Close Encounters of an Unwelcome Kind

I rise to the sound of the river. It’s fluid motion is heard above the birds welcoming the morning. I kick the covers from around my feet and sit up, bleary eyed and semi-conscious… another day in the solitude of the forest. 

My puppy hears me rustling and jumps up for morning scratches and a nice long stretch. He rolls over and I awaken my stiff hands in his warm fur. Mornings are tough when it’s cold and damp outside, but this is my world, my new existence. The outdoors have become my backyard. 

I slide to the edge of the bed. My girlfriend is already up and making some nice hot coffee to waken my foggy brain and warm my cold hands. It continued to rain all night and a low mist hangs around the trees in the mountains before me. The ground sodden from the rain and smelling of fresh wet earth. My senses delight in the sounds and smells. 

I pull on my clothes, left in a pile last night as I quickly undressed and ran for the cover of my warm bed, and breathe slowly as I inch my half frozen pants over my legs. The air in the van is damp and smells of the campfire we had all day yesterday to keep warm. The light is hazy as it struggled to break from behind the clouds and stream into the windows. I open the door and step into the morning. 

The sky has begun to clear and has been washed of the smoke that has been choking the air and hiding the suns brilliance. I can see the sun as it slides down the mountain sides, illuminating the changing colors. Bright yellow, orange, red and vibrant green accent the mountain side, as fall starts to paint the mountains with its magical brush. I long for the warmth. 

I take a chair close to the edge of the river and sit down to a piping hot cup of joe and feel it warm me as I take a sip. My girlfriend comes over and softly kisses my cheek and says “good morning.” I reciprocate with “thanks for the coffee.” She pulls up a chair and sits beside me. I take another sip and concentrate on it as it warms me on the way down my throat. This is life…and life is good. 

The past week has been a tough one as far as breathing goes. The Northwest is on fire and the smoke follows the wind. We were fortunate to not have had the smoke all summer until this last week. I am reminded of the damage caused with a deep rattling cough. Between the dust and the smoke, my lungs are burning to breathe fresh mountain air once again. Today the rains have scrubbed the sky brilliant blue and the air fresh and cool. 

Out of the corner of my eye I see a quick brown flash of movement. I turn my attention to two squirrels as they chase each other through the branches. Their acrobatics bring to me a sense of joy as they jump and scamper from tree to tree. Chattering wildly as they the run around, Gandaulf sees them and enters their game of chase. 

We’re packing up for a hike along the Selway River in the Selway Bitterroot NF. We’re planning on about a 5 mile hike… it is the first real hike of our trip. Gandaulf is suited up in his green neoprene fleece jacket and orange bandanna. We layer up since it’s cold now but by the time we get to the trail head, 12 miles away by UTV, it will be warming up. 

We pack the essential do-dads and emergency stuff, and pack it away in our day pack. We pack the jetboil and some chicken enchilada freeze dried backpack food and some lunch for the Boo. We pack some extra water, the .38, bear spray, and rain jackets. Nothing tastes better after a strenuous hike, than a cold beer, but we have decided to forgo those until our return to camp. 

I topped  off the gas in The Thing (our UTVs name) and take a rag to the thick layer of dust coating everything, mixed into a nice mud slurry from the rain the last 24 hours. We load up and do a double check and are off to Paradise. 

We knew from speaking to the Fish and Game warden, that there are bears, wolves, mountain lions and rattlesnakes along the trails route… so we packed the .38 and the bear spray in close proximity to our front so if by chance we happen upon one of these predators, we can run… Ever read the label on bear spray? Remove the safety and spray a tiny test to see which way the wind is blowing! Do they really think anyone will have time to follow the directions? Hell no! Shoot to kill, mame, or injure then run! Instinct will win with most people. 

We hop in the UTV and take off for Paradise, at the end of the Magruder Corridor. It’s a beautiful semi-primitive campground and the host to many of the trails in the area. We set out, packs on our backs, hiking sticks, Gandaulf in his finest wear, the .38… no bear spray!! No good… So I head back to the UTV to get it and run into a line of pack mules heading up to some random hunters camp. The mule skinner was polite and we let him pass. 

We hiked about 2.5 miles through a heavily forested trail lined with white cedar trees thick with old mans beard. The rocks were carpeted with the most vibrant green moss and old dead fall was reduced to sodden fibrous skeletons, providing a new fertile place for low forest floor plants.  As we came upon the cutoff for Bad Luck Creek, we saw our first bear track. We just brushed off the berry filled scat as old but these tracks were new. The hairs instantly rise on your neck when you realize you are in the presence of the top predator in the area. 

