Saturday, September 7, 2013

Injured and Alone

Our hike into Oregon’s Mt. Jefferson Wilderness had begun so auspiciously that Friday morning.  My wife, daughter, and our Newfoundland puppy named Chester saw us off, hiking with us into Lake Pamelia (3,884 ft. elevation) where we parted ways: they returning to the trailhead, and my father, son (Stephen), and I pushed higher and deeper in to Hunt’s Lake (5,236 ft. elevation) via the Hunt’s Creek Trail.  That first day had been backbreaking as we backpacked up from Lake Pamelia.  The trail was steep and poorly maintained in sections, often requiring us to negotiate huge fallen pines and other debris.  It was hard enough without a pack, but the added weight made my back ache and the sweat drip incessantly from my face.  When we passed the Cathedral Rocks, towering high into the mountain air, I knew our long day’s journey was nearly done.  The welcome of that beautiful lake a little while later made the hard day’s hike seem worthwhile.  Surrounded by colorful wildflowers and long swaying grasses, it was like a glimpse into heaven itself.  Half a dozen small streams flowed into the lake from all sides, and wild trout broke the surface as they leapt for the passing insects.

After some time spent the following morning exploring the breathtaking upper alpine meadows, we started the trek back down to the Lake Pamelia trailhead around one that Saturday afternoon.  With the hike mostly downhill now, we assumed we could make the Hunts Creek crossing within a couple hours, or so.  Our plans were about to change.  The accident happened fast around 2:30 on that afternoon.  One moment the three of us were hiking along the narrow trail, enjoying the beautiful day in Oregon’s Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, and the next my father slipped off the path and cried out in pain.  I heard the crack of bone from his right leg, but I didn’t want to admit it.  He was going to be just fine, I lied to myself.   In fact, I even told a passing hiker, with a satellite phone clearly in his daypack, that we would be okay.  He disappeared up the path before I could change my mind.  The day was transformed from pleasure and recreation in the backcountry to one bearing fearful uncertainty.  The majestic mountain and the beautiful forested hills became a barrier now, something to be overcome, and we were about six rough miles away from the trailhead.

Everything changed with that shattered ankle.  As my father tried unsuccessfully to walk with me carrying his pack, I realized how serious it was.  This wasn’t an accident on a city street with emergency services just around the corner; there was nothing here, and we had made a relatively late start on the hike back as it was.  My father sat down on a rock, and I followed his directions, interspersed with exclamations of pain, as I tried to create a brace for the injured foot with torn pieces of a t-shirt.  He groaned as I tightened the black cords of fabric around his foot in a figure-eight pattern.  His pale and sweaty face warned that shock was trying to take hold.

For a while, he limped along the trail fairly well; the brace seemed to help.  It was clearly hard for him, but he kept putting his feet down slowly, one after another.  My son took the front as I took up the rear, keeping my father between the two of us.  I mistakenly assumed that we could catch him before he fell again.  The falling resumed all too soon when he came crashing to the ground again, yelling in pain.  We lifted him up and plodded along once again.  His steps were so small in comparison to the rugged distance we had to cover before nightfall.  I didn’t know what to do.  About the second or third time he fell, I whispered a prayer up to God.  I said that we needed help right away, and I prayed for people to come along the trail.  I felt so incredibly alone and powerless.

Within about fifteen minutes, I noticed a mother and two small children venturing up the trail towards us.  They appeared to be day hiking up from Lake Pamelia below. She introduced herself as Becky and graciously offered to carry my father’s Kelty Expedition pack down to their lakeside camp.  I unloaded the second pack I had been carrying and thanked her profusely.  She turned around and headed back down for the valley floor, assuring us that she’d try to also look for someone with a satellite phone.  About the same time, three more hikers appeared behind us.  One young man ambled by without so much as a word, but the older couple stopped and asked what they could do to help.  I explained the situation, and the gentleman, Jim, retrieved a set of high quality Leki telescoping hiking poles out of his small pack.  They weren’t perfect for our particular situation, but they turned out to be a big help in the coming miles.  Even more helpful, though, was Jim’s promise that they would hike out as quickly as possible and notify the ranger or sheriff’s department of our situation.

