A pair of large brown beady eyes spied from within the leafy camouflage. The grizzly breathed smoothly, unflinchingly. As the big bear watched, he was surprised to notice the presence of two humans instead of what he thought was only one. Usually he didn’t make mistakes like this. Obviously, his extra caution had been prudent. What else had he missed?
A light southerly wind wafted the scents of the two humans into his moist nostrils. Now that he could see the two men, he was able to differentiate between their odours. The bruin stared as one of the men scampered back and forth about the campsite. In his very limited experience with humans, the bear knew that the smell of food was often blended in the air with the scent of their bodies. Strange, however, was the fact that the grizzly could not smell anything to eat. Even when he had stalked along the edge of their mysterious sleeping device he had not been able to detect the presence of a ready meal. And then there were those odd noises coming from within the structure. He had been curious and wanted to take a look within, but wariness had gotten the better of him. In fact, he had just barely hidden himself before one of the humans emerged into his mountain domain. He was wise to hide. He had no idea what might have happened if he had been spotted.
The big bear remained resigned and calm, observing and waiting. If he was patient, there would soon be another opportunity for him to satisfy his curiosity. Patience had been his friend in the past, and it would probably be his friend again today. “There is no rush.” He thought. “It’s much better to cautious.”
“We need wheels!” Glen sputtered, clumping along at his usual, but pathetically slow pace. Behind him, Stan just held on and gritted his teeth. The litter was much more stable than it had been when they crossed the field of boulders under the shadow of Ravenscrag Mountain, but the trail was not exactly a freshly paved primary highway. Random roots criss-crossed the dirt path. Rainwater sat in scattered, randomly placed depressions, making Glen’s footing uncertain. Still, for all the trepidation, the trail behind them was at least free of the unseen grizzly bear. If the two men had been hiking normally, they would have had to keep looking over their shoulders to see if danger was approaching them from behind them. Incapacitated as he was, however, Stan Calderbank made an attentive and astute rear lookout.
Glen halted. Stan turned his head to see what lay ahead, but his neck would just not turn that far. “Everything ok?” the big man asked.
“Yeah.” Glen replied. I just need some way to help support the front of this travois. My arms are killing me!”
Stan pondered the problem a moment. “Why don’t… you cut a… short crutch… and lash it on.”
The idea had merit, and Glen’s worried mind caught hold of the notion. “That’s a good idea.” He stated. “Hold on. I’m going to put you down.”
Glen set the litter on the trail and hobbled back to Stan. He untied the hatchet from one of the upper tent tethers. Unsheathing it, Glen looked at Stan, “I’ll be right back.”
With that, Glen scuttled off into the woods. It took the scanning Scotsman just seconds to locate a suitable branch. He set to work, chopping.
The sound of clinking steel filled the tranquility of the alpine air. The massive grizzly stopped and stiffened. He had been following the men—from a safe distance of course. It took less than a second for the big bruin to identify the sound’s direction. “It must be the humans!” Apprehensive, the bear listened intently. Whatever the humans were doing, it was loud. The grizzly puzzled a bit. He had never heard such a noise as this before. Anxious to get a closer look, but worried for his own hide, the bear stood his ground a moment longer. The clinking sounds did not stop. Finally, the grizzly turned and moved quickly off the trail into the undergrowth. “These humans apparently still have a few tricks up their sleeves!”
Stan lay on the litter, prone and pathetic. As he listened to the hatchet’s blows, he reached out to touch the bottle of pressurized bear repellent. He had made jokes about pepper spray. “A bit of spice to make a hiker more tasty!” he had often said. A deep furrow played in the dried sweat on his brow. Today, he hoped his flippant joke held no thread of truth. He wanted no part of the irony an encounter with a bear might bring.
Glen returned momentarily. Instead of one crutch, he now had two. In spite of the serious situation, however, Stan smirked. Glen noticed. “What?” The small man sounded irritated.
“You just look… funny with… crutches of… different lengths.” Stan wheezed.
Glen glanced down at the crude wooden implements. A smile crossed his own lips. He had to admit it. A man using two unevenly matched crutches did have the makings for a comedy act. After a second, Glen grew serious again. He drew out his Leatherman and cut a piece of excess string from one of the tent loops. They wouldn’t need to tie the tent down anyway, and he had no other twine to use to lash the new crutch to the front of the litter.
