Davis L. Bigelow
The afternoon deepened and then waned. As the day progressed Glen required rest stops more frequently. The winded Scot was becoming less and less able to drag his large friend. The speed of their progress had diminished. It had been sluggish at its best and now their pace bordered on deliberate dawdling.
Thirty-five minutes ago, the staggering Scotsman had downed the final drops of their precious water. Glen’s right leg and hip, as well as both his shoulders and arms, all burned mercilessly. His throat was parched. His bruised ankle throbbed, pressing against the interior of his boot like compressed helium inside a rapidly ascending weather balloon. His breathing was ragged. Glen couldn’t go on for much longer.
In the last half hour, since the last water pouch had been fully drained, neither man had spoken. Stan lay on the undulating litter, forever trying to will away his shooting pains and the incessant throbbing of his blood into his broken leg. He was beyond uncomfortable, and they were still not there. Not many positive thoughts swirled inside the big man’s mind, but he reached through the din of discouragement and plucked one good thought to focus on. “At least Glen’s careful about the route he drags me across.”
Suddenly, Stan imagined reaching the truck. The big man shook his head. The thought should have been comforting, blissful and even exhilarating, but it was not. “When we get to the truck, my discomfort will be anything but over!” The new thought chilled him, smashing his brief visit to positive thinking like spectacles under the tires of a speeding semi. “Riding on this travois is bad enough! Yarbo Road is full of potholes!” His worries multiplied inside his head. “And when the potholes of Yarbo Road stop trying to swallow my tires, there are numerous sections of washboard gravel, grooved strategically into the wilderness track to maximize my discomfort.” Stan sighed a shallow sigh. “I just have to hold on for a few more hours.” A fierce scowl crossed the big man’s face and he clenched his teeth. “Steady Stan, you can do this.” He reassured himself. “You can handle it.”
Forty-five more tortuous minutes passed. Glen was stopped again. He panted hard to catch his breath. “I think I… hear Skull Creek.”
Stan listened, but could not discern the sound of rushing water over the gentle rustle of leaves beside his ears. The trail was narrow and the bushes grew right up to the pathway. Numerous leaf-softened branch tips had been rubbing against his arms and hands for some time now. Several bushy branches even projected far enough into the trail to threaten his face, but none had hit him yet.
Glen began to pull forward once more. Silently, Stan hoped that his friend’s hearing was accurate. He had noted the slower pace and the increase in Glen’s respiration rate. His designated packhorse couldn’t pull much longer without a drink of water.
Twenty minutes later, the roaring rapids of Skull Creek were in Glen’s line of sight. In spite of his dry mouth, salty lips, burning limbs and aching joints, the small man grinned. Five additional minutes saw the litter resting near the bank of the rain-swollen watercourse. Glen rummaged in his backpack and retrieved the water-purifying pump.
In his right hand, Glen clutched the pair of hydration pouches as well as the bag that contained the pump. In his left, the exhausted Scotsman articulated his makeshift crutch. Seconds later, Glen’s exhausted body sat perched on the bank of the raging river. In no time at all, pure water trickled into the first pouch. When Glen had about a cup of water purified, he ceased pumping and guzzled the liquid. “Ahhhhh!” He blew out a breath. “That tastes heavenly!” The small man returned the intake hose to the river, again holding it in the stream as the flexible hose dangled over his outstretched leg. He pumped for another thirty seconds and stopped again. Hobbling over to Stan, Glen deposited the cool pouch into the big man’s hands. Big C downed the refreshment and Glen returned to the river for more.
As Glen sat parked on the river’s shore, pumping water into their hydration pouches, his eyes took in the deep torrent of water that blocked their path. Its roaring rapids were the only sound that the small man could hear. Skull Creek was badly swollen. Glen inspected the riverbank. “If we’d had much more rain, these banks wouldn’t have been high enough to contain all the water!” The muscles in the small man’s jaw worked as he pumped. His eyes swept up the hill. On the opposite bank, a five hundred yard struggle with an elevation gain of just over two hundred feet would lead them to the truck. “We’re so close!”
Glen eyed the river once more, this time trying to estimate its depth. He sent his mind back in time to the moments he had first waded across the icy waters of Skull Creek. “It must have been just under a foot in depth then.” He said aloud. “Right now, it looks like more than double that!”
From his low vantage point, it was difficult to tell. On the first day of their hike, and in the heat of the day, the glacial water flowing from Lady Lake had chilled his legs to the bone. Now it was their fourth day in the wilderness. The return crossing today would be so much worse than the first one! Then there was the ambient temperature to consider. Glen shot a quick glance at the sun. It would shortly begin its exit into the west, meaning that the gruelling pull up the steep hill would be made mostly in twilight and perhaps even in the dark. That, of course, was after they successfully forded the raging river.
Glen stared back at the frothing waters, tracing them up to the distant waterfall plunging from Lady Lake. An unbidden shudder ran through him. His jaw muscles flared again. The dreaded event of fording the swollen creek would most likely leave both men soaked to the skin. Glen scanned the sky once more. “If we’re lucky, there’s an hour of daylight left.”
Soon the hydration pouches were full. Glen drank deeply again and then refilled. “Big C?” he called. “Do you want any more to drink?”
Stan did, but even more than being thirsty he was terrified of having to use the bathroom. “Not right now.” He said.
Glen nodded, gathered up the pump, hoses and hydration pouches and hobbled back to Stan. As the items disappeared into the backpack Glen could see the trepidation on Stan’s face.
“That water looks… pretty deep.” Stan said. “Will my face… stay out?”
