and warmed up the tent and camp area nicely. It made for an easy transition from the warmth of my sleeping bag to the warmth of the morning sun.
I knew that there were two stream crossings between here and there but there had always been some rocks to hop on and even a makeshift log bridge at the second. I headed out with a steady stride figuring I could cover 2 to 3 miles an hour. That would put me at camp well before dusk and give me some time to explore the lake, collect fire wood and maybe… if the fish gods are with me… catch some fresh fish for dinner.
Breeze was off to his normal trail running. He would run ahead and disappear for a few minutes then come happily bounding back like a big goof and seem to ask what was taking me so long. Every now and then he would catch a scent and look back at me as if to ask if it was ok to go check it out. He was a wonderful companion. A loyal friend and my protector from large animals. His antics have caused us both some grief though. Two years ago we were hiking the Grand Daddy lakes and he happened upon a hole. At first I thought it might be a badger, but we both soon found out it was a skunks nest full of babies and momma skunk was not happy. That was a very long three day hike considering he loved to sleep right outside my tent’s vestibule. Pee uuu…
The day was absolutely perfect. The sky was cloudless and a warm breeze rustled through the pines high overhead. I was quite saddened by the black pine beetle plight that had claimed so many majestic trees. It looked as if a wild fire had tore its way through the forest and picked out only certain trees to burn up. The skeleton remains of these trees stood as a stark silhouette against the true blue of the sky. There were hundreds of dead standing trees. As the breeze blew they would creek and crack. I had heard of campers being squished by these trees falling over in storms at night. Poor souls never knew what hit them. Note to self: camp far away from any dead stand.
I could hear the first stream off in the distance. It didn’t sound like the innocent stream I remembered. The closer I got the more springs came trickling out of the forest and made a muddy mess of the trail. I had to spend a good amount of time scampering over dead trees that had fallen in the past winters strong storms. Several had fallen but not hit the ground. The trail was muddy and the area around the trail was no less dangerous or easy to maneuver. It took almost an extra fifteen minutes to get to the stream crossing. It looked like a ragging river and the rocks to hop across we’re now creating rooster tail rapids. I looked up and down the river but could see no easy crossing point. Ah hell I got my sticks… this will be a snap.
I grabbed Breeze and looked him squarely in the eyes and told him to stay! I then proceeded to step down into the icy water. One foot in front of the other, pause, plant my sticks and move one foot then balance, move the next, plant, balance, move. It was only about twenty feet or so wide and the current was strong. I just took it very slow and methodical. I was about two thirds the way across and Breeze just couldn’t take it. He jumped down into the water and hopped across the stream in five or six strong bounds. Nearly knocked me off my feet and caused a rush of fear to run right up my spine. Damn dog!
I made it to the other side and scolded him with all the seriousness I could muster. He licked my face and gave me his cold, wet paw. My heart melted and I forgave him with a shake and scratch. “When I say STAY… I mean STAY!” I reiterated. He took a shake and bounded off down the trail. I found a downed tree and sat down to catch my breath and calm my racing heart. I was a bit concerned since this was only the first of six crossings. Were they all going to be this full? Would I be able to find a safe crossing point? If I continue on and find one I can’t safely cross I would be caught between here and there only to be forced to turn around. Maybe even have to camp in the dead standing trees and maybe be squished like a bug in my sleep. OK enough negative thinking!
I stood up and for the first time I could feel the altitude and my pack seemed to gain ten pounds and my legs felt like lead. I took a few deep breaths, looked up at the sky and moved forward. Whatever “intuition” I was feeling I wrote off as blowing this whole thing out of proportion… the rants of an altitude crazed mind. I am a seasoned hiker, I got this. The next hour and a half was uneventful. I climbed my first pass of 11,435 feet. Breeze made it look so easy. He just ran ahead, then back, then ahead again. He was my energizer bunny. I longed for even a tenth of his energy and enthusiasm. I headed down into the next depression and the second stream came into ear shot. Again it sounded like a rushing river instead of a little trickling stream. I could feel that intuitive side of me whispering in my ear… of course I dismissed it as fatigue and altitude not letting me think clearly.
Descending from the pass I came upon a clearing and I could see the lake I was hiking to. It energized me and I picked up my pace. All these detours off the trail to escape the numerous springs that would find the trail and flow across it, were burning up daylight. I was hoping the bridge I remembered was still there… OR the trail monitors had built a makeshift one to expand the length so the crossing would be safer than the last. I was placing my hopes on the newly built bridge I was envisioning.