It took Glen a minute or two to lash the short crutch in place, but that was only after he adjusted its height with the hatchet. With the front crosspiece of the travois resting in the crook of the short wooden crutch, Glen hefted the litter. As the front rose off the ground, the extended crutch tip was dragged from its horizontal to a vertical position. With the crutch directly under the cross beam, Glen set the travois down. It rested perfectly on the new crutch! “Success!”
Glen had been wise enough to lash the wood to the exact centre of the framework. As long as he kept his own crutch and right foot far enough apart from each other, the short crutch just swung forward with each lurching step he took. He smiled at his handiwork. “Great idea Stan.” He offered. “I just wish you had suggested this very helpful mechanical device yesterday.”
The grizzly lay quietly among the thick, leafy bushes. The disturbing sound had ceased, but he wanted no part in taking chances. He would wait a while before he stalked after the unusual men any further. The big bruin looked up at the sky. The day was becoming a nice one and he was getting hungry. Hearing no more sounds, the bear rose and began to forage.
The terrain beneath the litter was more or less smooth, and the extra relief offered by the swinging support gave Glen’s strained arms some desperately needed help. The relief was definitely appreciated. “The further we go, the more I like this crutch idea!” Glen panted.
“Glad you… like it.” Stan offered.
“Big C.” Glen puffed. “I think you have… a patentable idea!”
“Thanks.” Stan said, “But there aren’t… very many… stores out here… that will carry it.”
Glen tried to laugh, but he was breathing too hard to get out more than a humorous huff. He had been pulling the litter for well over an hour and a half. The small man came to a stop and rested the front of the litter on the crutch. He ducked out from under the front cross brace and hobbled for his pack.
“How much farther do you think it is to Paisley Brook?” he asked, unzipping the main pouch of the pack.
“I can’t be sure… but it can’t be… more than another… hour.” Stan wheezed.
Glen drank deeply from the full hydration pack, then, he offered a drink to Stan.
Just a little.” Stan said. “After this morning… I don’t ever… want to use… the bathroom… again!” Glen smiled in understanding. He didn’t want to have to help Stan again either!
When the men finished drinking, Glen stowed the plastic pouch and zipped up the red pack. Their water was now gone, but Paisley Brook would soon provide a fresh source. Glen hobbled back to the front of the litter and resumed his position of packhorse.
Another hour of dragging ticked by, but still no river. The small man set the front of the travois down. “I’m getting dehydrated.” Glen panted. “My good leg feels like a piece of wood.” He was ranting now. “My hips are killing me and my armpit feels raw.” Stan had no idea what to say, so he just listened. “I’m moving on sheer will alone!” Glen concluded his complaints and picked up the travois once more. “We have to make it to Paisley Brook soon. I can’t go on much longer without water!”
Maple Creek had marked the southern end of Green Canyon. Now the narrow, rocky gap between High Tor and Ravenscrag Mountains was far behind the two haggard hikers. Three hours from the life-giving creek, a smooth open area began to stretch out before them. The Mistawasis Mountains on the west and the Lajord Range on the east back dropped both sides of the open valley. Quite different than Green Canyon, here, the mountain ranges were further apart.
Several miles west of the two hikers, thick deposits of glacial ice clung to the sides of the Mistawasis Mountains. As the thick glaciers slowly thawed in the summer heat, the melted ice fed Maple Creek, Paisley Brook, Lady Lake, and Skull Creek. Looking south, to where the broad valley opened even wider, the three rivers ran together to form a large body of water called Middle Lake. From there, the chilled mountain water ran into the Sucker River and eventually reached the salt water of the ocean. Glen McPherson paused to catch his breath, looking out over the valley.
The picturesque basin was home to a myriad of evergreen trees. They grew everywhere, but they were all so short that Glen could see over top of most of them. Nearly twenty years before, a mighty fire had ripped through the open valley, leaving blackened skeletons of the once-proud evergreens that called it their home. Today, seeds from the mighty forest had sprung up, trying to restore the valley to its former glory. Glen surveyed the area ahead of him, remembering the reason for the new forest seedlings. “In another thirty or forty years, there will be a magnificent forest her.” He thought, trying to take his mind off his throbbing muscles. “We have to be getting close.” He muttered between gasps for air and hefted the travois once again.
Minutes continued to creep by. Time seemed meaningless. Glen’s twin crutches and single booted foot left a strange combination of tracks in the soft earthen trail as he plodded along, lurching with each and every step. Suddenly, Stan spoke. “I think… I hear water.”
Glen paused in his forward movement and let the travois rest on the short support crutch. He could hear it too. “You’re right.” He panted, smiling. “Paisley Brook is just ahead.”