Once the people had disappeared, the sense of hope also began to fade.  My father’s face was ashen, and great beads of perspiration fell from his forehead.  The hike down the steep trail was frequently punctuated with my father’s cries as he fell—repeatedly.  Sometimes I would manage to catch him before he struck the ground, but usually he would lose his footing too quickly for me to be able to grab hold.  Each time he fell, his strength and spirits sank a little more, and he frequently twisted his broken ankle on the way down, bringing excruciating pain.  Large rocks embedded in the trail were becoming increasingly difficult for him to step over; he was losing strength fast.  I think it was about the time that he crashed into a blackberry bush, tearing his shirt and scratching his back, that I whispered my second prayer.  We needed something to help us, or it felt like we were not going to make it down by nightfall.  My dad commented about needing a sturdy crutch, but we knew the likelihood of finding something of the sufficient strength and right height and shape was very unlikely indeed.  The feeling of desperation was taking hold again.   

As we paused a moment for him to rest a few minutes later, I glanced down to my right.  Hidden amongst the dry moss, leaves, and weathered tree roots beside the trail was a long, straight limb with a short u-shaped fork toward its end.  I reached down and pulled it up and away from the clinging soil and forest moss.  I raised it up and looked at it with shock—perhaps just a little like King Arthur examining Excalibur the first time.  “That’s it,” I think my father exclaimed—about the first positive exclamation in a couple hours of miserable walking.  He took a sock from a pack and placed it in the branch’s fork to provide some cushioning before trying it out.  It functioned about as well as one could imagine anything working in our situation, and it provided him a lot more stability as he plodded along the path.  As so often happens, I didn’t immediately recognize it as an answer to prayer, but, upon reflection, I see God’s providential hand in both the meeting of the kind strangers and the discovery of this perfect wooden staff. 

It bolstered our spirits, making the hike a little more bearable for my father.  As the afternoon passed away, we slowly neared Hunts Creek below.  The sound of the rushing water was encouraging while, at the same time, daunting.  My dad and I felt that we needed to cross the river before we stopped and setup his temporary camp.  I’m still not entirely sure where this particular goal or accompanying sense of urgency came from, but it just didn’t seem safe to camp until we had successfully forded this river that emptied into Lake Pamelia about a half mile to the north.  The three of us knew that fording an icy river with a broken leg was a dangerous thing to do—especially at dusk—but we felt that it was a necessary risk.  We had no idea how long it would take help to come.

About this time, my father asked me to run ahead and try to collect his backpack from Becky back at the lake.  He needed its contents if we were to establish an emergency camp while my son and I pressed on to ensure help was on the way.  This errand, however, was easier said than done; I was exhausted, sore, and dehydrated.  I thought briefly of sending my fifteen-year-old son, Stephen, but something told me to go on ahead myself.  The last thing we needed was my son getting separated from us after dusk in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness.  Better safe than sorry.  I jogged down to the river and carefully made my way across on a log above the water—an option I argued against later for my dad on account of the high risk of falling into the icy water and breaking something else or becoming hypothermic.  Safely on the far side of Hunt’s Creek, I propped up my very heavy backpack against a fallen tree and began to hurry north, down the trail towards Lake Pamelia.  Dusk was closing in fast with the final shafts of sunlight slanting down above the ridges and through the high trees.   I tried to recall the camp description Becky had offered earlier, but after fifteen minutes, there still was no sign of her.  Rushing along the rough path, I began to use my emergency whistle at regular intervals.  I hoped that she’d hear it, but I was almost to the north side of the lake by the time I finally spotted her on the trail just ahead.  I felt a huge relief at seeing her standing there with my dad’s pack already secured on her back. 