I moved my bear spray closer and removed the safety, Chris checked her .38 and we laughed as we hiked on SUPER VIGILANT! We came to a stream crossing at around 3 miles in and decided to turn around and head out. I grabbed the keys to the UTV and fastened them to my hiking stick as a makeshift bear bell. You’ve never heard a set of keys make as much noise as it did today.  

We hiked on and heard some footsteps coming up the trail and I noticed our Fish and Game Warden, Victor, coming around the corner. We exchanged pleasantries and I showed him the picture of bear poo that was fresh as of a few hours. He said a hunter almost walked in top of a bear yesterday by where we saw the prints. He was in for a 15 mile hike to an airfield in the wilderness where hunters and outfitters take clients to hunt elk, deer, bear… whatever is in season. We wished each other well and took off. 

We were getting hungry and knew of a nice area right by the river for a stop for lunch. Of course we made sure we were up wind from our food smells. Gandaulf barked and created a safe environment for us, at least from bears. We made our chicken enchiladas and scarfed it down, each of us secretly thinking of the same thing… bears. 

By the time we had made it back to our UTV, we had seen more fresh scat than we cared to, like it wasn’t there when we hiked in. Bear for sure, some other smaller animal that also loved the blue berries, and a white, well formed large poo full of fur. Guessing wolf or maybe mountain lion. At our lunch spot was an old moldy, very thick leg bone that had been caught between a long tree root and a rock, probably during high water. It had been snapped off in a very clean break. The bone was about 12” long and at the point of the break about 3” in diameter. We found many other bones and lots of scat to indicate maybe a favorite dinning spot. It’s is kinda creepy to think about being 4th in the predator line. 

We made our way back to camp (home) and settled in for a good cold beer and to discuss all the sign we saw. Play ball with Gandaulf and nurse our sore bodies. 

In Search Of…

My mind spins in wonder

My heart… full of joy

My eyes see the beauty around me

The vibration of the earth

Becomes a harmony in my body

Molecules and atoms split

Exploding into new life

I am… at ease

We are unified

In search of a peaceful existence in this world

Life off grid… connecting with nature 

Talking with trees

Consoled by the rivers

Held in warmth by the sun

In search of wisdom from the moon

Soaring through the hawks eyes on the thermals

In search of life.

Fragility

I walk upon the desert floor

Red sands of ancient seashores and reefs

White sands blend into grey

Walls of stone and sand

Carved over millions of years.

Thrust up and sculpted by the wind and rain

Back on the ground

The fragile Indian rice

Mother nature’s doilie

Delicate as it shimmers in the afternoon sun

The columbine show their salmon colors on a ridged green stalk

The cactus protect their lacy blooms with great thorns

The sages of all kind sway in their early soft grey and green fronds

The smell of sage heavy in the hot air rising from the red path beneath my feet

A delicate balance

A fragility of life in a harsh yet beautiful environment

What does it feel like to be alone?

In the wilderness, it’s being the only two humans around. Nothing but the sound of your heart beat in the silence. Your breath. Then the wind far off as it rushes through the willows and the trees that line the river in a wave until it reaches me. The green turns to silver as it brushes over the tops of the willows and grasses. The smooth surface of the water becomes disturbed and shivers as the wind touches it. A fish jumps. A shrill chirp of a bird. The sound of the air cut by the wing of a passing bird. The sound of the hollow rattle of the wood pecker. To be able hear your thoughts and watch them pass as they find no ground in your quiet still mind. Chris stands still out among the elusive trout in the river. Her line shimmers in the early morning sun light. Gandaulf sits…barely tall enough to be seen waiting for her to catch a fish.

To be alone is not to be lonely but to become one with all that lives and breathes around you without having to say a word. You, inside your own self yet cognitively aware of all that’s around you. To be separate from the thoughts of others…not influenced, you, yourself. Lack of stress. Living in the moment. Allowing a silent tear when you think of the others you love and how they suffer. Alone with the vibration of all that’s around you.

Alone at 9400 ft. Amazing, peaceful, alarming, silent yet very loud, small, powerful, beauty beyond words only felt. Clear air, clean water, bright sunshine, starry skies, incredible moon! Timeless, unstructured, fun, meditative, no cell phone, internet, Pandora, XM, only the song that rattles around in your head all day – the mantra. FULL! JA