Twenty-five minutes later, Glen and Stan both lay on the ground. Beside them, Paisley Brook ran by. With the overnight rain accumulations, the lazy brook had been transformed into a narrow, but raging set of shallow rapids. Two full hydration packs and the water-purifying pump sat next to Glen’s unmoving arm. The stubborn Scotsman’s chest still heaved from lack of breath. Stan just tried to relax his cramping muscles. The day was beginning to warm, but the chilled water in their stomachs compensated for it. Above their closed eyes, the storm clouds were breaking up. In another hour or maybe two, the sun would be out to complete the storm cycle and end the gloominess that had dogged them for nearly two days. By tomorrow, the rain would be all but forgotten.
The men lay quietly in their tranquil surroundings. Birds and insects flitted and hummed nearby, but aside from the small creatures and the flowing brook, the world was still.
“Beep, beep, beep, beep!” Glen’s watch jolted the aching Scotsman out of the deep sleep of his nap. His hiking hat covered his eyes. His hand shot off the ground and groped for the shut-off button on the obnoxious watch. At his side, Stan stirred too, but he didn’t jump. The loud alarm wasn’t right beside his ear!
Glen moaned. “I don’t wana get up yet!” The small man pealed the wide-brimmed hat off his eyes and stared at this watch. It was twelve-thirty in the afternoon. “I guess we’d better get moving.” He said reluctantly. “We must have at least three more hours of this torture before we reach Skull Creek.”
Glen rolled over onto his stomach so he could pull his stiff body up to his knees and then complete the standing process using his good foot and handy crutch. He had only been dependant on the crutch for a few days, but had adapted quickly. It was, however, a love-hate relationship that he had with the makeshift support. His armpit was chaffed and his hip and hamstring hurt from having to hold up one leg all the time. Of course, dragging Stan made things even worse. In good conscience though, the worn Scotsman couldn’t be too hard on the inanimate wood. The crutch was, after all, helping to save his life and the life of his friend. The wiry man drew in a full breath of fresh mountain air and blew out slowly. Donning his worn leather gloves, Glen gripped his makeshift crutch and pulled himself up to stand.
“Ok Big C.” Glen was still trying to psyche himself up. “I hope you’re more ready for this than I am?”
“Probably not.” Came an honest reply. “I’d better have… two more Tylenol.”
Glen obliged, stowing the water in his pack and transferring the two requested tablets from the small pill bottle to the big man’s mouth. Glen then looked around, moved to the head of the litter and lifted it once more.
The short crutch did pretty well crossing Paisley Brook. Only once did the swift water prevent the wooden tip from swinging forward properly. Of course, the fast water was only a few inches deep, and the brook only eight feet in width. Glen watched the crutch work, knowing that this creek crossing was only a mild prelude to the fording of Skull Creek. Considering the extra volume of runoff in Paisley Brook, their next river crossing would be a most difficult challenge. The brook’s flow had nearly doubled in volume since their last encounter, three days ago.
“You know.” Glen puffed, limping along. “Maybe I should… lash a stick to… my bad leg… so I can... use it without… putting weight… on my ankle?”
Behind him, Stan grinned through his discomfort. In his mind’s eye, he could picture his friend using both a peg leg and a crutch—at the same time. With all that wooden support, Glen would really take on the air of Long John Silver! “You’ll have to… get an eye patch… to go with it.” Stan wheezed.
Glen laughed. In fact, he had to stop pulling for a second to let the joke roll off. “That’s a good one.” He panted. It felt good to add humour to their meagre diet. “Arrrrrg!” Glen chortled, employing his best pirate voice. “I’ll be wantin… a boat ready… when we get… to Skull Creek!”
Stan let a laugh slip, and it hurt. “Ouch.” He cried, holding up a hand like a traffic cop in a busy intersection. “That’s enough!”
“Well… you started it.” Glen countered, beginning to pull again.
An hour later, the determined Scotsman rounded a bend in the meandering trail and halted. Ahead, the smooth, woodland pathway morphed abruptly into a small field of ragged rocks. Similar in appearance to the rock-strewn portion of Green Canyon, the area was much less expansive and not nearly so rugged. All the rocks in the fairly level area, were of similar size except one notable exception. Near the centre of the two hundred foot wide swath of small boulders towered a mammoth sized stone. “There’s Lone Rock.” Glen said
In some long forgotten day of the past, some unknown force of nature had deposited the giant boulder here. As far as Glen and Stan knew, no human eye had witnessed the cataclysmic event. All that remained was for tenacious trekkers to venture into this remote place to see the sight for themselves. Scrub clung along the western and southern edges of Lone Rock, diminished in their stature by the sheer enormity of the mighty stone. The eastern side of the rock was not quite as vertical as the rest. Its steep slope bore the marks of numerous climbers, attempting to ascend its thirty-foot bastion to gain a perch on the pinnacle.