Some twenty minutes later, I was back at the river, and my son and father were waiting on the far side.  Crossing the swift river with my dad was something I was really dreading.  I helped him check his bandages, and he was under the impression that his injury was a compound fracture—bone sticking through flesh.  While I didn’t get a good look at the foot itself, I noticed there were blood blisters everywhere on his lower leg.  It was a shockingly bad injury, and I worried he might lose his foot.  It was time to cross the stream.  My son took my father’s left side, where he could keep close watch on the placement of the improvised wooden cane.  I took my father’s right arm in mine and silently prayed as our feet hit the water together.  Our footing held firm on the stream’s rocky bottom, and the rushing water didn’t rise above our knees.  I was so tremendously grateful at that final step onto the rocky shore, but there was lots of work still requiring our attention before my son and I could make the final journey to the trailhead beyond Lake Pamelia.  As quickly as we could manage in the dying forest light, we assembled my father’s tent in an open spot there beneath the trees.  Even if help couldn’t come until morning, we would leave him with plenty of food, water, and extra clothes. 

In fact, when we were done setting everything up, I also decided to leave my own pack behind at his makeshift camp.  It was growing dark, and my son and I felt we needed to hike back to the trailhead as quickly as we could safely manage in order to get my dad extricated before dawn.  The next hour and a half were some of the most frightening minutes of the day.  The forest was soon pitch black, leading to false turns and general disorientation.  Moonlight graced the sky above, but little of its gentle light reached the forest floor.  Soon, we couldn’t even see our own hands without the help of a flashlight.  

We each carried a good light, but we were careful to avoid leaving the beams on too long; the batteries had to last until we reached the car.  I tried to flash the light briefly down the trail, then switch it off and walk some distance on memory.  This worked well for the straight stretches of the trail, but it was problematic when false trails would appear out of the darkness.  Recognizing that the fall rains and winter snowmelt would sometimes create small streambeds that could resemble trails for a short distance, we had to watch our steps carefully and ensure that we were on the true path.  Other times, we caught what seemed like movements or mysterious sounds off in the dark tangle of trees along the trail.  I’d direct the bright beam into the woods, but we never saw any animal illuminated in the light.  My mind went to the stories of violent cougar and bear encounters in the Pacific Northwest woods, and I regretted very much not carrying my forty-five.  My son confided he was thinking of a particular video game set in in a dark forest; he was not a happy camper.  We proceeded into the darkness as quickly as we could manage, stopping every so often to check our bearings or more carefully illuminate the trail ahead.  My son passed along our progress as we went by particular checkpoints he recognized.  It was good to see familiar sections of the trail as well as the trail markings on some of the trees.  I noticed a light shining ahead.  I realized it was a flashlight beam playing down the trail in our direction.  Imagine my relief when we arrived at the trailhead to be greeted by a Linn County Deputy Sheriff.  His badge glinted in our flashlight beams.  He told us that seventeen search and rescue volunteers were already on the way.  He assured me that my father would be out of the woods within a few hours.

Some fourteen hours after the trail accident, my father was seen and treated in an emergency room in Salem.  As he had suspected all along, the injury was a compound fracture.  There were a total of three breaks in his right ankle.  He remembers the grinding of those bones every time he took a step during those awful first hours.  After we arrived at home, I was too exhausted to immediately see the degree of God’s guiding hand in our situation.  As rest came, though, so did my certainty that God guided us through that miserable day, bringing substantive good out of a horrible situation.  While my dad was recuperating for a few days at our house, he made a comment that resonated with me.  He said that there was an “aura” of peace in our home; it seemed a welcoming place of rest to him.  This meant a lot, and I’ll always fondly remember our hours of good conversation that weekend.  Our wives will probably veto any more backpacking trips in the near future, but I’d say that the trip brought me closer to both my father and my son.  It also powerfully reminded me of the power of prayer in our lives.  No matter how dark it becomes or how dangerous the path is before us—our own valley of the shadow of death--we are never alone in Christ.  Indeed, if God is for us, who can be against us?  Trust in Him and ensure you stay on the true path—and remember a sturdy pair of boots, too!

You may also enjoy these three older posts on our Mt. Jefferson hikes--what to do and not to do!  

Also, please check out Oregon, My Oregon, A Photographic Journey, The Mt. Jefferson Wilderness.  This electronic coffee table will soon be available for Kindle readers!

A Day Hike to Lake Pamelia

Lost in the Woods / Learning from my Mistakes

An Open Letter to the US Forest Service 

Oregon, My Oregon, A Photographic Journey (Mt. Jefferson Wilderness)   NEW!

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