Emptiness

The sound of the river rushing by in constant flow

The towering cliffs stand tall and hard against the deep blue sky

Carved by this liquid snake over eons of time

The trees stand and watch the the endless motion of this fluid architect

Gently the bubbles make their way down the current

Rocks hold to their purchase of land against the rivers flow

Others roll along without putting up a fight

My mind is sucked into the current… empty… constantly fluid… clinging to nothing

Two Miles High: A Rocky Mountain Tail: Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight: Home Sweet Home
I woke up several days later in a much starker environment than when I last was awake. The smell of sterile bed sheets, freshly sweated on pillows and a voice echoing in my brain, “Dr. Granger code blue.” I was in the hospital. No idea how I got here. In a panic I sat straight up and yelled out, “Breeze!” A nurse came rushing in. I was sobbing uncontrollably. “Where’s my dog? He saved my life!” The nurse tried to console me but another came in with a syringe and poked it into my IV and said, “that should work soon.”
I was awakened by a kind soft hand stroking my hair. It was my girlfriend. She was holding my hand and talking softly to me. I opened my eyes and looked at her. Her eyes opened wide and she said, “welcome back traveler.” The doctor came in and also welcome me back and explained I had really done a number to myself and it was a damn good thing I brought my dog along or I might not have made it.
Turns out the gash on my head was very deep and I had cracked my scull and caused a bruise on my brain. He told me I was lucky to be alive. Just then a 70 lbs beast appeared on the bottom of my bed and laid down beside me. He nudged my hand until I pet him. “Good boy” I whispered. The doc said I could go home as soon as I was able to stand on my own. He told me I had been in a coma like state for four days after the medi-vac arrived. He told me I was a lucky woman and that maybe I should not hike alone in conditions like this. I informed him I wasn’t alone and perhaps if I had been with another human there may have been two casualties. He concurred, signed my chart and welcomed me back home.

Two Miles High: A Rocky Mountain Tail: Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven: We’re Going Home

Breeze and I sat down on the side of the trail enjoying some scratches and reciprocating licks. My head pounded in the blazing morning sun. My mouth was getting that Velcro feeling again. Every time I stood up I felt faint and nauseous. I searched for two saplings or strong downed branches I could use to steady myself as I hiked the last few miles. Of course there was no guarantee we would find anybody at the lake, but it was a favorite camp spot for many hikers.

I played songs in my head as I hiked on. Breeze would come run circles around me and run off ahead. Each step corresponded with the pounding in my head. My mouth was a desert and I envisioned the lake just a few steps ahead. The sun was blazing and I just wanted to drop my pack and lie down in the cool shady areas just off the trail. I came upon another stream and I had a literal panic attack. Although it was not rushing as fast and was not nearly as wide I froze in my tracks.

I am not sure what happened. When I came to, breeze was lying beside me. I could hear the stream. I opened my eyes and the shadows had grown long and shaded the trail. I was lying on my side in a crumpled up lump of human and backpack with my dog curled up beside me. I sat up and was reminded of my head again. I focused on the stream and knew there was no going back. Breeze ran a circle around me and bounded across the stream with ease. I struggled to get to my feet without passing out and moved forward one slow step at a time until I was on the other side of the stream.

I looked at my watch… 4:55pm. I had been out for hours. I dropped my pack and dug out my pot. I chugged down seven or eight pots of water until I thought I would puke. I doused my aching head with pots full of water. It was icy cold and I could feel my swollen eyes and hair matted with blood as I wiped my face and wrung out my hair. I stood up and pointed my body in the direction it needed to go and demanded it to move forward. Everything took so much effort.

I walked in a trancelike state for what seemed like hours. In my blurry gaze I saw a sliver of blue. I opened my eyes wider and stopped. As things came into focus I could see the lake. I had made it. I sat on a rock that was just the right height as to not make me bend over or sit too far down and listened. I could hear the birds, the stream entering the lake, and the rustling of the wind in the trees. I scanned the horizon and followed the outline of the lake for a wisp of smoke. I unhooked my pack and let it fall to the ground. I hadn’t the energy to move another inch.

As the sun dropped below the ridge, I could hear the sound of the brookies jumping out of the water scooping up the larve of the night insects. I opened my eyes again and a quarter the way around the lake I saw two figures come out of the woods and enter the water, fishing poles in hand. I attempted to yell, nothing but a grunt came out. I attempted to stand up but my legs failed to support my weight. Breeze came over as if to sense my urgency. I told him to “go get the men” and pointed at the figures in the water. He cocked his head as I said it again, looked over his shoulder, then took off. I closed my eyes and listened intently. I could hear Breeze barking crazy and splashing around in the water. I could hear the voices of the men calling to him. I blacked out again.

I heard a commotion in my brain. I was in some other realm of consciousness. The roar in my ears grew silent and I heard voices. I felt the wet licks in my ear and on my face. I felt a cold splash of water and I opened my eyes. There were men standing all around me. I found Breeze sitting beside me and stroked his fur, “good boy I muttered”, and passed out again as I heard a voice say, “we’re gonna get you out of here.”

Two Miles High: A Rocky Mountain Tail: Chapter Six

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…

Two MIles High: A Rocky Mountain Tail: Chapter Five

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.

Two Miles High: A Rocky Mountain Tail: Chapter Four

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.