Glen McPherson smiled to himself as he drew the litter slowly past the colossal rock. Just three days before, he had fought his way to the top. Stan had elected to observe. Glen remembered the panoramic view of the open valley that had been his to enjoy. With the evergreens still recovering their growth, he could see for several hundred yards in all directions. The sun had felt warm on his face. His legs had both been working well that day! How he had wished that he brought a video camera on the adventure. A shadow crossed Glen’s face. Today, he was grateful he had not brought the camera. By now he would have left it in Green Canyon for some bear to play with!
Soon the two travellers were across the rock field and on the smooth trail once again. “I need… a rest!” Glen panted. He came to a stop and lowered the litter, using his long crutch to kick the short travois support crutch forward so it would not keep the front of the travois aloft.
With the travois settled, Glen hobbled to the pack for a much-needed drink. Unzipping a small pouch at the top of the pack, the human packhorse dug out their last power bar. He was exhausted and hungry, but they were almost there.
The tired Scotsman eased his sore body onto the trail, settling like a beached jelly fish on a forsaken beach. While Glen munched the power bar, he rubbed his hip. “I need a two-hour soak in a swirling hot tub!”
“Me too!” Stan moaned, nodding his complete agreement.
Once the bar was consumed, Glen untied his left boot and unwound the tensor bandage. The sun peaked out from behind the thinning cloud cover and warmed the swollen joint. Glen ran his fingers over the damaged skin. Black and blue hues were everywhere! “Perhaps it is broken?” He wondered aloud. Glen was no doctor, but he had lived long enough to see a few injuries. “If I only have a bad sprain, shouldn’t I be able to use the ankle by now?” Without realizing it, Glen shook his head and let out a sigh. “I just don’t know enough about these things!”
Following a ten-minute rest, Glen rewrapped his ankle and donned his waterproof hiking boot. “Well…” he said, climbing to a standing position. “We’re not going to get there by resting.”
As the front of the travois was raised, Stan winced for the umpteenth time. The big man kept reminding himself that all the pain would be worth it, but that thought had long since become worn out. “I just want the pain to end!”
Glen pulled for several seconds and then suddenly stopped. Stan abandoned his pity party and listened. The light southerly wind played in the trees and bushes. A few birds flew in the warm air. Glen was silent. Stan hadn’t heard anything, but that didn’t mean Glen hadn’t. Unbidden, the hair on Stan’s neck bristled. He reached out a hand and closed his big fingers about the bottle of pepper spray.
Glen’s voice broke the stillness. “There are more bear tracks.” He stated. “A grizzly crossed this trail since it rained.” Glen studied the impressions. “The tracks are dry around the edges, which mean they were made a few hours ago.” The big man listened as Glen continued. “They look smaller than the other tracks. I don’t know if that’s good or bad?”
“It’s not… that good.” Stan offered. “Let’s have… a prayer.”
Glen set the litter down onto its support crutch. He lowered himself to his knees. The position was appropriate to prayer as well as for allowing him to rest from standing. He was so very tired of standing!
Bowing his head, Glen began to pray. “Heavenly Father? Stan and I have been trying hard to get ourselves to the truck and then to safety. We are hurt, and there are grizzlies in the area. If it be Thy will, please help us to reach the safety of our families. We are fearful of a bear attack. Please comfort us. Please protect us. Please help us to be strong enough to stay alive.” Glen paused as emotion temporarily closed off his airway. He flicked away a tear with a dirty finger tip before continuing. “We thank Thee that we are yet alive. Please help our families to be ready to help us when we arrive at Midnight Lake.” Glen paused again and then concluded the invocation in the name of the Saviour.
As two soft “Amens” were uttered into the tranquil mountain air, Glen McPherson and Stan Calderbank opened their moistened eyes. The sun was now brilliant in the sky. The minutes of the afternoon of their fourth day were ticking by. For now, the weather was wonderful—not too hot or too cool. Finally, Glen cleared his throat and then spoke. “Shall we go again Big C?”
With that, the wiry Scotsman arose. Grunting, he lifted the litter and pulled once more. Methodically, the two haggard hikers moved towards their destiny.