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.