Glen stared again at the river, zipping up his pack without looking down at it. “I’ll check.” With that, Glen scuttled to the water’s edge and, balancing on one foot, probed the river with his crutch. From their first crossing, the small man new that the bank was steep and that the centre of the flow was only two or three inches deeper than it was at the edge.
Stan looked on as Glen plunged his makeshift crutch into the swift water. The balancing Scotsman bent sharply at the waist before Stan saw the crutch hit bottom. The crutch withdrew. A dark stain on the wood indicated the depth. The big man scowled. “The water’s at least two feet deep!”
Glen hobbled back to Stan. “It looks bad.” He stated, but the diagnosis was plainly obvious to both men. Glen reached the head of the litter and bent down. Kneeling, Glen compared the measured water depth with the small crutch that supported the front of the travois. The water was only three inches less than the stout support that had been assisting Glen in dragging the travois. He frowned and blew out a frustrated breath.
“I’m going to lift the travois up so it rests on the support.” Glen warned. A moment later, saw the travois at an angle and Glen staring at it from a distance of a few paces. The crown of Stan’s head was higher than his mouth but they were both lower than the measured height of the water!
Glen let out an exasperated sigh. “We’re so close!” He lamented, his voice rising in volume against the raging river. “We’ve made it so far! How can we be stopped now? It’s just not fair!” Glen looked down at the dirt and shook his head.
Stan lay quietly. He was quite familiar with the height of his face when Glen pulled the litter. As Glen passed him, on his way to measure the front support crutch, Stan observed the watermark on Glen’s crutch. Even without a word from his friend, Stan knew that the raging river was too deep for him. The big man closed his eyes and sent his brain into overdrive, searching for a solution that wouldn’t end in his death.
“The most obvious action is for Glen to leave me and go for help.” Stan thought. “That might be the best thing, but that choice would leave me at the mercy of at least two roaming grizzly bears.” The big man rubbed at the profusion of greying stubble on his swarthy face. “If I were threatened, I could use the pepper spray. But I certainly couldn’t defend myself in any other way.” Stan let out a shallow sigh. “If Glen did leave me, I would likely be alone for several hours—several hours of darkness!” Even though bears could not see especially well, Stan doubted that the giant carnivores would let darkness stop them from doing whatever it was that bears did in the dark. “Most wild animals are nocturnal.” The big man opened his eyes. Glen was still appraising the situation. “I have a much better chance of survival if there are two of us to battle against an invading bruin.” He concluded. “And besides,” Stan’s thinking extended, “If Glen does try to ford the river alone, without the travois to help stabilize him, he’ll probably not make it across in one piece.”
“What if we cross the river right now?” Stan began to mull through a second option. “True, the swollen waters of Skull Creek look menacing but the sleeping mat will give me a little bit of buoyancy.” The big man shook his head slightly. With Glen’s injured ankle, the possibility of them both drowning seemed imminent. “Even if we did make the crossing, we would be chilled and wet.” Stan followed that train of thought. “There will be no warm sunlight to stave off the hypothermia that is certain to attack us in the river and then follow us out.” The big man sighed again. “It would border on suicide to cross this raging river tonight!”
“There is only… one reasonable… thing for us… to do.” He said aloud. Glen’s eyes met his as Stan continued. “We have to… wait here ‘til… the morning.” Glen began to respond, but Stan held up a big hand. He had just remembered something significant. “The melt water… from the glacier… will be a… lot less… in the morning.” The discouraged Scotsman averted his eyes to the dirt and said nothing. Admitting defeat was not Glen’s first or even his second choice. Stan continued. “Remember our trip… to Spirit Lake?” Glen nodded, smiling a little as he recalled the amazing five-day adventure they had shared just two years before. “When we camped… below Hearts Hill? The river there… was twice as deep… in the late afternoons.”
Glen’s mind raced back to the campsite on the bank of that glacial-fed river at the foot of Hearts Hill, taking in the memory of the breathtaking surroundings. The Spirit Lake hike was all the two men had talked about while they had prepared for this new adventure. Glen remembered the phenomena with the river. It had been unexpected and very peculiar. When the sun warmed the landscape, the glacier melted at an increased rate and presto; the river swelled to double the height it had been in the early morning.
“So what you’re saying is that we should camp here tonight and cross first thing in the morning?”
“Yeah.” Stan said. “I really don’t… want to drown!”
“Good point.” Glen gazed up at the sky. “The sun will set soon and that would mean climbing the hill in the dark. Being wet will certainly get us into trouble with hypothermia.”
“Considering the… temperature of… the water… hypothermia is… inevitable.” Stan concluded. “It’s safer... to stay here... tonight!”
“That water is very cold!” Glen said, still considering Stan’s suggestion. “I could leave you here, but if you were attacked by a bear, I’d never forgive myself.” He trailed off, a lump forming in his throat. “And Alida would never forgive me either!”
Stan listened to the small man who had been keeping him alive. If Glen decided to leave him now and go for help, there was nothing he could do to stop him. “Glen might bring back help tonight if he left me.” The prone man pondered some more. “Of course that’s assuming he can make the crossing on one leg!”
Glen set his jaw, took a deep breath, and spoke again, interrupting the big man’s swirling thoughts. “Ok.” He sounded determined. “We’ll both stay here tonight.” The roar of the river nearly swallowed up his words. “First thing in the morning, we will cross this nasty river and go home!”
Hobbling back to lower the front of the litter, Glen’s brow furrowed deeply. He muttered aloud to himself, the sound of his voice lost in the rush of Skull Creek. “I hope this isn’t a fatal mistake!”